Cheese made in a church draws thousands to small Quebec town

Every Friday, people congregate at the local Catholic church in Sainte-Élizabeth-de-Warwick, about 70 kilometres southeast of Trois-Rivières, to worship at the altar... of cheese.

Churches across the province have been repurposed as everything from libraries to restaurants. This one is has become a cheese factory.

People flock from hours away — some across provincial and even national borders — to gather for Friday picnics and try the cheese at the Fromagerie du Presbytère.

"There used to be a time when people got together in the church and now we get together around cheeses," said Monik St-Pierre, who celebrated her 28th wedding anniversary with husband Denis Boutin at one such Friday picnic.

The couple travelled two hours from Stoneham, near Quebec City, for the occasion.

"It was wonderful," St-Pierre added. "It's a great idea. I enjoy so much something like this. I say the rural area needs ideas like this and it's wonderful. They really help and bring people together."

Owner Jean Morin purchased the rural church for $1 and an agreement that he would take care of the building. He pays for the heat and handles snow removal during the winter months.

The church used to seat hundreds, and now only has room for about 40 people and a lot of cheese.

"The church is the story of a lot of villages in Quebec," said Morin.

Although Morin was already a well-known, award-winning cheese maker, he branched out from blue cheese and cheddar to cheese curds nine years ago. It was then he decided to make an event out of it and host his weekly picnics.

The gatherings started with a few dozen people, and have been steadily growing ever since. This year, for an annual poutine night fundraiser on Aug. 3, Morin sold almost 4,000 orders of poutine.

"I'm very surprised," said Morin, who added he meets people from as far as France, Toronto, and Vancouver on any given Friday.

"The challenge for me is to process the best cheese in Canada."

The cheesemaker makes his rounds during the Friday evening picnics with a wheel of cheese under his arm and slices off samples to distribute, which he calls "Friday night communion."

The party starts late in the afternoon when the church bells ring to signify that the cheese curds are ready.

People bring their tables and chairs, and pick a spot on the grass.

"We love it," said Denise Arcand, of Victoriaville, who attends the Friday picnics about five times a year. "We don't like it, we love it."

"You have to wait at least an hour in line, but people are there with a glass of wine or a beer, they don't mind, it's OK, it's fun, it's Sainte-Elizabeth," she added with a laugh. "What else could you ask for? Nothing. It's beautiful."

The line often gets so long that Morin has hired a parking officer and started shuttling people from their cars with a tractor.

"If you like cheese, you have to come here," said Laval resident Michel Bergeron.

The Friday picnics will continue until Oct. 13, when Morin will host a limited-space, ticket-only raclette event to end the season.

With files from Rebecca Martel