Churches

The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (or Vatican II), held in 1962 to 1965, produced profound upheavals in the Roman Catholic Church. During this period of liturgical reform, the Church tried to modernize itself and permit more active participation of the congregation. The Mass was thus to be said in the vernacular rather than Latin, and North American places of worship strived to adapt to this new approach and become more welcoming. It was in this context that Frédéric Back contributed to the interior refit of several churches in the provinces of Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia and a few in the United States.

A little-known aspect of Frédéric Back's oeuvre, this work was carried out primarily between 1965 and 1970 with someone who would become a very dear friend, André Robitaille. During this period, Frédéric Back was also working on the TV series D'Iberville, on animated sequences for educational programs on Radio-Canada television, and also on his own animated short film Abracadabra.

Background

In the 1960s, Frédéric Back's mother worked as a volunteer at Montreal's Sainte-Justine Hospital for sick children. After completing her official duties, she would often stay to tell the young patients stories and give them drawings done by her son. Wanting to learn more about the person behind these illustrations, the volunteer coordinator, Fernande Robitaille, asked to visit the artist's studio along with her husband, André, who happened to be a co-owner of Desmarais & Robitaille, a firm specializing in liturgical arts. Impressed with the interior architecture projects that Frédéric Back had already done for a few restaurants and with the models he was creating for the television program D'Iberville, André Robitaille proposed that they work together on commissions he was receiving from various parishes. Frédéric Back could do perspective drawings to help the curates visualize the proposed renovations so they could provide immediate feedback. However, his contribution ended up being much greater than that.

Operation transformation

Since the churches had to undergo major transformations anyway, the officials took the opportunity to do other renovations at the same time. After redoing the roof, plumbing, electrical and heating systems, there was little money left over for refitting and decorating the interior. Frédéric Back thus had to come up with economical solutions, such as creating pleasing but inexpensive tapestries by assembling pieces of coloured carpeting or creating compositions with handwoven wool.

The main purpose of the renovations was to enable the Mass to be said facing the congregation. This often involved simplifying the overall visual aspect of the church while respecting the spirit of the place. Sometimes, as with Saint Peter's Church in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Frédéric Back would design the entire decoration. When the metal artist Jo Bergot joined the Desmarais & Robitaille team, it opened up lots of exciting new possibilities for Frédéric Back. Taking advantage of Bergot's talent for working with copper and iron, he could give free rein to his imagination in designing chandeliers, tabernacles and candlesticks to go with the overall decor. An outstanding example of the collaboration of the two artists is the magnificent copper panels in Saint Joseph's Oratory in Montreal.