A visit to Ste Geneviève MB

When you go to Ste-Geneviève, you leave the wide grey highway that whizzes past the longitudinal centre of Canada, and take a side road called Rosewood. It’s a much narrower asphalt road poured in the sixties - an event the residents celebrated. The Ste Geneviève town is located on the top of the Canadian shield, and you notice this as you drive along Rosewood road. The fields on both sides grow wheat and corn, potatoes and barley, until you reach an elevation and the fields draw back, the pale soft wheat stems meet with low green foliage and rough oak. At the corner where the road meets 41E, there is a convenience store built at an angle with a gas station. Ste Geneviève is then just a little further on that right turn.

Lichen lined paths lead perpendicular, one to the Taché presbytery and the other to the church. The presbytery is crowded with old things. The entrance has a desk and chair and oil lamp and a picture of Ste Geneviève the patron of Paris. French Canadian towns were often named after the saint whose feast day it was when they were founded. Ste Genevieve seems like a gentle presence; a soft, young female one amid all the Taché relics. In a room beside the entrance are old vestments and dark crucifixes, and a curious elaborately fringed parasol once used during outdoor processions of the Blessed Sacrament. Pictures of Taché, his predecessor and successor are on the wall and a short computer-printed biography too. The hall leads to rooms across from each other and a present-day office at the end. One room is a kitchen painted mint-green full of old kitchen things. A dried bouquet of roses is plopped in a wide antique ceramic jar. The other room, painted yellow, has a collection of tools and a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf where the books on various aspects of French-Canadian history gather at either end of the long shelves. Ste Geneviève’s bound centenary book’s title is embossed in gold-leaf and its pages are still fresh and white. 

The upstairs has four small rooms, one of which is an off-limits storage space. The other three are meant to represent scenes from a nun’s life, since a congregation once assisted the town. In one room there are two single beds with patchwork bedspreads, topped with yellowed letter exchanges in plastic sheets and photocopies of photos of nuns who had taught in Ste Geneviève. The other room is a washing room with a large vanity and washbasin, metal curling pins, bobby pins and three flat cast irons for company. The other room is a miniature classroom with a few desks and one big costumed doll with his hand raised, enthusiastically waiting for the invisible teacher. Teaching implements are gathered there, books, a map and a chalkboard with flowery adolescent writing wishing the visitor a good day. 

The church is kept locked, but a lady sitting in the presbytery back office is happy to open it for me. We go inside the plain exterior and the space is calm and quiet. Everything is made of wood. Square supporting beams beautifully encased in wood support a ceiling covered in wood, a stunning design of thin planks running one way, and then another, in big squares from the rear to the front. A white space between the dark wood wainscoting and the dark wood ceiling keeps the church from being dungeon-like and light streams in from the windows and falls on single-strand cobwebs. There are two rows of pews that lead to the altar that sits atop a navy blue carpet with a giant pink flower print. The church has a collection of well-preserved statues; some inherent to the place, others donated from elsewhere. Two wood crosses lay on their side near the front and I later learn that they were both used to top the steeple. One was taken down because it was old; the second was struck by lightning. 

A statue of Ste Geneviève inside the church.

A statue of Ste Geneviève inside the church.

This lightning strike was a big event. It was 1981 when the church had just been closed and its parishioners told to attend mass at neighbouring parishes. It was the first Sunday that mass wasn’t being celebrated in Ste Geneviève and a storm arose and a bolt of lightning struck the church. Someone heard it and rushed out to see that the church was on fire. The lady telling me this had seven children. One of her sons ran to get his camera and took pictures as the steeple burst into flame and fire-fighters were called. They came in time to save the structure, and only the steeple and part of the roof needed replacing. Thanks to her son’s moment to moment pictures, insurance covered the costs of repair. Today multiple prints of those pictures stay displayed in the church and in the rectory. 

The lightning bolt story gave me shivers. The parish is the hometown of an old, now deceased family friend and I had gone to find snippets of her family story. When I used to blog for Travel Manitoba I felt obliged to play up a place’s charm, even if I wasn’t sure I could convince someone to make the trip. But now I write for myself. I went; this is what I saw. I’m naturally curious and I’m energized by these quirky, quiet adventures. If you are too, then you should go.

1 of 52 things to do in Manitoba: milk goats

Doubtless, there are a number of small, visitor-friendly farms in Manitoba, but Aurora Farm is remarkable for the effort it makes to educate the people who pass through. Louise May, the farm’s owner is a busy lady. Google her and the web unfurls a list of links, including her active Twitter feed and her appearance at Winnipeg’s City Council with a live chicken during the city’s backyard poultry debate.  What brought us to her farm on a Sunday in March? Some friends and I, all city girls with a penchant for natural food and scenic outdoors, decided to take a Goat Milk Cheese Workshop. One workshop was offered in the city, but the one Louise was hosting on her 160 acre farm in St. Norbert promised its participants the opportunity of milking the goats. We donned our boots and headed out.

My farm experience is limited to literature and ancestry. I told my dad that I was going to milk goats.
“They’re easier to milk than cows” he said.
“Well yeah, they only have two teats” he said.

We arrived at the farm just as morning chores were beginning. The seven-month-old kids in one pen were bleating, anxious to get back to their mothers. Does are separated from their young for the night so that the farmer can have a good supply of milk at the beginning of the day. The barn had several stalls and one heated room for milking. Louise had devised a wooden stand where the goats hopped up and ate grain while we each tried our hand and extracting their milk. Cats dozed, perched on top of shelves or tucked inside cubbyholes.

Washed and stripped (i.e. the first few squeezes of milk are discarded), a doe’s teat is warm and soft. The technique calls for a little dexterity; the teat needs to be pinched between your index and thumb trapping the milk inside, and then squeezed from the top down with your remaining fingers. Aiming for the bucket is the next challenge. When we’ve all had our turn, Louise finishes off each one in a matter of minutes, the milk producing nice foam on top.  

Louise hosts the cheese making in her open-plan kitchen with burgundy cupboards. The area in front of her stove fireplace is a circular mosaic with a large heart-shaped stone in the middle. She rescued the house from demolition, choosing instead to tackle the black mould and other problems it presented and adding on to its exterior as the need arose. Shelves laden with scented goat-milk soap line a yellow, wood-beamed eastern-facing room, while a few of her heritage chickens live in a comfortable southern facing add-on, across shelves of seedlings and containers full of soap-making supplies. Louise hopes to soon add a bungalow with a converted commercial kitchen to her property. She talks to us about the garden they’ll be planting this year on a prime piece of property full of freshly composted soil. It will supply about 200 fresh produce boxes for families in the city. It is a new project she’s taken on with the help of Mary, a resident university student of agriculture. The property is also home to visiting WWOOFERS (young people who are part of the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) who benefit from the organic farming experience and who, on Louise’s farm, have no shortage of animals to care for, including horses, alpacas, sheep, ducks, and the house trained cats and dogs. But Louise, with her long grey-streaked hair doesn’t look like a harried woman. She doesn’t go on about how busy she is. In fact, sitting in her kitchen as she explains the process for making one or another kind of cheese, you lose track of all the work involved in owning land and caring for animals. In her house, the hassle seems like fun; juggling animals, property, workshops and artisanal wares looks like a pleasant possibility, an almost enviable way of life. That is the charm of Aurora Farm, and just the thing a couple of city women needed to be reminded of.