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Bishop Lavel
Chapter XVIII Last Days of Mgr. De Lavel


ILLNESS had obliged Mgr. de Laval to hand in -L his resignation. He wrote, in fact, at this period of his life to M. de Denonville: "I have been for the last two years subject to attacks of vertigo accompanied by heart troubles which are very frequent and increase markedly. I have had one quite recently, on the Monday of the Passion, which seized me at three o'clock in the morning, and I could not raise my head from my bed." His infirmities, which .he bore to the end with admirable resignation, especially affected his limbs, which he was obliged to bandage tightly every morning, and which could scarcely bear the weight of his body. To disperse the unwholesome humours, his arm had been cauterized; to cut, carve and hack the poor flesh of humanity formed, as we know, the basis of the scientific and medical equipment of the period. These sufferings, which he brought as a sacrifice to our Divine Master, were not sufficient for him; he continued in spite of them to wear upon his body a coarse , hair shirt. He had to serve him only one of those Brothers who devoted their labour to the seminary in exchange for their living and a place at table. This modest servant, named Houssart, had replaced a certain Lemaire, of whom the prelate draws a very interesting portrait in one of his letters: " We must economize," he wrote to the priests of the seminary, " and have only watchful and industrious domestics. We must look after them, else they deteriorate in the seminary. You have the example of the baker, Louis Lemaire, an idler, a gossip, a tattler, a man who, instead of walking behind the coach, would not go unless Monseigneur paid for a carriage for him to follow him to La Rochelle, and lent him his dressing-gown to protect him from the cold. Formerly he worked well at heavy labour at Cap Tourmente; idleness has ruined him in the seminary. As soon as he had reached my room, he behaved like a man worn out, always complaining, coming to help me to bed only when the fancy took him ; always extremely vain, thinking he was not dressed according to his position, although he was clad, as you know, more like a nobleman than a peasant, which he was, for I had taken him as a beggar and almost naked at La Rochelle. ... As soon as he entered my room he sat down, and rather than be obliged to pretend to see him, I turned my seat so as not to see him. . . We should have left that man at heavy work, which had in some sort conquered his folly and pride, and it is possible that he might have been saved. But he has been entirely ruined in the seminary. ..." This humorous description proves to us well that even in the good old days not all domestics were perfect.

The affectionate and respectful care given by Houssart to his master was such as is not bought with money. Most devoted to the prelate, he has left us a very edifying relation of the life of the venerable bishop, with some touching details. He wrote after his death: "Having had the honour of being continually attached to the service of his Lordship during the last twenty years of his holy life, and his Lordship having had during all that time a great charity towards me and great confidence in my care, you cannot doubt that I contracted a great sympathy, interest and particular attachment for his Lordship." In another letter he speaks to us of the submission of the venerable bishop to the, commands of the Church. "He did his best," he writes, "notwithstanding his great age and continual infirmities, to observe all days of abstinence and fasting, both those which are commanded by Holy Church and those which are observed from reasons of devotion in the seminary, and if his Lordship sometimes yielded in this matter to the command of the physicians and the entreaties of the superiors of the seminary, who deemed that he ought not to fast, it was a great mortification for him, and it was only out of especial charity to his dear seminary and the whole of Canada that he yielded somewhat to nature in order not to die so soon. . ."

Never, in spite of his infirmities, would the prelate fail to be present on Sunday at the cathedral services. When it was impossible for him to go on foot, he had himself carried. His only outings towards the end of his life consisted in his visits to the cathedral or in short walks along the paths of his garden. Whenever his health permitted, he loved to be present at the funerals of those who died in the town; those consolations which he deigned to give to the afflicted families bear witness to the goodness of his heart. " It was something admirable," says Houssart, "to see, firstly, his assiduity in being present at the burial of all who died in Quebec, and his promptness in offering the holy sacrifice of the mass for the repose of their souls, as soon as he had learned of their decease; secondly, his devotion in receiving and preserving the blessed palms, in kissing his crucifix, the image of the Holy Virgin, which he carried always upon him, and placed at nights under his pillow, his badge of servitude and his iscapulary which he carried also upon him; thirdly, his respect and veneration for the relics of the saints, the pleasure which he took in reading every day in the Lives of the Saints, and in conversing of their heroic deeds ; fourthly, the holy and constant use which he made of holy water, taking it wherever he might be in the course of the day and every time he awoke in the night, coming very often from his garden to his room expressly to take it, carrying it upon him in a little silver vessel, which he had had made purposely, when he went to the country. His Lordship had so great a desire that every one should take it that he exercised particular care in seeing every day whether the vessels of the church were supplied with it, to fill them when they were empty; and during the winter, for fear that the vessels should freeze too hard and the people could not take any as they entered and left the church, he used to bring them himself every evening and place them by our stove, and take them back at four o'clock in the morning when he went to open the doors."

With a touching humility the pious old man scrupulously conformed to the rules of the seminary and to the orders of the superior of the house. Only a few days before his death, he experienced such pain that Brother Houssart declared his intention of going and asking from the superior of the seminary a dispensation for the sick man from being present at the services. At once the patient became silent; in spite of his tortures not a complaint escaped his hps. It was Holy Wednesday : it was impossible to be absent on that day from religious ceremonies. We do not know which to admire most in such an attitude, whether the piety of the prelate or his submission to the superior of the seminary, since he would have been resigned if he had been forbidden to go to church, or, finally, his energy in stifling the groans which suffering wrenched from his physical nature. Few saints carried mortification and renunciation of terrestrial good as far as he. "He is certainly the most austere man in the world and the most indifferent to wordly advantage," wrote Mother Mary of the Incarnation. " He gives away everything and lives like a pauper; and we may truly say that he has the very spirit of poverty. It is not he who will make friends for worldly advancement and to increase his revenue; he is dead to all that. . . . He practises this poverty in his house, in his living, in his furniture, in his servants, for he has only one gardener, whom he lends to the poor when they need one, and one valet. . ."This picture falls short of the truth. For forty years he arose at two o'clock in the morning, summer and winter: in his last years illness could only wrest from him one hour more of repose, and he arose then at three o'clock. As soon as he was dressed, he remained at prayer till four and then went to church. He opened the doors himself, and rang the bells for mass, which he said, half an hour later, especially for the poor workmen, who began their day by this pious exercise.

His thanksgiving after the holy sacrifice lasted till seven o'clock, and yet, even in the greatest cold of the severe Canadian winter, he had nothing to warm his frozen limbs but the brazier which he had used to celebrate the mass. A good part of his day, and often of the night, when his sufferings deprived him of sleep, was also devoted to prayer or spiritual reading, and nothing was more edifying than to see the pious octogenarian telling his beads or reciting his breviary while walking slowly through the paths of his garden. He was the first up and the last to retire, and whatever had been his occupations during the day, never did he he down without having scrupulously observed all the spiritual offices, readings or reciting of beads. It was not, however, that his food gave him a superabundance of physical vigour, for the Trappists did not eat more frugally than he. A soup, which he purposely spoiled by diluting it amply with hot water, a little meat and a crust of very dry bread composed his ordinary fare, and dessert, even on feast days, was absolutely banished from his table. "For his ordinary drink," says Brother Houssart, " he took only hot water slightly flavoured with wine; and every one knows that his Lordship never took either cordial or dainty wines, or any mixture of sweets of any sort whatever, whether to drink or to eat, except that in his last years I succeeded in making him take every evening after his broth, which was his whole supper, a piece of biscuit as large as one's thumb, in a little wine, to aid him to sleep. I may say without exaggeration that his whole life was one continual fast, for he took no breakfast, and every evening only a slight collation. . . . He used his whole substance in alms and pious works; and when he needed anything, such as clothes, linen, etc., he asked it from the seminary like the humblest of his ecclesiastics. He was most modest in matters of dress, and I had great difficulty in preventing him from wearing his clothes when they were old, dirty and mended. During twenty years he had but two winter cassocks, which he left behind him on his death, the one still quite good, the other all threadbare and mended. To be brief, there was no one in the seminary poorer in dress. . ." Mgr. de Laval set an example of the principal virtues which distinguish the saints; so he could not fail in that which our Lord incessantly recommends to His disciples, charity! He no longer possessed anything of his own, since he had at the outset abandoned his patrimony to his brother, and since later on he had given to the seminary everything in his possession. But charity makes one ingenious: by depriving himself of what was strictly necessary, could he not yet come to the aid of his brothers in Jesus Christ ? "Never was prelate," says his eulogist, M. de la Colombi&re, " more hostile to grandeur and exaltation. ... In scorning grandeur, he triumphed over himself by a poverty worthy of the anchorites of the first centuries, whose rules he faithfully observed to the end of his days. Grace had so thoroughly absorbed in the heart of the prelate the place of the tendencies of our corrupt nature that he seemed to have been born with an aversion to riches, pleasures and honours. ... If you have noticed his dress, his furniture and his table, you must be aware that he was a foe to pomp and splendour. There is no village priest in France who is not better nourished, better clad and better lodged than was the Bishop of Quebec. Far from having an equipage suitable to his rank and dignity he had not even a horse of his own. And when, towards the end of his days, his great age and his infirmities did not allow him to walk, if he wished to go out he had to borrow a carriage. Why this economy ? In order to have a storehouse full of garments, shoes and blankets, which he distributed gratuitously, with paternal kindness and prudence. This was a business which he never ceased to ply, in which he trusted only to himself, and with which he concerned himself up to his death."

The charity of the prelate was boundless. Not only at the hospital of Quebec did he visit the poor and console them, but he even rendered them services the most repugnant to nature. " He has been seen," says M. de la Colombi£re, " on a ship where he behaved like St. Fran9ois-Xavier, where, ministering to the sailors and the passengers, he breathed the bad air and the infection which they exhaled; he has been seen to abandon in their favour all his refreshments, and to give them even his bed, sheets and blankets. To adminster the sacraments to them he did not fear to expose his life and the lives of the persons who were most dear to him." When he thus attended the sick who were attacked by contagious fever; he did his duty, even more than his duty ; but when he went, without absolute need, and shared in the repugnant cares which the most devoted servants of Christ in the hospitals undertake only after struggles and heroic victory over revolted nature he rose to sublimity. It was because he saw in the poor the suffering members of the Saviour; to love the poor man, it is not enough to wish him well, we must respect him, and we cannot respect him as much as any child of God deserves without seeing in him the image of Jesus Christ himself. No one acquires love for God without being soon wholly enkindled by it; thus it was no longer sufficient for Mgr. de Laval to instruct and console the poor and the sick, he served them also in the most abject duties, going as far as to wash with his own hands their sores and ulcers. A madman, the world will say; why not content one's self with attending those people without indulging in the luxury of heroism so repugnant ? This would have sufficed indeed to relieve nature, but would it have taught those incurable and desperate cases that they were the first friends of Jesus Christ, that the Church looked upon them as its jewels, and that their fate from the point of view of eternity was enviable to all ? It would have relieved without consoling and raising the poor man to the height which belongs to him in Christian society. Official assistance, with the best intentions in the world, the most ingenious organization and the most perfect working, can, however, never be charity in the perfectly Christian sense of this word. If it could allay all needs and heal all sores it would still have accomplished only half of the task: relieving the body without reaching the soul. And man does not live by bread alone. He who has been disinherited of the boons of fortune, family and health, he who is incurable and who despairs of human joys needs something else besides the most comfortable hospital room that can be imagined; he needs the words which fell from the lips of God: " Blessed are the poor, blessed are they that suffer, blessed are they that mourn." He needs a pitying heart, a tender witness to indigence nobly borne, a respectful friend of his misfortune, still more than that, a worshipper of Jesus hidden in the persons of the poor, the orphan and the sick. They have become rare in the world, these real friends of the poor; the more assistance has become organized, the more charity seems to have lost its true nature; and perhaps we might find in this state of things a radical explanation for those implacable social antagonisms, those covetous desires, those revolts followed by endless repression, which bring about revolutions, and by them all manner of tyranny. Let us first respect the poor, let us love them, let us sincerely admire their condition as one ennobled by God, if we wish them to become reconciled with Him, and reconciled with the world. When the rich man is a Christian, generous and respectful of the poor, when he practises the virtues which most belong to his social position, the poor man is very near to conforming to those virtues which Providence makes his more immediate duty, humility, obedience, resignation to the will of God and trust in Him and in those who rule in His name. The solution of the great social problem lies, as it seems to us, in the spiritual love of the poor. Outside of this, there is only the heathen slave below, and tyranny above with all its terrors. That is what religious enthusiasm foresaw in centuries less well organized but more rehgious than ours.


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