Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, where tradition meets the avant-garde
In 2015, Saint‑Jean‑Port‑Joli was named the world’s “Best Creative Destination” by the international Creative Tourism Network. In this quaint historic village, which lies 120 kilometres northeast of Quebec City on the banks of the St. Lawrence, tourists can work on their creativity through a variety of introductory workshops. A range of events and institutions also attract visitors from all over the world: the Fête des chants de marins, the Biennale de sculpture, the Fête hivernale as well as the Musée de la mémoire vivante and the Musée des Anciens Canadiens. There is also the Maison Musée Médard Bourgault, established in commemoration of this talented wood carver and his brothers. Their sculptures of people dressed in period attire and working in traditional trades were a tribute to the founders of Quebec, and they made Saint‑Jean‑Port‑Joli famous in the mid‑20th century. The Bourgault brothers trained and influenced dozens of other sculptors, who contributed greatly to the popularity of these subjects. Their wood carvings also enriched Saint‑Jean‑Port‑Joli’s already remarkable religious heritage.
A modern-day Saint‑Jean‑Port‑Joli brimming with activity
Since the early 2000s, a variety of avant-garde initiatives have been attracting more and more visitors to Saint‑Jean‑Port‑Joli every year. Many of these initiatives draw on the creative village’s historical roots, creating a successful marriage between innovation and tradition.
In keeping with the current trend of experiential tourism, village residents have tapped into the talent of numerous local artists and artisans to offer hands-on experiences to fellow art lovers and craft enthusiasts. Visitors can relax, unwind and explore their creativity by meeting with local artists and craftspeople who offer workshops in sculpture, painting, contemporary dance, photography, traditional solid wood carpentry, alpaca fibre, the creative process, violin making, composing a sailor’s song, baking bread in a traditional oven and participatory artwork. Classes last anywhere from a half-day to five days.
Since Saint‑Jean‑Port‑Joli was a hub for sailors, it was only natural for an event showcasing the traditional repertoire of maritime songs to take root here. Every year since 1998, the Fête des chants de marins brings the town to life in mid-August with its sea‑themed shows, seminars, coffee houses, storytelling and creation workshops.
The Biennale de sculpture, created in 2009, draws from Saint‑Jean‑Port‑Joli’s rich tradition of sculpture. The mission of this contemporary art event is to revitalize and advance the practice of sculpting. Artists create their sculptures in public in just four days. Musical performances, film screenings and a local craft market round out the event, which is held in July.
Saint‑Jean‑Port‑Joli’s Fête hivernale also has a snow sculpting component, with international, national and amateur-level competitions. Of course, winter sports are also featured: tobogganing, skiing, snowshoeing, winter biking, musical performances and fireworks.
Collecting and sharing traditions
Saint‑Jean‑Port‑Joli’s new Musée de la mémoire vivante follows the footsteps of one of its most famous residents, Philippe Aubert de Gaspé, who, in 1863, published Les anciens Canadiens, which details how the last inhabitants of New France lived before the British conquest of 1759–1760. This innovative museum collects contemporary testimonials and life stories to preserve them for the future. The museum’s collection already contains over 1,700 audio and video life stories and testimonials, used to create very touching exhibitions.
The Musée des Anciens Canadiens opened its doors in 1975. On display are some 400 wood carvings from 90 regional artists, including works from the Bourgault family. The Maison Musée Médard Bourgault, still occupied by one of Bourgault’s sons, offers a glimpse into the wondrous home, richly adorned with carvings, in which the most talented of the Bourgault brothers lived.
Saint‑Jean‑Port‑Joli’s elegant church, built in the late 18th century, was designated a heritage building in 1963. Its current configuration dates back to the 19th century, when it underwent expansion and improvement work. The interior is adorned in accordance with the Catholic notion that a church should inspire worshippers and give them an exalted conception of the divine Majesty. As such, it contains several heritage treasures: a tabernacle sculpted in 1740 by Pierre‑Noël Levasseur (for the seigneury’s first chapel), a three-part altarpiece—one of the oldest in Quebec—by Jean Baillairgé and his son Pierre‑Florent, a tomb and a large crucifix made by François Baillairgé, and a dozen wooden statues of Médard Bourgault, a devout Catholic.
Key historical events
The seigneury of Port‑Joly was established in 1677. Charles Aubert de la Chesnaye, one of New France’s wealthiest citizens in the 17th century, purchased it in 1686. The seigneury stayed in this family until the abolition of the seigneurial system in 1854.
Ignace‑Philippe Aubert de Gaspé, grandson of Charles Aubert de la Chesnaye born in 1714, played a key role in the seigneury’s development following a brilliant career in the Navy, which ended with Montreal’s capitulation in 1760. Ignace‑Philippe then retired to his seigneury and rebuilt the seigneurial manor along with many houses that had been burnt down by British troops. Under his dynamic leadership, the population tripled in just a few years, and construction on the current church began in 1779. He died in 1787.
His grandson, Philippe Aubert de Gaspé, born in 1786, was Port-Joli’s last seigneur. After an eventful life in Quebec City, he retired to Saint‑Jean‑Port‑Joli, where he wrote Les anciens Canadiens, published in 1863, and Mémoires, released in 1866, two ground‑breaking books in Quebec literature and very popular in their time. They are still recognized for their lively, playful style and their rich historical content.
Sculptor Médard Bourgault was born in 1897. He came back to work in his father’s carpentry and woodworking shop in the early days of the Great Depression of the 1930s. In his leisure time, this self-taught sculptor created wood carvings and exhibited his work in front of his house. Renowned ethnologist Marius Barbeau recognized his talent and encouraged him to continue. He even urged him, along with his brothers and fellow sculptors Jean‑Julien and André, to establish a school. Beginning in the 1940s, their work became very popular and very influential. Médard Bourgault died in 1967. To this day, Saint‑Jean‑Port‑Joli continues to be an important centre of sculpture in Quebec.