Quebec’s Magical Magdelens

November 16th, 2010  |  Published in Twitter Stuff  |  10 Comments

(First appeared on the website, and longer story at

Quebec’s Magdalen Islands, curled in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, have fascinated me ever since I learned of the Acadians in high school history. More commonly called Les Îles de la Madeleine by the Francophone majority, the islands are 95 km. from Cape Breton Island and 105 km. from P.E.I.

Like many Canadians, in March 2008, I heard about the tragedy of the four Madelinot seal hunters killed in an incredible towing incident. On the news I watched hundreds of islanders attend the sealers’ funeral at an enormous wooden church, and added Saint-Pierre de La Vernière to my must-see list. My partner and I had often spoken wistfully of combining a holiday with a little French immersion, now here was an opportunity to blend in a little history as well.

Allons-y! We flew to Montreal in mid June, and took the passenger/car ferry, the Vacancier, to Les Îles. Once there, our rental car and our explorations awaited us.

The church was first on our list, and second was the historic area of La Grave, but the story of Le Ponchon was still waiting to be told, and the discovery of Old Harry and its English speaking community awaited us.

The church, located on the main island of Cap aux Meules, is just a few kilometres west along the main road toward the Étang du Nord area, so in only minutes we are able to see this massive white edifice, with its 150’ steeple. Its very height is also its nemesis, however. Built in 1876 in Gothic Revival style by P.E.I. architect, Émile Gallant, it has been singled out and damaged by lightning in 1900, 1945, 1947 and 1980. Listed as a Québec historical monument in 1992, it’s the islands’ only heritage building, revered by many of the 13,000-odd islanders. It was built with construction timber from the hold of a wrecked ship, cargo that locals first blessed and held prayer meetings over to rid it of a curse upon it when in the middle of a storm the captain swore at the heavens, The devil with the cargo!

Saint-Pierre has the distinction of being the second largest wooden church in North America. A mere speck in the vast, undulating graveyard, I stand peering up at it, overwhelmed with the devotion of the generations who have lived and died here, and the immensity of their fortitude as evidenced in the structure they patiently built and rebuilt on an island with scant timber.

Now we start our drive south. The narrow road becomes less traveled as we roll across the skinny sandbar that separates Cap aux Meules from Havre Aubert, a windswept road with a ribbon of sandy wave-bashed beach on the left, and on the right a wide lagoon, only separated from the Gulf by another narrow sandbar. We’re headed to the historical site of La Grave, where Acadians, expelled from the Maritimes by the English in the mid 18th century, came to settle and work for Richard Gridley, an Anglo American entrepreneur who set up the first fishing post here after Great Britain granted America the right to fish in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Perched on a sliver of sand, the community is lined with traditional homes, many turned into gift shops, restaurants, or arts and crafts studios. Their architecture reflects the French origins of many of the Madelinots: cedar shingles and bright colours, with enclosed porches and hip roofs. Designated as an historical site by the Minister of Cultural Affairs in 1983, La Grave is living history. Entering Café de La Grave, a favourite with locals for 30 years, it feels as if time stopped a century ago. A well used old piano lounges in the corner, waited to be played. Two couples drinking beer are playing chess; the wooden tables and chairs could have come from my grandmother’s home. A young woman picks up an accordion and begins to sing, while others join in, and a young waiter teases me about my west coast French.

Our senses sated, we brave the strong wind and walk past the old buildings to the Museé de la Mer, at the end of the street. I point to an odd object. What’s that? Why is a large wooden barrel sprouting a sail anchored on museum grounds? It turns out it’s a ponchon and we discover its significance once inside.

The Ponchon is a wooden barrel, traditionally used for molasses. It was 1910. Shipping between the islands and the mainland ceased in winter, leaving the islanders connected to the world through one lone telegraph cable, which broke on January 6th. While several hardy Madelinots volunteered to risk the journey by boat, the wiser contrived a safer plan: to place the mail inside a ponchon equipped with rudder and sails. The wind was forecast to blow from the northeast for several days, so off went the tiny missive from Havre Aubert on February 2, whimsically labeled “Winter Magdalen Mail”. Several days later it nudged up against the shores of Port Hastings in Nova Scotia. Its contents were read, and shortly thereafter the steamship, Harlow, left its berth in Sydney, steaming toward the isolated Madelinots.

Ever since, Le Ponchon has been a cultural symbol representing the islanders’ hardiness and ingenuity.

Havre Aubert is the southernmost island, so we retrace our tracks to Cap aux Meules and then carry on north with high expectations. Now we’ll get to see much more of this island chain as we drive along its vertebrae toward Grosse Île. It’s a beautiful journey along a sandbar so skinny we can see both sides of the Gulf. This stretch is less traveled, with few buildings. We roll through sand dunes, past sandy beaches, and our day is made when we spy a snowy owl atop a stunted tree. It’s 75 km. to the English speaking community of Old Harry and its tiny museum, housed in what was the original little red schoolhouse, but we’ve taken two hours to meander here. . . . Wynn Currie greets us. Like so many islanders, she was born here, as were her ancestors, and she’s written a book on the historical heritage of English Communities on the Magdalens. “Many of our ancestors are Scottish, survivors of shipwrecks. A tragic one was The Miracle. On May 19, 1847, it went aground at East Point. Locals rescued many of them but unfortunately, there was typhoid fever on board and a local woman, Mary Clark, lost her life while nursing the victims.” She attended the old schoolhouse, built in 1922 to accommodate approximately 20 students up to grade 9. It closed in 1975 and ten years later, under the auspices of C.A.M.I. (Council for Anglophone Magdalen Islanders,) it became a tiny museum chronicling the history of the English speaking population. Anglophones are approximately only 5% of the Magdalen’s numbers and many are found here, as well as on Grande Entrée and Entry Island, the latter accessible only by a small ferry or private boat across frequently rough waters.

A weekend really isn’t long enough to uncover the magic and history of these islands, but that was fine with us. We still had our French immersion programme to look forward to. And by the way, if your French is rusty or non-existent, don’t despair, most islanders speak English.

If You Go

The Magdalens are only 65 km long, and traffic not heavy, so driving is not onerous. Even with the return trip from Cap aux Meules to Havre Aubert, and then north to Grosse Île, the sites could be seen in a day. A weekend is better. Only one road links the islands, so navigation is straightforward.

Hunkering down with history

  • Domaine du Vieux Couvent (The old Convent). This historic waterfront inn, with sweeping views and excellent local cuisine and rooms, has been sensitively converted from a convent.

292, route 199

Havre aux Maisons

T: (418) 969-2233


  • Tourisme Îles de la Madeleine

128, chemin Principal

Cap aux Meules

T: (418) 986-2245, (877) 624-4437

  • Bonjour Québec,  Quebec Tourism

#100, 1255 rue Peel


T: (877) 266-5687



C.T.M.A. offers two ways to reach the islands.

  • Cruising with History. Take the Vacancier for a 2-night mini cruise leaving Montréal weekly in season. Check out the Acadian History and Culture theme cruise on their website.
  • M/V Madeleine. Daily 5-hr. ferry crossing from Prince Edward Island.

T: (418) 986-3278 or (888) 986-3278


  1. GimmeADream says:

    November 17th, 2010at 2:00 pm(#)

    Beautiful and unexpected article, Cherie! I love how you gradiented from the south, to the north of the islands. It made our islands look very fluid.

    The church, Saint-Pierre de La Vernière is very impressive, isn’t it? Being an islander, I guess I take it for granted though.

    Mary Clark, her husband James and their family were the first of the Anglophone settlers here on the islands, along with two other families. Her loss was a tragedy for us but she was a Godsend for the victims of the ‘Miracle’, because she nursed hundreds of them back to health.

    I finished up a new book “A Tour of Brion Islands- Quebec’s 20th Ecological Reserve”. It is a photographic journey to the island and written tour of the past and present. I’m only planning it as an ebook right now.

    Thanks for the mention in your article. It is much appreciated.

    Wynn Currie

  2. Cherie says:

    March 1st, 2011at 2:47 pm(#)

    Thanks for your positive comments, Wynn. Sorry to take so long to respond to it! Congratulations on your book; I will have a look on your site.

  3. Beth Henderson says:

    January 7th, 2012at 2:20 pm(#)

    Enjoyed the article immensely and a note of interest…..James and Mary Clarke were the first Clarkes to come to the Magdalen Islands in 1828. They were my great, great, great grandparents. I have visited the islands three times in the past 6 years and became acquainted with their surroundings.

  4. Cherie says:

    January 18th, 2012at 8:47 pm(#)

    Hi Beth,
    How wonderful to have that family history. Thanks for responding. Cherie

  5. Noé says:

    July 17th, 2012at 9:58 am(#)

    Hello Beth!
    Did you finish your book. I,d be interested in seeing the ebook version if you have it handy?
    Please let me know where I can get a copy?

    Cherie, nice article by the way… Going to the Islands in September, this helps me imagine what I will find there. Thanks

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