Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

Bishop Lavel
Chapter I Establishment of the Catholic Church in Canada

IF, standing upon the threshold of the twentieth century, we cast a look behind us to note the road traversed, the victories gained by the great army of Christ, we discover everywhere marvels of abnegation and sacrifice; everywhere we see rising before us the dazzling figures of apostles, of doctors of the Church and of martyrs who arouse our admiration and command our respect. There is no epoch, no generation, even, which has not given to the Church its phalanx of heroes, its quota of deeds of devotion, whether they have become illustrious or have remained unknown.

Born barely three centuries ago, the Christianity of New France has enriched history with pages no less glorious than those in which are enshrined the lofty deeds of her elders. To the list, already long, of workers for the gospel she has added the names of the Récollets and of the Jesuits, of the Sulpicians and of the Oblate Fathers, who crossed the seas to plant the faith among the hordes of barbarians who inhabited the immense regions today known as the Dominion of Canada.

And what daring was necessary, in the early days of the colony, to plunge into the vast forests of North America 1 Incessant toil, sacrifice, pain and death in its most terrible forms were the price that was gladly paid in the service of God by men who turned their backs upon the comforts of civilized France to carry the faith into the unknown wilderness.

Think of what Canada was at the beginning of the seventeenth century 1 Instead of these fertile provinces, covered to-day by luxuriant harvests, man's gaze met everywhere only impenetrable forests in which the woodsman's axe had not yet permitted the plough to cleave and fertilize the soil; instead of our rich and populous cities, of our innumerable villages daintily perched on the brinks of streams, or rising here and there in the midst of verdant plains, the eye perceived only puny wigwams isolated and lost upon the banks of the great river, or perhaps a few agglomerations of smoky huts, such as Hochelaga or Stadacond; instead of our iron rails, penetrating in all directions, instead of our peaceful fields over which trains hasten at marvellous speed from ocean to ocean, there were but narrow trails winding through a jungle of primeval trees, behind which hid in turn the Iroquois, the Huron or the Algonquin, awaiting the propitious moment to let fly the fatal arrow; instead of the numerous vessels bearing over the waves of the St. Lawrence, at a distance of more than six hundred leagues from the sea, the products of the five continents ; instead of yonder floating palaces, thronged with travellers from the four corners of the earth, then only an occasional bark canoe came gliding slyly along by the reeds of the shore, scarcely stopping except to permit its crew to kindle a fire, to make prisoners or to scalp some enemy.

A heroic courage was necessary to undertake to carry the faith to these savage tribes. It was condemning one's self to lead a life like theirs, of ineffable hardships, dangers and privations, now in a bark canoe and paddle in hand, now on foot and bearing upon one's shoulders the things necessary for the holy sacrament; in the least case it was braving hunger and thirst, exposing one's self to the rigours of an excessive cold, with which European nations were not yet familiar; it often meant hastening to meet the most horrible tortures. In spite of all this, however, Father Le Caron did not hesitate to penetrate as far as the country of the Hurons, while Fathers Sagard and Viel were sowing the first seeds of Christianity in the St. Lawrence valley. The devotion of the Récollets, to the family of whom belonged these first missionaries of Canada, was but ill-rewarded, for, after the treaty of St. Germain-en-Laye, which restored Canada to France, the king refused them permission to return to a region which they had watered with the sweat of their brows and fertilized with their blood.

The humble children of St. Francis had already-evangelized the Huron tribes as far as the Georgian Bay, when the Company of the Cent Associds was founded by Richelieu. The obligation which the great cardinal imposed upon them of providing for the maintenance of the propagators of the gospel was to assure the future existence of the missions. The merit, however, which lay in the creation of a society which did so much for the furtherance of Roman Catholicism in North America is not due exclusively to the great cardinal, for Samuel de Champlain can claim a large share of it. "The welfare of a soul," said this pious founder of Quebec, "is more than the conquest of an empire, and kings should think of extending their rule in infidel countries only to assure therein the reign of Jesus Christ."

Think of the suffering endured, in order to save a soul, by men who for this sublime purpose renounced all that constitutes the charm of life! Not only did the Jesuits, in the early days of the colony, brave horrible dangers with invincible steadfastness, but they even consented to imitate the savages, to live their life, to learn their difficult idioms. Let us listen to this magnificent testimony of the Protestant historian Bancroft:—

"The horrors of a Canadian life in the wilderness were resisted by an invincible, passive courage, and a deep, internal tranquillity. Away from the amenities of life, away from the opportunities of 4 vain-glory, they became dead to the world, and possessed their souls in unalterable peace. The few who lived to grow old, though bowed by the toils of a long mission, still kindled with the fervour of apostolic zeal. The history of their labours is connected with the origin of every celebrated town in the annals of French Canada; not a cape was turned nor a river entered but a Jesuit led the way."

Must we now recall the edifying deaths of the sons of Loyola, who brought the glad tidings of the gospel to the Hurons?—Father Jogues, who returned from the banks of the Niagara with a broken shoulder and mutilated hands, and went back, with sublime persistence, to his barbarous persecutors, to pluck from their midst the palm of martyrdom; Father Daniel, wounded by a spear while he was absolving the dying in the village of St. Joseph; Father Brdbeuf, refusing to escape with the women and children of the hamlet of St. Louis, and expiring, together with Father Gabriel Lalemant, in the most frightful tortures that Satan could suggest to the imagination of a savage; Father Charles Gamier pierced with three bullets, and giving up the ghost while blessing his converts; Father de Noue dying on his knees in the snow!

These missions had succumbed in 1648 and 1649 under the attacks of the Iroquois. The venerable founder of St. Sulpice, M. Olier, had foreseen this misfortune; he had always doubted the success of missions so extended and so widely scattered without a centre of support sufficiently strong to resist a systematic and concerted attack of all their enemies at once. Without disapproving the despatch of these flying columns of missionaries which visited tribe after tribe (perhaps the only possible method in a country governed by pagan chiefs), he believed that another system of preaching the gospel would produce, perhaps with less danger, a more durable effect in the regions protected by the flag of France. Taking up again the thought of the Benedictine monks, who have succeeded so well in other countries, M. Olier and the other founders of Montreal wished to establish a centre of fervent piety which should accomplish still more by example than by preaching. The development and progress of religious work must increase with the material importance of this centre of proselytism. In consequence, success would be slow, less brilliant, but surer than that ordinarily obtained by separate missions. This was, at least, the hope of our fathers, and we of Quebec would seem unjust towards Providence and towards them if, beholding the present condition of the two seminaries of this city, of our Catholic colleges, of our institutions of every kind, and of our religious orders, we did not recognize that their thought was wise, and their enterprise one of prudence and blessed by God.

Up to 1658 New France belonged to the jurisdiction of the Bishops of St. Malo and of Rouen.

At the time of the second voyage of Cartier, in 1535, his whole crew, with their officers at their head, confessed and received communion from the hands of the Bishop of St. Malo. This jurisdiction lasted until the appointment of the first Bishop of New France. The creation of a diocese came in due time; the need of an ecclesiastical superior, of a character capable of imposing his authority, made itself felt more and more. Disorders of all kinds crept into the colony, and our fathers felt the necessity of a firm and vigorous arm to remedy this alarming state of affairs. The love of lucre, of gain easily acquired by the sale of spirituous liquors to the savages, brought with it evils against which the missionaries endeavoured to react.

Francis de Laval-Montmorency, who was called in his youth the Abbd de Montigny, was, on the recommendation of the Jesuits, appointed apostolic vicar by Pope Alexander VII, who conferred upon him the title of Bishop of Petrasa in partibus. The Church in Canada was then directly connected with the Holy See, and the sovereign pontiff abandoned to the king of France the right of appointment and presentation of bishops having the authority of apostolic vicars.

The difficulties which arose between Mgr. de Laval and the Abbe de Queylus, Grand Vicar of Rouen for Canada, were regrettable, but, thanks to the truly apostolic zeal and the purity of intention of these two men of God, these difficulties were not long in giving place to a noble rivalry for good, fostered by a perfect harmony. The Abbd de Queylus had come to take possession of the Island of Montreal for the company of St. Sulpice, and to establish there a seminary on the model of that in Paris. This creation, with that of the hospital established by Mile. Mance, gave a great impetus to the young city of Montreal. Moreover, religion was so truly the motive of the foundation of the colony by M. Olier and his associates, that the latter had placed the Island of Montreal under the protection of the Holy , Virgin. The priests of St. Sulpice, who had become the lords of the island, had already given an earnest of their labours; they too aspired to venerate martyrs chosen from their ranks, and in the same year MM. Lemaitre and Vignal perished at the hands of the wild Iroquois.

Meanwhile, under the paternal direction of Mgr. de Laval, and the thoroughly Christian administration of governors like Champlain, de Montmagny, dAilleboust, or of leaders like Maisonneuve and Major Closse, Heaven was pleased to spread its blessings upon the rising colony; a number of savages asked and received baptism, and the fervour of the colonists endured. The men were not the only ones to spread the good word; holy maidens worked on their part for the glory of God, whether in the hospitals of Quebec and Montreal, or in the institution of the Ursulines in the heart of the city of Champlain, or, finally, in the modest school founded at Ville-Marie by Sister Marguerite Bourgeoys. It is true that the blood of the Indians and of their missionaries had been shed in floods, that the Huron missions had been exterminated, and that, moreover, two camps of Algonquins had been destroyed and swept away; but nations as well as individuals may promise themselves the greater progress in the spiritual life according as they commence it with a more abundant and a richer record ; and the greatest treasure of a nation is the blood of the martyrs who have founded it. Moreover, the fugitive Hurons went to convert their enemies, and even from the funeral pyres of the priests was to spring the spark of faith for all these peoples. 1 wo hamlets were founded for the converted Iroquois, those of the Sault St. Louis (Caughnawaga) and of La Montagne at Montreal, and fervent neophytes gathered there.

Certain historians have regretted that the first savages encountered by the French in North America should have been Hurons ; an alliance made with the Iroquois, they say, would have been a hundred times more profitable for civilization and for France. What do we know about it? Man imagines and arranges his plans, but above these arrangements hovers Providence—fools say, chance —whose foreseeing hand sets all in order for the accomplishment of His impenetrable design. Yet, however firmly convinced the historian may be that the eye of Providence never sleeps, that the Divine Hand is never still, he must be sober in his observations; he must yield neither to his fancy nor to his imagination; but neither must he banish God from history, for then everything in it would become incomprehensible and inexplicable, absurd and barren. It was this same God who guides events at His will that inspired and sustained the devoted missionaries in their efforts against the revenue-farmers in the matter of the sale of intoxicating liquors to the savages. The struggle which they maintained, supported by the venerable Bishop of Petrsea, is wholly to their honour; it was a question of saving even against their will the unfortunate children of the woods who were addicted to the fatal passion of intoxication. Unhappily, the Governors d'Avaugour and de Mdzy, in supporting the greed of the traders, were perhaps right from the political point of view, but certainly wrong from a philanthropic and Christian standpoint.

The colony continuing to prosper, and the growing need of a national clergy becoming more and more felt, Mgr. de Laval founded in 1663 a seminary at Quebec. The king decided that the tithes raised from the colonists should be collected by the seminary, which was to provide for the maintenance of the priests and for divine service in the established parishes. The Sovereign Council fixed the tithe at a twenty-sixth.

The missionaries continued, none the less, to spread the light of the gospel and Christian civilization. It seems that the field of their labour had never been too vast for their desire. Ever onward I was their motto. While Fathers Garreau and Mes-nard found death among the Algonquins on the coasts of Lake Superior, the Sulpicians Dollier and Gallinde were planting the cross on the shores of Lake Erie; Father Claude Allouez was preaching the gospel beyond Lake Superior; Fathers Dablon, Marquette, and Druilletes were establishing the mission of Sault Ste. Marie ; Father Albanel was proceeding to explore Hudson Bay; Father Marquette, acting with Jolliet, was following the course of the Mississippi as far as Arkansas ; finally, later on, Father Arnaud accompanied La Vdrendrye as far as the Rocky Mountains.

The establishment of the Catholic religion in Canada had now witnessed its darkest days; its history becomes intimately interwoven with that of the country. Up to the English conquest, the clergy and the different religious congregations, as faithful to France as to the Holy See, encouraged the Canadians in their struggles against the invaders. Accordingly, at the time of the invasion of the colony by Phipps, the Americans of Boston declared that they would spare neither monks nor missionaries if they succeeded in seizing Quebec ; they bore a particular grudge against the priests of the seminary, to whom they ascribed the ravages committed shortly before in New England by the Abenaquis. They were punished for their boasting; forty seminarists assembled at St. Joachim, the country house of the seminary, joined the volunteers who fought at Beauport, and contributed so much to the victory that Frontenac, to recompense their bravery, presented them with a cannon captured by themselves.

The Church of Rome had been able to continue in peace its mission in Canada from the departure of Mgr. de Laval, in 1684, to the conquest of the country by the English. The worthy Bishop of Petrasa, created Bishop of Quebec in 1674, was succeeded by Mgr. de St. Vallier, then by Mgr. de Mornay, who did not come to Canada, by Mgr. de Dosquet, Mgr. Pourroy de l'Aube-Rivi&re, and Mgr. de Pontbriant, who died the very year in which General de Ldvis made of his flags on St. Helen's Island a sacred pyre.

In 1760 the Protestant religion was about to penetrate into Canada in the train of the victorious armies of Great Britain, having been proscribed in the colony from the time of Champlain. With conquerors of a different religion, the role of the Catholic clergy became much more arduous and delicate; this will be readily admitted when we recall that Mgr. Briand was informally apprised at the time of his appointment that the government of England would appear to be ignorant of his consecration and induction by the Bishop of Rome. But the clergy managed to keep itself on a level with its task. A systematic opposition on its part to the new masters of the country could only have drawn upon the whole population a bitter oppression, and we would not behold to-day the prosperity of these nine ecclesiastical provinces of Canada, with their twenty-four dioceses, these numerous parishes which vie with each other in the advancement of souls, these innumerable religious houses which everywhere are spreading education or charity. The Act of Quebec in 1774 delivered our fathers from the unjust fetters fastened on their freedom by the oath required under the Supremacy Act; but it is to the prudence of Mgr. Plessis in particular that Catholics owe the religious liberty which they now enjoy.

To-day, when passions are calmed, when we possess a full and complete liberty of conscience, to-day when the different religious denominations live side by side in mutual respect and tolerance of each other's convictions, let us give thanks to the spiritual guides who by their wisdom and moderation, but also by their energetic resistance when it was necessary, knew how to preserve for us our language and our religion. Let us always respect the worthy prelates who, like those who 'direct us to-day, edify us by their tact, their knowledge and their virtues.

Return to our Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus