||My Feller Memories|
Warning! Fool rushing in!
I approach this topic with some trepidation since differing opinions on this subject are currently responsible for several wars, and, in my own experience, on a smaller scale, have led to the verge of fistfights in bars. Furthermore, quite predictably, previous discussions of this have ruffled some feathers on the chat sites. However, religion was a central feature of life at Feller and had a major impact on the development of my psyche and my current attitudes about just about everything. So I donít see how I can entirely omit a discussion of this subject without feeling that my chronicles of life at Feller have a huge, gaping hole right in the middle of them. Be that as it may, Iíll provide a word of caution. If you feel that the religiosity that existed at Feller was totally without flaws, I would recommend that you skip this section.
As has been reported by others, Feller was founded as a mission school in the 1830ís by Mme. Henriette Feller, and even as late as my arrival in September 1957, it still retained elements of the original missionary fervor. Elsewhere, someone suggested that one of the goals was to train future francophone Protestant ministers but when I attended during the late 50s and early 60s, that aspect of the mission was no longer too evident, at least to my naÔve eyes. To me it seemed that by this time Fellerís primary mission, aside from thwarting everyoneís romantic inclinations, was to wrest francophone Roman Catholics, and other assorted heathens from Satanís clutches by offering Ďbilingualí classroom instruction served up with a generous helping of semi-evangelical Protestantism.
To this end, every school day started with a Chapel service sandwiched between breakfast and our morning classes. These services consisted of a few hymns and prayers, with faculty members taking turns presenting a short sermon. Although undoubtedly intended to be spiritual, these services were, in fact, my first experience with experimental physics. In these sessions I empirically tested Einsteinís theories and proved the truths of relativity. Even in grade 5 it was obvious to me that time by the clock can differ dramatically from perceived time.
As might be expected, these homilies were of variable quality but for the most part they ranged from mildly tedious to astonishingly soporific, thus, it wasnít long before I became inured to the droning and developed into an expert daydreamer. For me, the only exceptions were those dreaded occasions when my father presented one of his fire-and-brimstone rants. As he pounded on the lectern and stumbled over his words in a paroxysm of emotion, the spittle flew and I sunk lower and lower in my seat and wanted to shrivel up in my embarrassment. I imagine that they probably werenít nearly as awful as I recall, but at the time, I was not mature enough to put them in perspective (Iím not sure that I would be even yet).
During the time I attended Feller, we had a somewhat peculiar class schedule in which we had Wednesday afternoons off and attended classes on Saturday morning. I think that the official rationale for this was that we needed the time to prepare for Wednesday Night Sea Cadets/CGIT. In addition, since the banks and some other businesses in St. Jean were not open on Saturdays (werenít those the days?), the staff needed to attend to personal business on Wednesday afternoons. In retrospect, Iím wondering if it wasnít so that we could be provided with an extra morning chapel service every week. Well, perhaps not, since on Sunday we had a triple dose; with a morning and an evening church service and an afternoon Sunday School session.
Another not-so-subtle feature of religious life at Feller was the class euphemistically referred to as Sacred History. My recollection was that this was part of the core curriculum up to and including grade 9. This was essentially bible studies, and as well as obliging us to memorize large chunks of the Old and New Testaments, this class provided yet another opportunity to preach at us. They tried to avoid the good bits like the Song of Solomon and the salaciously, incestuous ending of the story of Lot and but we found them anyway, eh? I realize that the intention was likely that we should be exalted and inspired by all this exposure to things biblical, but the fact was that the presentations were, by-and-large, of such lackluster quality that, if anything, it had quite the opposite effect. On the other hand, I must admit that the Sacred History curriculum subsequently proved to be extremely useful in fending off the forays of all but the most sophisticated door-to-door Mormons and Jehovahís Witnesses1.
Iíve already mentioned briefly the Evangelists that were an annual event that broke the monotony of the long Grande Ligne winter. These were earnest and sometimes even fervent preachers who visited and for a week ranted for an hour or so every evening about sin and damnation in an effort to save us, miserable sinners that we were. The identities and credentials of these individuals remain shrouded in the mists of my poor overloaded memory. The fact was, that I had become such an expert day dreamer that the preaching had little effect. For the most part it was just a concentrated dose of what I was exposed to on a regular basis, perhaps a bit more dynamically, but no more convincing when all was said and done.
There are two individuals who stand out. The first was a gent named Reverend Swackhammer. According to Michel, he was a regular annual visitor, and I have no reason to doubt this assertion, but until I read Michel's first installment, it was not a fact that I had remembered. Rev. Swackhammer was a cheerful bald guy who very early on in the first talk at which I wasworked in a joke about his appearance: I have a crew cut, but the crew bailed out. This is absolutely the only thing I remember about him and his message. I came across Rev. Swackhammer on subsequent occasions, likely one or two were his annual revival meetings at Feller, but at least a couple were in different venues. Each time he started with the same joke. For some reason, the third time I no longer found it quite as amusing. The only other chap I remember at all visited my senior year. His name is lost, but I remember what he looked like and that he was less jolly and more earnest than Rev. Swackhammer. His approach was less fiery and he used a more reasoned, logical, I want to be your buddy approach. Iím pretty certain that this was the sex ed talk fellow I wrote about elsewhere. Anyway, the only other detail I remember concerned the end of the last service. At the end of the week when the preaching was done, it was traditional to invite those who had been saved up to the front to bear witness. Every year there was usually a trickle and sometimes even quite a few. I remember being quite surprised by the identity of some of these individuals. The prior behaviour and attitudes of at least some of the converts would not have seemed to make them likely candidates for saving, so I vaguely recall being somewhat impressed by the powers of persuasion of the preacher. In retrospect, I believe that I read somewhere that this process was somewhat orchestrated and that it was prearranged that a few Ďconvertsí would come forward and be saved. Presumably this was viewed as priming the pump and it was hoped that others would join them. However, on this occasion when the poor chap invited people to come forward, no one did. Perhaps the pre-arrangement was a Butch Boisvert tactic and this particular fellow came when John Gilmour was Principal. Given how poorly Gilmour seemed to understand us, it seems possible that he either didnít know about the pre-arrangement routine or felt that it was unnecessary and he left this guy on his own. Anyway, the initial hopeful invitations turned to earnest, and eventually rather desperate pleas. Looking back, I remember feeling a mixture of sadness, embarrassment and, shamefully, a tiny bit of wry amusement. I wish I had been clever and brave enough to Ďfakeí it and go up and put the guy out of his misery. But I didn't even think of it, and I wonder if he would have actually wanted this spiritual equivalent of a pity date.
Iím going to finish with a bit of a rant of my own, you really shouldnít read this if you have been even mildly offended by the irreverent attitude Iíve displayed above.
Warning! Absolutely last chance to avoid Fool rushing in!
Because of my nature and my training, I like to pretend to myself that Iím an objective observer. Thus, I feel obliged to preface the following remarks with the acknowledgement that, on this subject, I may be somewhat less than ideally objective. I donít in the least regret the exposure to, and training in, religion that I received at Feller. I truly believe that this experience provided me with a firm theoretical grounding in the Judeo-Christian tenets of morality and ethics. And, in my opinion, when applied sincerely and honestly, this tradition arguably provides the best set of principles to guide us, flawed mortals that we are, on how to interact with each other in a civilized and considerate way. However, when all is said and done, I find my gratitude tempered by the hypocrisy that was one of the more loathsome traits of at least some of the ĎChristiansí charged with our education and care at Feller. It always seemed that an inordinate amount of pleasure was taken from spying or setting traps and then meting out punishment out of all proportion to the seriousness of the transgression, all the while paying lip service to theChristian way of life. I know that I should focus on the wonderfully sincere and dedicated individuals who served at Feller, but ultimately, it is the attitudes and behaviour of the holier-than-thou hypocrites that are what I mostly remember about my religious training at Feller. Ultimately, this soured me on organized religion while I was still at Feller, much to the disappointment of my parents. My one regret in this matter is that, although I still try to emulate their sincere and tolerant Christian behaviour in my Ďsecular humanisticí dealings with, and opinions about, others, I do not often successfully live up to their high standards.
1 - The following isnít strictly-speaking a Feller reminiscence, but it does flow logically from part of the above narrative, so Iím inclined to include it. When I was a junior in college, I moved out of my residence dorm and shared an apartment with two other chaps. We were a bit of an eclectic group who had become friendly in residence; one of us was in engineering physics, the other was a first year medical student, and I was at the time a psych major. One evening two unsuspecting Jehovahís Witnesses knocked on our door. The med student answered it and, idiot that he was, decided to engage them in conversation. Their main message, or at least the one he focused in on, was that we should not use plywood because blood was used in its production. This set the med student off and he browbeat the poor wretches into admitting they couldnít substantiate their claims and they beat a hasty retreat. A few evenings later their minister knocked at the door to continue the discussion. Unfortunately, the med student again answered the door and let him in. They resolved the plywood question (the minister admitted that their literature was in error). But he knew from the reports of the previous visit that my flatmate was a med student and he proceeded to use the opportunity to try to convince us of the evils of blood transfusions. For quite a while I stayed in the background biting my tongue, but at some point this chap quoted a bible verse that I knew was taken out of context and I got involved. Iím not convinced that my off-the-cuff arguments were much better than his, but he clearly wasnít used to coming up against someone whose recollection of the Feller Sacred History curriculum was still reasonably fresh, and he too soon beat a hasty retreat. Well, I have to grudgingly admit that they were nothing if not persistent. A few weeks later we had a visit from regional headquarters, as it were. Someone a bit more sophisticated than the local guy was visiting from Toronto and decided to stop by and have a go at us. Unfortunately for him, my interest had been piqued and Iíd spent a bit of time down in the stacks at the library checking up on their claims and I came across some texts that did not support their contentions. I really donít remember the details of the debate at all, and itís not my purpose to reargue it here, but I remember feeling that we clearly won this round of the debate too. We certainly remained unrepentant and unconvinced, and I remember thinking at the time that surely this would be the end of it. Not so fast college boy! I think we must have got on some sort of list since a few months later someone from the US showed up at our door. This head office guy was slick! He blew us out of the water in a few minutes and the best we could do was admit defeat and get him to allow us to agree to disagree. Just so everyone doesnít think Iím totally set in my ways, I did learn a valuable lesson from this. Whenever people come to the door clutching their Watchtowers, I smile and politely tell them Iím not interested. I suspect my med student acquaintance may still be letting them in and arguing with them.