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Cardinal Ouellet's tiny town ponders change

LA MOTTE, Que. - There are no hotel rooms in this town and the closest thing to a restaurant is the general store that sells chips and chocolate along a regional snowmobile trail.

The sleepy hometown of a Canadian contender for the papacy is bracing for the possibility of him actually becoming pope.

The prospect of receiving such sudden international recognition has prompted a mix of excitement and concern in Cardinal Marc Ouellet's community of La Motte, Que.

Many in the peaceful municipality of 439 fear the overnight transformation to becoming the birthplace of a pope would shatter the tranquility that lured them there in the first place.

Others, however, are eager to roll out a welcome mat for the potential influx of tourists — and their wallets.

The owners of the general store were already thinking about the possibilities well before the conclave, which begins Tuesday in Rome.

Line Breault's eyes lit up when talking about Ouellet becoming pope, something she said would fill the people of La Motte with pride. She also predicted it would be a financial boon.

"Seeing that we've reached a certain age, maybe we'll find a buyer so that we could retire," said Breault, who runs Epicerie Chez Flo with her husband, Florian.

One regular client at Chez Flo is thrilled by the idea that Ouellet could be named the next pope, for a couple of reasons.

For one, Nathalie Savard is the cardinal's second cousin. Also, she thinks his ascension would deliver major economic spinoffs for the Abitibi region.

"Damn, it would be a plus for La Motte," she said, while Breault measured the 26-inch pike Savard had caught during a local ice-fishing derby.

"It would bring some action, it would bring some tourists, it would also develop La Motte because it's stagnant.

"It's been stagnant for several years — and all of Abitibi is like that."

The village, about 600 kilometres northwest of Montreal, experienced a jump in visitors in recent weeks, due to journalists from more than a dozen media outlets who have descended on the town.

The tranquility of the place extends to the local church, where Ouellet was baptized and ordained as a priest.

St-Luc church, built with the help of Ouellet's father and grandfathers, is now a municipal community centre.

La Motte bought the church a few years ago for $1 from the parish, which could no longer afford to maintain the building amid severely declining attendance.

Mass is still held there every second Sunday.

A Ouellet papacy, however, could potentially turn the 75-year-old building into a local cash cow.

Some possible plans could see La Motte charge entry fees to the community centre and sell souvenirs, says its mayor.

"Everything is on the table, everything is possible," Rene Martineau said. The town has already begun drawing up business plans with the regional tourism board.

"Everyone is proud to have a native Lamottois who might become pope. There aren't many popes in the world — there's only one."

He said another possibility could see a religious and cultural circuit of Quebec's Abitibi region, which would bus tourists through La Motte and nearby towns. Martineau said while visitors might not stay in La Motte, he would ensure the town reaps some of the financial benefits.

Planners are also considering some sort of commemoration to Ouellet in La Motte. His childhood home is long gone and there's not even a photo of him hanging in his old church.

But amid the excitement lies concern.

The mayor wants to ensure the town could address some of the realities of a post-papal life. Many villagers are concerned about the unprecedented traffic a Ouellet election could bring to La Motte.

When a native son is catapulted into the papacy, the reverberations back home can be strong.

The hometowns of the last two popes — Wadowice, Poland, and Marktl, Germany — would see between 100,000 and 500,000 visitors per year, according to media reports and tourism-board claims.

One recent report in Montreal La Presse placed the number of visitors to John Paul II's Polish hometown far higher, easily outpacing Benedict's.

It's hard to imagine La Motte getting anything close to that.

Wadowice already has 19,000 residents and it's about 50 kilometres from two frequent destinations: in one direction there's Krakow, the country's second-biggest city, and in the other is Auschwitz, the infamous Second World War concentration camp.

Marktl only has only 2,700 residents but it's an easy train ride, less than two hours from Munich.

Still, even a fraction of their visitor totals could change life in tiny La Motte. The village is much more isolated from big transport hubs, which leaves officials wondering what to expect if Ouellet gets the nod.

"The unknown worries us," Martineau said.

"(We'll take it) one day at a time, with optimism."

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