The south shore of the St. Lawrence River around Montmagny and l’Islet is in places lacking in topographical variety. There are no cliffs nor steep slopes, but rather grassy beaches burgeoning with wild rice and sedges, murky from the fine clay of the tides. Towards the north are vast horizons, along which the Laurentians are visible when the weather is clear. In the morning, the fog hides them away and drowns them in the ephemeral cottony mist that rises from the waters, and after nightfall, one may discern them by the illusory beacons that the fires are always lighting here and there upon their granite slopes.
L’Islet is an old village, a “bourg” as they say over there, slumbering peaceably by the tranquil waves, guarded since time immemorial by its rocky island, “l’Islette,” which is generally deserted. At most, a schooner may sometimes happen to moor there. A few barrels are unloaded, a few planks of wood carried aboard, and that’s the end of it.
The inhabitants of l’Islet, a population of old-timers, have many legends, and none is better substantiated than that of the Rocher Panet (“Panet’s rock”). This rock forms a pair with “l’Islette,” and is the visible outcropping of a little mountain submerged under the mud, surrounded by the tides, and which almost disappears at high water. It is really next to nothing, but this next to nothing has its own legend, which is perhaps only a tall tale. Everybody there knows it off by heart (or almost). It was written down in a little booklet by J. T. Jemmat, who relates it with great enthusiasm. Listen:
“A wretched woman, whose name and shame the legend has suppressed, had dared to sell her immortal soul and her eternal felicity to the devil, in exchange for dishonorable passions. The impure spirit appeared unsatisfied by this bargain, and wished to also possess the body of his unfortunate victim. Abusing of his power, his infernal malice cast her upon the rock, which had not the gloomy appearance that it has today: One would have thought it was an emerald floating upon the waves, resplendent in the greenness of its shrubbery and the brilliant hues of its flowers. No sooner had that cursed foot made contact with the island, however, that the petals folded inwards and wilted away, the shrubbery shriveled up and died.
“For several weeks, weeks filled with anguish and fear, she remained there, wild-haired, waving her blackened arms, howling more loudly than the waves. Often, in her frenzy and in great paroxysms of despair, the wretched woman would throw herself into the breakers, upon which the frightened waves would immediately return her to her rock before fleeing back in horror.
“The entire parish of l’Islet bore terrified witness to these dismal scenes; none could look upon them without trembling, and a few died in convulsions of terror. Mothers forbade their children from looking upon the accursed rock, and grown-ups would cross themselves at the sight of it. The saintly parish priest alone seemed unaware of these goings-on, or did not appear moved by them; but in his heart he prayed to the heavens that so exemplary a punishment would serve to instill a deep-seated hatred and revulsion of ignominious vice.
“Nevertheless, one day, a distressed assembly came running up to beseech the saintly priest to restore peace to the village by imploring the devil to release his victim and return to his eternal torments. The priest gathers his thoughts for a moment, his calm eyes welling up with tears as they lift towards the sky. Then, joining his long, emaciated fingers: “I will go there, my children. But pray, pray some more, pray constantly.” With these words, he embarked upon the stormy waves, rowing the skiff himself.
“The parishioners arrayed themselves in a long line all along the riverside, their foreheads in the sand, fervently reciting the Penitential Psalms. Seeing the boat approaching, the wretched woman began to writhe upon the rock, emitting howls at once terrifying and pitiful. Nevertheless, the priest disembarked and, barefoot, was slowly making his way up the rock, when he suddenly found himself face-to-face with the hideous figure, her eyes ablaze, her breathing spasmodic, with one hand twisting through her wet hair and the other gesturing menacingly towards the raging breakers. The stage was set for a great battle between the angel of God and the invisible Satan.
“Fear is spreading among the lines of villagers upon the shore. In one of his typical moments of intuition, the godly old man becomes aware of this, and turning towards his flock, traces a long sign of the cross, which startles the possessed woman but restores confidence to his children. They return to their prayers.
“The priest then immediately begins to recite the powerful exorcism spells which the terrorized demon curses but is forced to obey. This time, however, he decides to resist, and a terrible scene takes place upon the rock, which first begins to tremble and then bursts forth like a ship about to founder. Amid frightful howling, the hapless woman bashes her head against the rocks, spewing forth infernal utterances, when all of a sudden she disappears amid the billowing waves. Immediately a huge cloud shrouds the sky in darkness, the loud voice of the thunder echoes all around, and lightning bolts rend the clouds with swords of fire.
“Oh God! Help us, Lord! Hurry to our side,” cried the crowd upon the shore. “Oh Christ who delivered Mary Magdalen from the seven demons that held her soul captive, hear my prayer,” whispered the white-haired old man upon the rock.
“It is for everyone a moment of great anguish, but Heaven grants the wishes of man, and God now miraculously comes down to strengthen the hope of his servant. The rock becomes as soft as clay, so that the man’s right footprint is impressed upon it, and on the same spot, a pure and inexhaustible spring now leaps forth.
“The soul of the apostle is touched by an invisible hand, and he feels it tremble and then fill with serenity: “Lord, you will cast out her heart of stone and give her one that is docile, you will open up in her eyes the sources of the holy tears that appeal for forgiveness, and her feet will walk in your holy ways.”
“At the sound of this prayer, the dew falls from the heavens. Suddenly a foaming wave casts the body of the young woman down at the priest’s feet. Has she perished? No, no! A tremor runs through her limbs, her eyelids spring wide open and her gaze fixes itself upon her benefactor. What a gaze! It is awash with an infinite gratitude! Happily, she gets to her feet and murmurs a prayer of faith and love. While the priest bends down his tall frame so that his white hair shrouds the face of the sinner like a modest veil, she makes her redemptive confessions. As the first tears spring forth from this reborn heart, the sky returns to blue, the sun pours down in luminous sheaves, and the rock and the two figures appear to be haloed in gold. The angels watch as the priest lays his hand upon the woman to wipe away the last traces of a shame that is no more. Over there, upon the riverbank, tears flowed soothingly. And when the roaring lioness, now rendered a docile sheep, began to follow behind the priest, a long cheer of triumphant admiration broke forth from every breast, carrying all the way to the rock.
“A century has passed, and the respect-filled and admiring parishioners of l’Islet have not forgotten the life and accomplishments of the hero of this dramatic tale. His memory lives on in the name given to the rock that they will point out to you: the Rocher Panet.
“Oh great prodigy! The tourist’s eye may still perceive the mysterious footprint. His hand may still draw water from the spring which has not run dry: Is this a testament from on high in favour of the saintly priest? If the old faith seems too credulous, is it not the lifeblood that nourishes the Christian household, the simplicity of a pure way of life, the vigour of religious practices, the flowering of virtues, the full ripening of charity? May God protect and foster a vigorous faith in these Christian souls, tender and strong! May their piety place once more, in a corner of the most beautiful cabinet, next to the Gospels and The Imitation of Christ, the traditional urn, containing the waters of the Rocher Panet!”
–From “Croquis laurentiens” (“Laurentian Sketches”) by Brother Marie-Victorin (1920), my translation