The 2007 film El Baño del Papa (The Pope’s Toilet) tells the tale of Melo, a village in Uruguay, as it waits for the visit of Pope John Paul II. Its citizens bandy about numbers of potential visitors to the village to the point where it becomes a sort of inflationary frenzy. Hundreds will show up! Thousands! Hundreds of thousands! Windfall! A chicken in every pot!
A poor lot, Meloans see the visit as a virtual lottery ticket, and energetically set about making food, flags and trinkets to sell to the impending throng. Beto, a smuggler and enterprising sort, thinks he has the perfect product: hundreds of toilets where believers can relieve themselves.
Of course, the imagined crowds never materialize. The village is disillusioned. Melo loses his shirt (and his daughter’s tuition money.) There is much weeping and gnashing of teeth.
You might say that right now, at this moment, La Motte, Quebec is El Baño del Papa redux. La Motte isn’t destitute or in the middle of nowhere, as some media reports have suggested. Just the opposite: the village of about 500 sits in the cradle formed by Rouyn-Noranda, Val D’Or and Amos, three large-ish towns made prosperous by Quebec’s mining boom. Touched by mining wealth, La Motte has grown by nearly 20 per cent in the last six years alone.
Yet the prospect of a made-in-La Motte pope has the town abuzz. People aren’t quite making Ouellet key chains or toothbrushes yet—judging by the empty streets here, they are more likely in their living rooms, staring at a certain televised Italian smokestack like the rest of the world. But as Wadowice, Poland or Marktl, Germany can attest, Pope tourism is big business, and La Motte is already bracing itself for the potential onslaught.
Visiting reporters are greeted in the church/community centre by Stéphanie Lamarche, the director of tourism for the Abitibi-Temiscamingue, who is quick to extol the “religious and non-religious patrimony” of the region.
“People in La Motte must make sure that tourists are well-managed,” she says. “Religious tourists don’t just come for one night. They stay a weekend or even a week at a time.”
Down the street, Valérie Côté and her kids put the finishing touches on an eight-foot snow Pope effigy on her front lawn. To be sure, the 33-year-old is hardly religious, and is more indifferent than excited at the prospect of Ouellet as pope. “Either we take advantage of it or we let it just happen,” says the owner of a socially engaged theatre company that produces plays about the difficulties of homosexual youth and the ravages of violence towards women.
“Because we’re going to be invaded,” says Malik Côté-Marquis, her 11-year-old son.
“We can make bread loafs in the form of crucifixes,” Coté says, riffing off business ideas. “We could do Passion of the Christ on the town square each summer. We can have a bus that shows where Ouellet took a bath as a kid. That, or we leave.”
Danny Lévesque won’t leave, but he’s no El Baño del Papa-style convert to religious-inspired trinketry. He and his partner Liette Constant live just out of spitting distance from La Motte’s church; it dominates the view from their living room. A year and a half ago, he and Constant wrote “La Chanson du Pape” (“The Pope’s Song”), a jumpy, call-and-response folk song that satirizes La Motte’s potential papal windfall.
Are we going to have a pope chez nous, are we going to have a pope?
We’ll take water from La Motte Lake to make holy water
We’ll open a big old shop to sell plastic Virgin Marys
Little Jesuses made out of plywood
The face of the pope in plaster
We’ll build a cathedral in the middle of the village
It’ll be so huge it’ll touch the sky.
“I see it as a huge tourist trap,” says the 54-year-old Lévesque of the papal tourism industry. “It’s religious capitalism. The tourism office is treating this like a lottery ticket, and they say that if Ouellet gets in we win the lottery.”
And if he doesn’t?
Lévesque emits a raspberry. “The balloon will deflate in a hurry,” he says.