Chronicles of America 

The Church in New France

New France was the child of missionary fervor. Even from the outset, in the scattered settlements along the St. Lawrence, the interests of religion were placed on a strictly missionary basis. There were so-called parishes in the colony almost from its beginning, but not until 1722 was the entire colony set off into recognized ecclesiastical parishes, each with a fixed "cure" in charge. Through all the preceding years each village or "cote" had been served by a missionary, by a movable "cure", or by a priest sent out from the Seminary at Quebec. No priest was tied to any parish but was absolutely at the immediate beck and call of the bishop. Some reason for this unsettled arrangement might be found in the conditions under which the colony developed in its early years; with its sparse population ranging far and wide, with its lack of churches and of "presbyteres" in which the priest might reside. But the real explanation of its long continuance lies in the fact that, if regular "cures" were appointed, the seigneurs would lay claim to various rights of nomination or patronage, whereas the bishop could control absolutely the selection of missionary priests and could thus more easily carry through his policy of ecclesiastical centralization.

Not only in this particular, but in every other phase of religious life and organization during these crusading days in Canada, one must reckon not only with the logic of the situation, but also with the dominating personality of the first and greatest Ultramontane, Bishop Laval. Though not himself a Jesuit, for no member of the Order could be a bishop, Laval was in tune with their ideals and saw eye to eye with the Jesuits on every point of religious and civil policy.

Francois Xavier de Laval, Abbe de Montigny, was born in 1622, a scion of the great house of Montmorency. He was therefore of high nobility, the best-born of all the many thousands who came to New France throughout its history. As a youth his had come into close association with the Jesuits, and had spent four years in the famous Hermitage at Caen, that Jesuit stronghold which served so long as the nursery for the spiritual pioneers of early Canada. When he came to Quebec as Vicar-Apostolic in 1659, he was only thirty-seven years of age. His position in the colony at the time of his arrival was somewhat unusual, for although he was to be in command of the colony's spiritual forces. New France was not yet organized as a diocese and could not be so organized until the Pope and the King should agree upon the exact status of the Church in the French colonial dominions. Laval was nevertheless given his titular rank from the ancient see of Petraea in Arabia which had long since been "in partibus infidelium" and hence had no bishop within its bounds. From his first arrival in Canada his was Bishop Laval, but without a diocese over which he could actually hold sway. His commission as Vicar-Apostolic gave him power enough, however, and his responsibility was to the Pope alone.

For the tasks which, he was sent to perform, Laval had eminent qualifications. A haughty spirit went with the ultra-blue blood in his veins; he had a temperament that loved to lead and to govern, and that could not endure to yield or to lag behind. His intellectual talents were high beyond question, and to them he added the blessing of a rugged physical frame. No one ever came to a new land with more definite ideas of what he wanted to do or with a more unswerving determination to do it in his own way.

It was not long before the stamp of Laval's firm hand was laid upon the life of the colony. In due course, too, he found himself at odds with the governor. The dissensions smouldered at first, and then broke out into a blaze that warmed the passions of all elements in the colony. The exact origin of the feud is somewhat obscure, and it is not necessary to put down here the details of its development to the war "a outrance" which soon engaged the civil and ecclesiastical authorities in the colony. In the background was the question of the "coureurs-de-bois" and the liquor traffic which now became a definite issue and which remained the storm centre of colonial politics for many generations. The merchants insisted that if this traffic were extinguished it would involve the ruin of the French hold upon the Indian trade. The bishop and the priests, on the other hand, were ready to fight the liquor traffic to the end and to exorcise it as the greatest blight upon the New World. Quebec soon became a cockpit where the battle of these two factions raged. Each had its ups and downs, until in the end the traffic remained, but under a makeshift system of regulation.

To portray Laval and his associates as always in bitter conflict with the civil power, nevertheless, would be to paint a false picture. Church and state were not normally at variance in their views and aims. They clashed fiercely on many occasions, it is true, but after their duels they shook hands and went to work with a will at the task of making the colony stand upon its own feet. Historians have magnified these bickerings out of all proportion. Squabbles over matters of precedence at ceremonies, over the rate of the tithes, and over the curbing of the "coureurs-de-bois" did not take the major share of the Church's attention. For the greater part of two whole centuries it loyally aided the civil power in all things wherein the two could work together for good.

And these ways of assistance were many. For example the Church, through its various institutions and orders, rendered a great service to colonial agriculture. As the greatest landowner in New France, it set before the seigneurs and the habitants an example of what intelligent methods of farming and hard labor could accomplish in making the land yield its increase. The King was lavish in his grants of territory to the Church: the Jesuits received nearly a million "arpents" as their share of the royal bounty; the bishop and the Quebec Seminary, the Sulpicians, and the Ursulines, about as much more. Of the entire granted acreage of New France the Church controlled about one-quarter, so that its position as a great landowner was even stronger in the colony than at home. Nor did it fold its talents in a napkin. Colonists were brought from France, farms were prepared for them in the church seigneuries, and the new settlers were guided and encouraged through, the troublous years of pioneering. With both money and brains at its command, the Church was able to keep its own lands in the front line of agricultural progress.

When in 1722 the whole colony was marked off into definite ecclesiastical divisions, seventy-two parishes were established, and nearly one hundred "cures" were assigned to them. As time went on, both parishes and "cures" increased in number, so that every locality had its spiritual leader who was also a philosopher and guide in all secular matters. The priest thus became a part of the community and never lost touch with his people. The habitant of New France for his part never neglected his Church on week-days. The priest and the Church were with him at work and at play, the spirit and the life of every community. Though paid a meager stipend, the "cure" worked hard and always proved a laborer far more than worthy of his hire. The clergy of New France never became a caste, a privileged order; they did not live on the fruits of other men's labor, but gave to the colony far more than the colony ever gave to them.

As for the Church revenues, these came from several sources. The royal treasury contributed large sums, but, as it was not full to overflowing, the King preferred to give his benefactions in generous grants of land. Yet the royal subsidies amounted to many thousand livres each year. The diocese of Quebec was endowed with the revenues of three French abbeys. Wealthy laymen in France followed the royal example and sent contributions from time to time, frequently of large amount. While the Company of One Hundred Associates controlled the trade of the colony, it made from its treasury some provisions for the support of the missionaries. After 1663, a substantial source of ecclesiastical income was the tithe, an ecclesiastical tax levied annually upon all produce of the land, and fixed in 1663 at one-thirteenth. Four years later it was reduced to one-twenty-sixth, and Bishop Laval's strenuous efforts to have the old rate restored were never successful.

In education, yet another field of colonial life, the Church rendered some service. Here the civil authorities did nothing at all, and had it not been for the Church the whole colony would have grown up in absolute illiteracy. A school for boys was established at Quebec in Champlain's day, and during the next hundred and fifty years it was followed by about thirty others. More than a dozen elementary schools for girls were also established under ecclesiastical auspices. Yet the amount of secular education imparted by all these seminaries was astoundingly small, and they did but little to leaven the general illiteracy of the population. Only the children of the towns attended the schools, and the program of study was of the most elementary character. Religious instruction was given the first place and received so much attention that there was little time in school hours for anything else. The girls fared better than the boys on the whole, for the nuns taught them to sew and to knit as well as to read and to write.

So far as secular education was concerned, therefore, the English conquest found the colony in almost utter stagnation. Not one in five hundred among the habitants, it was said, could read or write. Outside the immediate circle of clergy, officials, and notaries, ignorance of even the rudiments of education was almost universal. There were no newspapers in the colony and very few books save those used in the services of worship. Greysolon Du Lhut, the king of the voyageurs, for example, was a man of means and education, but his entire library, as disclosed by his will, consisted of a world atlas and a set of Josephus. The priests did not encourage the reading of secular books, and La Hontan recounts the troubles which he had in keeping one militant "cure" from tearing his precious volumes to pieces. New France was at that period not a land where freedom dwelt with knowledge.

Intellectually, the people of New France comprised on the one hand a small elite and on the other a great unlettered mass. There was no middle class between. Yet the population of the colony always contained, especially among its officials and clergy, a sprinkling of educated and scholarly men. These have given us a literature of travel and description which is extensive and of high, quality. No other American colony of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries put so much, of its annals into print; the "Relations" of the Jesuits alone were sufficient to fill forty-one volumes, and they form but a small part of the entire literary output.

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