Mayhem, murder, and ghosts, oh my . . .
“I ain’t afraid of no ghosts!” The Ghostbusters’ song sounds in my head as I stare fixedly forward. Behind me, I hear quiet breathing, the restless shuffle of feet, a child’s hushed giggle quickly shushed. I don’t look back. I keep my eyes on the glow of the candle sheltered in the lantern in the aisle separating the rows of pews. Ghosts? Here? Never . . . okay maybe.
Here is the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Quebec City, Quebec. The cathedral, built between 1800 and 1804, was the first Anglican cathedral constructed outside of the British Isles. The site, originally the home of the Récollet Monastery, is still hallowed ground, although the monastery was reduced to ashes in 1796.
So why am I sitting in a darkened church long after the doors are locked for the night? Well, it starts with a free tour. We are in Quebec City for two nights, a break from our Vancouver to Halifax trip across Canada. Quebec City, like many other cities, hosts a free walking tour. We joined one earlier in the day. That tour, offered by Samuel Duboi, a long-time Quebec resident, presented us with a view of the city seen through the eyes of a local. It also whetted our appetite for more of Quebec’s history.
A Google search reveals The Ghost Tours, a 90-minute historical walking trip that offers up the darker underbelly of old Quebec—400 years of murder, mayhem, executions, ghost-sightings, and hauntings. The tour starts as the skies darken. Our guide is easy to spot—there aren’t many men wearing capes and top hats roaming the streets. We begin a winding walk through cobbled streets and back alleys. The bobbing light of the candle burning in guide Bill Black’s lantern is our beacon. The city has a colourful past—rebellion, treason, executions, the wreck of the Empress of Ireland. Bill recites a string of mayhem at every stop.
We end at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity where we stood hours earlier during the free walking tour. Then, the bleached brick walls of the cathedral were bathed in the warming light of a beaming sun. Now the sun is tucked away and a slim crescent of moon glows in the night sky. The walls of the church rise up, their surface washed white by the street lights. It’s the same building, but in some unintelligible way, different.
“It is said,” Bill begins, the weight of his performer’s voice imbuing his words with strength, “that this is one of the most haunted places in old Quebec. Lucky for you, I have the key. We can step inside.”
Wait, did he say we are going to step inside? —step inside a haunted church at night? Was that a good idea? In my head, I know what’s inside. During our earlier tour, I had stood on the wooden floor, worn smooth by 200 years of worshipers. I’d breathed the scent of old wood, the musty aroma of layered incense soaked into the bones of the building. I’d watched the tiny flickering flames of the candles in the devotional area—pooled pin points of light, colouring the air with melting wax and smoke. In daylight, the play of sunlight through the stain glass of the windows warmed the interior of the church.
Slowly, we file through one of the three stately wooden doors at the front of the church, cautiously feeling our way, following the lantern and its glimmer of light. Our guide awaits in the nave, inside the door.
“Come in, come in. Take a seat in the pews.” Bill watches us reluctantly sit. He closes the wooden gates at the end of the rows. We wait.
“I’m going to go and lock the doors now, so that no one follows us in,” he says, placing the lantern on the floor. He steps away and is swallowed up by the dark.
The room is quiet. The few souls brave enough to whisper dare only a few words before lapsing back to silence.
“Boo!” Bill is back.
Nervous laughter, and the stories begin—a nun, a smothered baby, a woman buried alive in the crypt beneath the church—each story holds a tidbit of history. Together those bites work their way into my imagination. I focus on Bill and the lantern and don't look around. Please don't let me see a flash of light or hear a ghostly whisper.
The building creaks, groaning under the weight of years and hauntings. Outside on the street, I hear the distant closing of a car door. I hope it’s a car door. Bill is describing the strange things seen and heard in this very place—pew doors slamming, flares of light, sheet music picked up and scattered as organists practice in the empty church.
During the 1967 confederation celebrations, Queen Elizabeth attended mass at the cathedral. Afterwards she asked who haunted the church? She’d seen a lady in white on the far balcony, a lady who appeared and disappeared in a flash. The queen wondered what tragedy left the woman haunting the church.
To me, the queen, if anyone, would know about ghosts. I concentrate on breathing in and out, and keep my eyes on the circle of light. I add the lady in white to the list of things I don’t want to see.
“Now I suggest you take out your phones and take some pictures. Sometimes the camera captures flares of radiance, or faces the human eye overlooks,” Bill says.
Fat chance of that. My phone stays securely in my pocket. Only a few brave souls are taking pictures. The camera flashes signal the end of the tour.
Bill opens the door to a pew. The movement is like uncorking a champagne bottle. There’s a rush towards the door. I admit it, I’m near the front of the pack.
“Watch your step,” Bill calls, leading us through the darkness to the exit.
Outside we breathe in the night air, the perfume of summer flowers, and the scent of an old city at rest. I ain’t afraid of no ghosts—maybe I am.