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Bishop Lavel
Chapter II The Early Years of Francois De Lavel


CERTAIN great men pass through the world like meteors; their brilliance, lightning-like at their first appearance, continues to cast a dazzling gleam across the centuries: such were Alexander the Great, Mozart, Shakespeare and Napoleon. Others, on the contrary, do not instantly command the admiration of the masses; it is necessary, in order that their transcendent merit should appear, either that the veil which covered their actions should be gradually lifted, or that, some fine day, and often after their death, the results of their work should shine forth suddenly to the eyes of men and prove their genius: such were Socrates, Themistocles, Jacquard, Copernicus, and Christopher Columbus.

The illustrious ecclesiastic who has given his name to our French-Canadian university, respected as he was by his contemporaries, has been esteemed at his proper value only by posterity. The reason is easy to understand: a colony still in its infancy is subject to many fluctuations before all the wheels of government move smoothly, and Mgr. de Laval, obliged to face ever renewed conflicts of authority, had necessarily either to abandon what he considered it his duty to support, or create malcontents. If sometimes he carried persistence to the verge of obstinacy, he must be judged in relation to the period in which he lived: governors like Frontenac were only too anxious to imitate their absolute master, whose guiding maxim was, "lam the state 1" Moreover, where are the men of true worth who have not found upon their path the poisoned fruits of hatred ? The so-called praise that is sometimes applied to a man, when we say of him, " he has not a single enemy," seems to us, on the contrary, a certificate of insignificance and obscurity. The figure of this great servant of God is one of those which shed the most glory on the history of Canada; the age of Louis XIV, so marvellous in the number of great men which it gave to France, lavished them also upon her daughter of the new continent—Brdbeuf and Lalemant, de Maisonneuve, Dollard, Laval, Talon, de la Salle, Frontenac, d'berville, de Maricourt, de Sainte-Helene, and many others.

"Noble as a Montmorency " says a well-known adage. The founder of that illustrious line, Bouchard, Lord of Montmorency, figures as early as 950 a.d. among the great vassals of the kingdom of France. The heads of this house bore formerly the titles of First Christian Barons and of First Barons of France; it became allied to several royal houses, and gave to the elder daughter of the Church several cardinals, six constables, twelve marshals, four admirals, and a great number of distinguished generals and statesmen. Sprung from this family, whose origin is lost in the night of time, Francis de Laval-Montmorency was born at Montigny-sur-Avre, in the department of Eure-et-Loir, on April 30th, X623. This charming village, which still exists, was part of the important diocese of Chartres. Through his father, Hugues de Laval, Seigneur of Montigny, Montbeaudry, Alaincourt and Rever-court, the future Bishop of Quebec traced his descent from Count Guy de Laval, younger son of the constable Mathieu de Montmorency, and through his mother, Michelle de Pericard, he belonged to a family of hereditary officers of the Crown, which was well-known in Normandy, and gave to the Church a goodly number of prelates.

Like St. Louis, one of the protectors of his ancestors, the young Francis was indebted to his mother for lessons and examples of piety and of charity which he never forgot Virtue, moreover, was as natural to the Lavals as bravery on the field of battle, and whether it were in the retinue of Clovis, when the First Barons received the regenerating water of baptism, or on the immortal plain of Bouvines; whether it were by the side of Blanche of Castile, attacked by the rebellious nobles, or in the terrible holocaust of Cr£cy; whether it were in the fight of the giants at Marignan, or after Pavia during the captivity of the roi-gentilhomme; everywhere where country and religion appealed to their defenders one was sure of hearing shouted in the foremost ranks the motto of the Montmorencys: "Dieu ayde au 'premier baron chretien ! "

Young Laval received at the baptismal font the name of the heroic missionary to the Indies, Fran-^ois-Xavier. To this saint and to the founder of the Franciscans, Francois d'Assise, he devoted throughout his life an ardent worship. Of his youth we hardly know anything except the misfortunes which happened to his family. He was only fourteen years old when, in 1636, he suffered the loss of his father, and one of his near kinsmen, Henri de Montmorency, grand marshal of France, and governor of Languedoc, beheaded by the order of Richelieu. The bravery displayed by this valiant warrior in battle unfortunately did not redeem the fault which he had committed in rebelling against the established power, against his lawful master, Louis XIII, and in neglecting thus the traditions handed down to him by his family through more than seven centuries of glory.

Some historians reproach Richelieu with cruelty, but in that troublous age when, hardly free from the wars of religion, men rushed carelessly on into the rebellions of the due d'Orldans and the due de Soissons, into the conspiracies of Chalais, of Cinq-Mars and de Thou, soon followed by the war of La Fronde, it was not by an indulgence synonymous with weakness that it was possible to strengthen the royal power. Who knows if it was not this energy of the great cardinal which inspired the young Francois, at an age when sentiment is so deeply impressed upon the soul, with those ideas of firmness which distinguished him later on?

The future Bishop of Quebec was then a scholar in the college of La Fl&che, directed by the Jesuits, for his pious parents held nothing dearer than the education of their children in the fear of God and love of the good. They had had six children; the two first had perished in the flower of their youth on fields of battle; Francois, who was now the eldest, inherited the name and patrimony of Montigny, which he gave up later on to his brother Jean-Louis, which explains why he was called for some time Abbe de Montigny, and resumed later the generic name of the family of Laval; the fifth son, Henri de Laval, joined the Benedictine monks and became prior of La Croix-Saint-Leuf-froy. Finally the only sister of Mgr. Laval, Anne Charlotte, became Mother Superior of the religious community of the Daughters of the Holy Sacrament.

Francis edified the comrades of his early youth by his ardent piety, and his tender respect for the house of God; his masters, too, clever as they were in the art of guiding young men and of distinguishing those who were to shine later on, were not slow in recognizing his splendid qualities, the clear-sightedness and breadth of his intelligence, and his wonderful memory. As a reward for his good conduct he was admitted to the privileged ranks of those who comprised the Congregation of the Holy Virgin. We know what good these admirable societies, founded by the sons of Loyola, have accomplished and still accomplish daily in Catholic schools the world over. Societies which vie with each other in piety and encouragement of virtue, they inspire young people with the love of prayer, the habits of regularity and of holy practices.

The congregation of the college of La Fleche had then the good fortune of being directed by Father Bagot, one of those superior priests always so numerous in the Company of Jesus. At one time confessor to King Louis XIII, Father Bagot was a profound philosopher and an eminent theologian. It was under his clever direction that the mind of Francis de Laval was formed, and we shall witness later the germination of the seed which the learned Jesuit sowed in the soul of his beloved scholar.

At this period great families devoted to God from early youth the younger members who showed inclination for the religious life. Francis was only nine years old when he received the tonsure, and fifteen when he was appointed canon of the cathedral of Evreux. Without the revenues which he drew from his prebend, he would not have been able to continue his literary studies ; the death of his father, in fact, had left his family in a rather precarious condition of fortune. He was to remain to the end of his career the pupil of his preferred masters, for it was under them that, having at the age of nineteen left the institution where he had brilliantly completed his classical education, he studied philosophy and theology at the College de Clermont at Paris.

He was plunged in these noble studies, when two terrible blows fell upon him ; he learned of the successive deaths of his two eldest brothers, who had fallen gloriously, one at Freiburg, the other at Nordlingen. He became thus the head of the family, and as if the temptations which this title offered him were not sufficient, bringing him as it did, together with a great name a brilliant future, his mother came, supported by the Bishop of Evreux, his cousin, to beg him to abandon the ecclesiastical career and to marry, in order to maintain the honour of his house. Many others would have succumbed, but what were temporal advantages to a man who had long aspired to the glory of going to preach the Divine Word in far-off missions? He remained inflexible; all that his mother could obtain from him was his consent to devote to her for some time his clear judgment and intellect in setting in order the affairs of his family. A few months sufficed for success in this task. In order to place an impassable abyss between himself and the world, he made a full and complete renunciation in favour of his brother Jean-Louis of his rights of primogeniture and all his titles to the seigniory of Montigny and Montbeaudry. The world is ever prone to admire a chivalrous action, and to look askance at deeds which appear to savour of fanaticism. To Laval this renunciation of wordly wealth and honour appeared in the simple light of duty. His Master's words were inspiration enough: "Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?"

Returning to the College de Clermont, he now thought of nothing but of preparing to receive worthily the holy orders. It was on September 23rd, 1647, at Paris, that he saw dawn for him the beautiful day of the first mass, whose memory perfumes the whole life of the priest. We may guess with what fervour he must have ascended the steps of the holy altar; if up to that moment he had merely loved his God, he must on that day have dedicated to Jesus all the powers of his being, all the tenderness of his soul, and his every heart-beat.

Mgr. de Pericard, Bishop of Evreux, was not present at the ordination of his cousin; death had taken him away, but before expiring, besides expressing his regret to the new priest for having tried at the time, thinking to further the aims of God, to dissuade him from the ecclesiastical life, he gave him a last proof of his affection by appointing him archdeacon of his cathedral. The duties of the archdeaconry of Evreux, comprising, as it did, nearly one hundred and sixty parishes, were particularly heavy, yet the young priest fulfilled them for seven years, and M. de la Colombi&re explains to us how he acquitted himself of them: " The regularity of his visits, the fervour of his enthusiasm, the improvement and the good order which he established in the parishes, the relief of the poor, his interest in all sorts of charity, none of which escaped his notice : all this showed well that without being a bishop he had the ability and merit of one, and that there was no service which the Church might not expect from so great a subject."

But our future Bishop of New France aspired to more glorious fields. One of those zealous apostles who were evangelizing India at this period, Father Alexander of Rhodes, asked from the sovereign pontiff the appointment for Asia of three French bishops, and submitted to the Holy See the names of MM. Pallu, Picquet and Laval. There was no question of hesitation. All three set out immediately for Rome. They remained there fifteen months; the opposition of the Portuguese court caused the failure of this plan, and Francis de Laval returned to France. He had resigned the office of archdeacon the year before, 1653, in favour of a man of tried virtue, who had been, nevertheless, a prey to calumny and persecution, the Abbe Henri-Marie Boudon; thus freed from all responsibility, Laval could satisfy his desire of preparing himself by prayer for the designs which God might have for him.

In his desire of attaining the greatest possible perfection, he betook himself to Caen, to the religious retreat of M. de Berni&res. St. Vincent de Paul, who had trained M. Olier, was desirous also that his pupil, before going to find a field for his apostolic zeal among the people of Auvergne, should prepare himself by earnest meditation in retirement at St. Lazare. "Silence and introspection seemed to St. Vincent," says M. de Lanju&re, the author of the life of M. Olier, "the first conditions of success, preceding any serious enterprise. He had not learned this from Pythagoras or the Greek philosophers, who were, indeed, so careful to prescribe for their disciples a long period of meditation before initiation into their systems, nor even from the experience of all superior men, who, in order to ripen a great plan or to evolve a great thought, have always felt the need of isolation in the nobler acceptance of the word ; but he had this maxim from the very example of the Saviour, who, before the temptation and before the transfiguration, withdrew from the world in order to contemplate, and who prayed in Gethsemane before His death on the cross, and who often led His disciples into solitude to rest, and to listen to His most precious communications."

In this little town of Caen, in a house called the Hermitage, lived Jean de Bernieres of Louvigny, together with some of his friends. They had gathered together for the purpose of aiding each other in mutual sanctification; they practised prayer, and lived in the exercise of the highest piety and charity. Francois de Laval passed three years in this Hermitage, and his wisdom was already so highly appreciated, that during the period of his stay he was entrusted with two important missions, whose successful issue attracted attention to him and led naturally to his appointment to the bishopric of Canada.

As early as 1647 the king foresaw the coming creation of a bishopric in New France, for he constituted the Upper Council "of the Governor of Quebec, the Governor of Montreal and the Superior of the Jesuits, until there should be a bishop." A few years later, in 1656, the Company of Montreal obtained from M. Olier, the pious founder of the Seminary of St. Sulpice, the services of four of his priests for the colony, under the direction of one of them, M. de Queylus, Abbe de Loc-Dieu, whose brilliant qualities, as well as the noble use which he made of his great fortune, marked him out naturally as the probable choice of his associates for the episcopacy. But the Jesuits, in possession of all the missions of New France, had their word to say, especially since the mitre had been offered by the queen regent, Anne, of Austria, to one of their number, Father Lejeune, who had not, however, been able to accept, their rules forbidding it. They had then proposed to the court of France and the court of Rome the name of Francis de Laval; but believing that the colony was not ready for the erection of a see, they expressed the opinion that the sending of an apostolic vicar with the functions and powers of a bishop in partibus would suffice. Moreover, if the person sent should not succeed, he could at any time be recalled, which could not be done in the case of a bishop. Alexander VII had given his consent to this new plan, and Mgr. de Laval was consecrated by the nuncio of the Pope at Paris, on Sunday, December 8th, 1658, in the church of St. Germain-des-Pres. After having taken, with the assent of the sovereign pontiff, the oath of fidelity to the king, the new Bishop of Petrasa said farewell to his pious mother (who died in that same year) and embarked at La Rochelle in the month of April, 1659. The only property he retained was an income of a thousand francs assured to him by the Queen-Mother; but he was setting out to conquer treasures very different from those coveted by the Spanish adventurers who sailed to Mexico and Peru. He arrived on June 16th at Quebec, with letters from the king which enjoined upon all the recognition of Mgr. de Laval of Petrsea as being authorized to exercise episcopal functions in the colony without prejudice to the rights of the Archbishop of Rouen.

Unfortunately, men's minds were not very certain then as to the title and qualities of an apostolic vicar. They asked themselves if he were not a simple delegate whose authority did not conflict with the jurisdiction of the two grand vicars of the Jesuits and the Sulpicians. The communities, at first divided on this point, submitted on the receipt of new letters from the king, which commanded the recognition of the sole authority of the Bishop of Petrsea. The two grand vicars obeyed, and M. de Queylus came to Quebec, where he preached the sermon on St. Augustine's Day (August 28th), and satisfied the claim to authority of the apostolic vicar.

But a new complication arose: the St. Andrd, which had arrived on September 7th, brought to the Abbd de Queylus a new appointment as grand vicar from the Archbishop of Rouen, which contained his protests at court against the apostolic vicar, and letters from the king which seemed to confirm them. Doubt as to the authenticity of the powers of Mgr. de Laval might thus, at least, seem permissible ; no act of the Abbe de Queylus, however, indicates that it was openly manifested, and the very next month the abb£ returned to France.

We may understand, however, that Mgr. de Laval, in the midst of such difficulties, felt the need of early asserting his authority. He promulgated an order enjoining upon all the secular ecclesiastics of the country the disavowal of all foreign jurisdictions and the recognition of his alone, and commanded them to sign this regulation in evidence of their submission. All signed it, including the devoted priests of St. Sulpice at Montreal.

Two years later, nevertheless, the Abbe de Queylus returned with bulls from the Congregation of the Daterie at Rome. These bulls placed him in possession of the parish of Montreal. In spite of the formal forbiddance of the Bishop of Petraea, he undertook, strong in what he judged to be his rights, to betake himself to Montreal. The prelate on his side believed that it was his duty to take severe steps, and he suspended the Abb£ de Queylus. On instructions which were given him by the king, Governor dAvaugour transmitted to the Abbd de Queylus an order to return to France. The court of Rome finally settled the question by giving the entire jurisdiction of Canada to Mgr. de Laval. The affair thus ended, the Abbe de Queylus returned to the colony in 1668. The population of Ville-Marie received with deep joy this benefactor, to whose generosity it owed so much, and on his side the worthy Bishop of Petraea proved that if he had believed it his duty to defend his own authority when menaced; he had too noble a heart to preserve a petty rancour. He appointed the worthy Abbe de Queylus his grand vicar at Montreal.

When for the first time Mgr. de Laval set foot on the soil of America, the people, assembled to pay respect to their first pastor, were struck by his address, which was both affable and majestic, by his manners, as easy as they were distinguished, but especially by that charm which emanates from every one whose heart has remained ever pure. A lofty brow indicated an intellect above the ordinary; the clean-cut long nose was the inheritance of the Montmorencys; his eye was keen and bright; his eyebrows strongly arched ; his thin lips and prominent chin showed a tenacious will; his hair was scanty; finally, according to the custom of that period, a moustache and chin beard added to the strength and energy of his features. From the moment of his arrival the prelate produced the best impression. "I cannot," said Governor d'Argenson, "I cannot highly enough esteem the zeal and piety of Mgr. of Petrasa. He is a true man of prayer, and I make no doubt that his labours will bear goodly fruits in this country." Boucher, governor of Three Rivers, wrote thus: "We have a bishop whose zeal and virtue are beyond anything that I can say."


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