Maple syrup collection nearly half century tradition

Father Louis LaBrecque tests the syrup. Photo Christine Hudder

Staff Reporter

– For a group of Christian laymen, women and priests living at Madonna House Apostolate in Combermere, maple syrup is steeped in tradition.

The amber liquid, harvested annually from a grove of mixed maples on the property, is tied to feast days and religious celebrations.

Father Louis LaBrecque has organized the syrup collection since he arrived at Madonna House in 1993.

Born in Quebec, LaBrecque suggests that maple syrup runs through his veins.
“It is part of my life. It is very special. It’s in the blood. I was in my mother’s womb when I began gathering maple syrup,” he said.

That was 47 years ago.

LaBrecque grew up on a farm in rural Quebec, the province that boasts 90 per cent of Canada’s maple syrup production.

Gathering sap was a family tradition that kept him busy at home, at the neighbours and various relatives.

LaBrecque said it is his favourite season but admits that is only, “until the next season arrives, of course.”

It is the grace of living in the moment, of being in tune with the season that makes him say it his favourite.

“People who go to the sugar shack and taste the syrup say it is the best syrup they have ever tasted – it has never tasted so good. This is the power of the season. That’s what makes it special – to be in the season,” he explained.

LaBrecque started tapping the last week in February this year. He said it is the earliest he has ever seen it at Madonna House. More than 2,000 buckets hang from red, sugar silver and black maple. Since the syrup is for their own consumption, they do not worry about segregating or grading the syrup.

“We mix everything in. Whatever is given, we boil and eat,” he said.

Syrup has been collected since 1968.

Sap is gathered manually from the trees and then emptied into large 50 gallon plastic barrels. Gravity fed drains are placed inside the barrels and lead the sap down a hill located beside the sugar shack. For other maple trees, a tractor helps transport the 50 gallon barrels to the trees. Once full, the barrels are transported back to the sugar shack where the sap is boiled down using a wood-fed evaporator manufactured by Dominion Grimm of Montreal.

A stove is located at the front of the evaporator, which LaBrecque fills with wood before lighting the fire. Using the candle that burns at the shrine devoted to the Special Holy Patrons, as well as St. Joseph, Our Lady of Combermere and St. Matthew inside the shack, LaBrecque ignites the wood which must be restocked every 15 minutes. He uses this candle to light all fires, including the stove used to make tea and meals.

Story continues in the March 22, 2012 Issue of The Valley Gazette.