Stones are silent, but they speak to Ernést Hiebert.
"You can never pick up the wrong one," said Hiebert, a stonemason and bricklayer who lives in St Malo.
Hiebert, 64, is fond of that mantra, told to him by a stonemason from Mexico, one of 78 countries he has visited.
Hiebert mixed his first batch of mortar at the tender age of 11, alongside his father, Peter K. Hiebert of Niverville, whose handiwork still clads some of the Southeast’s most stately homes.
Stone and brick work has been Hiebert’s full-time career since 1985.
"I love doing it. I can hear my dad," he said.
These days, he mostly does the work during the summer. Arthritic knees keep him from laying 5,000 pounds of stone a day like he used to, but the projects he takes on have only increased in significance.
Hiebert’s talents are integral to ongoing, multi-year restoration projects at the St Pierre Museum and Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in St Malo.
"Old masons still need a job," Hiebert said with a grin while visiting the two sites, located a 10-minute drive apart, late last month.
At the museum, housed in a former convent, Hiebert is repairing the building’s brick façade, which has deteriorated in several spots. Many of the bricks were originally used to build St Pierre’s turn-of-the-century Catholic church, which was demolished in 1981.
Hiebert said Rolly Gagne, board president of the museum, sourced many of the bricks needed to complete the restoration from local townspeople, whose ancestors lifted them as keepsakes from the rubble.
Hiebert has been working at the museum on and off for six years. One of the larger tasks is already behind him. A cement-filled chimney that ran up one side of the museum was causing a wall to sag and the foundation to sink. Hiebert removed the top and turned the base into a pedestal now topped with a rooster, the village’s symbol.
Over at the grotto, a 125-year-old shrine and pilgrimage site maintained by the St Malo parish, Hiebert spent several weeks this summer restoring the Tomb of Christ, one of the first fieldstone features that pilgrims pass as they walk down a descending staircase from the parking lot above.
Before he set to work, Hiebert said one corner of the tomb was in danger of collapsing in a hard rain. He cleared out loose debris and mortar, power-washed the tomb, added new stones where needed, then applied mortar coloured to match the original, which had bleached over time.
Hiebert puts a lot of effort into making sure his repairs don’t look new.
"The important thing about restoration is that it matches the existing work," he explained.
Hiebert left the mortar rough to mimic 19th century masonry techniques. He said the restored tomb shouldn’t need any more repairs for another 50 to 100 years.
"This is super for the parish," said Leo Roch, one of four parishioners administering the parish since its priest, Rev. Dominic La Fleur, was transferred to St Joseph.
"It is such an attraction for the tourists, but what we’re finding is that it’s also becoming a tool for evangelization."
Roch said the tree-lined grotto possesses a tranquility that puts visitors in a reflective mode.
Two years ago, the Archdiocese of Saint Boniface named the grotto a diocesan shrine. The designation entailed more use for pilgrimages and other religious activities. It also drew more day-trippers to the site. This year, due to COVID-19, the Archdiocese allowed two weddings at the grotto.
The additional foot traffic is welcomed by the parish, but it has a downside.
"The more people that come and have a look, the more wear and tear," Roch said.
Hiebert has worked at the grotto on and off for the last four summers. In 2019, he restored the retaining wall around the main altar. The surrounding vines have since regrown, making it hard to tell it was ever repaired.
Hiebert replaced stones that had been painted light blue, in honour of the Virgin Mary, with aged Tyndall stone, as the paint was not part of the grotto’s original look.
Roch is applying for more grant funding so Hiebert can repair the crumbling upper altar and level the main altar’s sunken platform. The parish also wants to install a washroom at the site.
The first pilgrimage to the grotto occurred 125 years ago last month. St Malo’s second parish priest, Rev. Abel Noret, modelled the grotto after one in Lourdes, France where the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared in 1858.
By 1939, 7,000 pilgrims were attending St Malo’s annual pilgrimage. That ritual continues every August, attracting French and English-speaking Catholics as well as Vietnamese and Filipino congregations.
"It’s a very special place," Hiebert said. "People come to pray and meditate. They come from all around the world."
Raised Anglican, he converted to Catholicism as an adult.
"And soon to become Orthodox," he quipped.
Scanning the guest book in the nearby chapel, Roch saw recent entries jotted by visitors from China and California.
The latter locale is near and dear to Hiebert, who lived there as a child. His father, Peter—a farm boy from Niverville who left home at the age of 15 to work for a stone mason—moved his young family to California.
The glamorous coastal state was booming, providing plenty of jobs for Peter, who worked on multimillion-dollar homes made of exotic materials.
"He worked with stone, he worked with lava, and petrified wood," Hiebert, who was five years old at the time of the move, recalled.
It didn’t take long for Peter to make a name for himself. Hiebert said the bricklayer union wanted members to install a minimum of 300 bricks per day. Peter could lay 1,500.
The family stayed in California for six years before returning to Manitoba and the family farmstead. After six years of sand and surf, Hiebert found himself occupying a desk in the same two-room schoolhouse his dad attended.
Peter returned to masonry work full-time job but would "scab" or work side gigs on the weekends, taking Hiebert along to mix mortar and carry bricks. Peter was a perfectionist, a trait that rubbed off on his son.
In 1971, Peter started his own company.
"Then I never had a summer again," Hiebert recalled.
Hiebert completed a university degree but didn’t want to work in an office, so he enrolled in a masonry course at Red River College. Later, he took over his father’s company.
A brief detour into selling early computer software only reinforced his abiding love for low-tech manual labour.
Hiebert still uses his father’s splitting hammer, its leather-wrapped handle dried by the California sun. And, like his father, he still prefers stonework to bricklaying.
Stone masonry is becoming somewhat of a lost art due to the increasingly popularity of cultured stone products. Hiebert said there are even fewer masons who specialize in restoration work.
When he isn’t working, Hiebert likes to travel with his wife, Sharon. Not surprisingly, his favourite thing to do on vacation is seek out great works of architecture.
He has gazed upon the Egyptian pyramids but said the 1,500-year-old masonry work he saw in Turkey was even more impressive.