Friday, 6 May 2011

The rise in Catholic clerical power in Lower Canada: before the rebellions

A product of the unique geography and history of the land and its peoples, Canadian religion today exhibits its own characteristic features at the same time as it shows many of the typical patterns associated with the religious activities of contemporary post-industrial societies. While sharing much in common with the religious life of its nearest neighbour, Canada boasts significant national and regional deviation from the American norm. More generally, the drama of Canadian religiosity is enacted against a familiar backdrop of disenchantment and secularisation.[1]

Before 1760s, the vast diocese of Quebec at its greatest extent reached the Gulf of Mexico, Hudson’s Bay and the Rockies. From the city of Quebec went out, if not the missionaries themselves, at least the commission to the priests to organise and administer the territories that would eventually become subdivided into the parishes, then the dioceses, and again eventually be reunited into the ecclesiastical province. Before any division into dioceses occurred, or could even be considered, however, there was a long period of adjustment by the French Catholic colony under the new British administration.

The conquest of Canada in 1760 threatened a complete reversal of the religious history of New France.[2] The Anglican Bishop indicated that one Bishop for the colony was enough, and that that should be the Anglican bishop. The Catholic Church, at that moment inconveniently without a Bishop as Bishop Pontbriand had died in 1760, could not agree on his successor. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 promised Canada ‘the enjoyment of the benefit of the laws of Our realm of England’; and the royal instructions to General Murray, the first civil governor of the province, required him to admit of no ‘Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction of the See of Rome.’ He was also required to give all possible encouragement to the erection of Protestant schools and churches, ‘to the end that the Church of England may be established both in principles and practice and that the said inhabitants may by degrees be induced to embrace the Protestant religion.’ Canada was to become a newer New England and Anglicanism could be imposed on the 60,000 French Canadians under current English law. However, under the influence of Murray and of his successor Sir Guy Carleton, this policy was never implemented. The administrators sensed parallels with Ireland and after long negotiations arrived at a pragmatic solution.

In 1766, permission was given for the consecration of Briand as bishop of Quebec in France with the title of ‘Superintendent of the Romish Church’, but to the Catholics he was the Bishop. He was empowered sacramentally to carry out the fullness of the priesthood and this was what mattered to the Catholic people of Canada. In 1774 the Quebec Act gave the Roman Catholic Church in Canada the right of collecting tithes by process of law making it, if not an established church, at any rate an endowed one.[3] At the same time, little was done to introduce Protestant clergymen into the colony. Two or three French-speaking Anglican clergymen were settled in Quebec, Trois Riviéres and Montreal but it was not until 1793 that an Anglican bishop of Quebec was appointed or any serious attempt was made to provide for the religious needs of the growing number of Protestants in the colony.

The Roman Catholic Church remained faithful to the British crown. In 1775, the rebellious American colonies launched an attack on Quebec but most French Canadians, guided by Bishop Briand, supported the British. The war of 1812 was another occasion for French Canadians to show their loyalty to the British crown. Joseph-Octave Plessis galvanised his priests and the entire apparatus of the Church to support the British cause. Plessis cleverly used his new found influence with the British by expanding the administration of the Catholic Church throughout Canada and in 1818 was made a member of the Legislative Council with the title of ‘Bishop of the Roman Catholic Church of Quebec’.[4]

The major problem facing the Roman Catholic Church in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century was the lack of parish priests.[5] After the Treaty of Paris in 1763, most of the members of the male religious orders had gone from the colony. The few left were aging. During the period of transition there were few young men being attracted to the priesthood. In 1790, there were 146 priests in Canada, for about 145,000 Catholics. There had been a ban on the entry of priests from France after 1760. After 1793 that ban was lifted. The French Revolution had sent about 8,000 priests to Great Britain as refugees. At the invitation of the Bishop of Quebec and with the permission of the British government, fifty-one of those French priests came to Canada and forty of them stayed, mainly as professors in the classical colleges and in the major and minor seminaries, and in a few parishes. Even with that addition, there were in 1808 only 166 priests for 200,000 people. While it appears that the number of priests was diminishing, the number of people was growing, as immigration added its masses to the naturally increasing populace.

Serge Gagnon and Louise Lebel-Gagnon show that in general the physical presence of the Roman Catholic Church was in decline before the rebellions of 1837-1838. From 750 Catholics per priest in 1780, there were 1,834 Lower Canadian Catholics per priest by 1830.[6] In Montreal during the 1830s, one third of adult burials were conducted without a religious ceremony. Young and Dickinson have shown that only 36% of the parishioners at Montreal’s parish church during this decade took Easter communion, the most important religious service of the year. It was only after 1840 that the organisation of the Roman Catholic Church expanded rapidly.[7]

The Catholic Church gave Quebec a uniform religious character. It was extremely traditional and French Canada remained the stronghold of clericalism. The clergy tended to subordinate the State to the Church. The parish priest not only became the undisputed head of his parish, but he also played a vital part in every aspect of community life. No transactions took place in the parish without consulting the priest. He drew up wills, drafted deeds of gifts, and looked after documents placed in his care. The parish priest was also the key stone of the educational system where French was the language of instruction. Much emphasis was placed on preparing pupils for their first Communion. One later objective was to make rural life attractive to forestall emigration to the cities. The clergy came to see urban life as the erosion of faith. Secondary education prepared for study for the liberal professions in colleges where French language and literature were emphasised. As a result, the educational system strengthened the francophone concept of a distinct society within Canada. It shaped the morals, religious convictions and the cultural outlook of a large part of Quebec’s population. The essence of Quebec’s heritage is consequently the Catholic faith, large families, the parish, the French language, rural living and historical development distinct from the rest of Canada.

An effective presence since the 1763 Treaty of Paris ceded most of the Franco-American empire to Britain, the Anglican Church (officially known as the Church of England in Canada until 1955) has decidedly establishment origins. Officially recognised as a legally established church by the Constitutional Act of 1791, the Anglican Church was viewed as a vital conservative bulwark against revolution and republicanism in British North America. Despite legal, social and economic advantages, Anglicanism never evolved into the naturally acknowledged Church of Canada envisioned by British elites in the wake of American independence. The powerful Roman Catholic presence in Lower Canada and a rapidly expanding Methodist movement in the newly settled lands of Upper Canada made such monopolistic designs untenable. Although Anglicanism retained a certain social status and elite influence, it acknowledged the denominational character of Canadian religious life long before its legal disestablishment by the Clergy Reserves Act of 1854.

Legally instated under the Crown by the Quebec Act of 1774 and the Constitutional Act of 1791, the Roman Catholic Church enjoyed a moral monopoly in Francophone Quebec until very recently. In unofficial concordat with local forces of reaction and expressing hostility to capitalism, industry, cities, liberalism, republicanism and other aspects of the Protestant-modernist axis, this conservative ultramontane church exercised an almost theocratic control over most aspects of Quebec’s rural and urban life until the mid-twentieth century. French ultramontanist Roman Catholicism adopted a fiercely defensive attitude towards the influences of Britishness and Protestantism after 1840 and gave Quebec a strong sense of mission and destiny. The Catholic hierarchy led the fight to safeguard Quebec’s national consciousness. Protestantism was seen, not only as a threat to the religious character of Quebec but also to its national identity. It has been said that to be French and Catholic is normal, to be English and Protestant is permissible, but to be French and a Protestant is heresy. In the words of one nineteenth century nationalist

Every nation must fulfil its own destiny, as set by Providence. It must understand its mission fully and strive constantly towards the goal...Divine Providence entrusted to French Canadians is basically religious in nature: it is, namely to convert the unfortunate infidel population to Catholicism, and to expand the Kingdom of God by developing a predominantly Catholic nationality.


[1] Handy, Robert T., A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada, (Oxford University Press), 1976, pp.116-135, 228-261, 344-376 provides a succinct discussion of Canada and its major religious developments.

[2] Lemieux, Lucien, Histoire du catholicisme québécois, Les XVIIIe et XIXe siècle, Vol. 1, Les années difficiles, (1760-1839), (Boreal), 1989 provides a discussion of Catholicism to the rebellions.

[3] Ibid, Lemieux, Lucien, L’Etablissement De La Premiere Province Ecclesiastique au Canada 1783-1844 consider the organisation issues relating to the bishopric of Montreal.

[4] ‘Joseph-Octave Plessis’, DCB, Vol. 6, pp. 586-599.

[5] On the life of priests and parochial organisation, ibid, Lemieux, Lucien, Histoire du catholicisme québécois, Les XVIIIe et XIXe siècle, Vol. 1, Les années difficiles, (1760-1839), pp. 101-184.

[6] Gagnon, Serge and Lebel-Gagnon, Louis, ‘Le milieu d’origine du clergé québécois 1775-1840: mythes et réalités’, Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française, Vol. 37, (1983), p. 377

[7] Dickinson, John A. and Young, Brian, A Short History of Quebec, 2nd ed., (Copp Clark Pitman), 1993, p. 176; the growing conflict between the Church and the Parti Canadien has been traced by Richard Chabot in his Le curé de campagne et la contestation locale au Québec de 1791 aux troubles de 1837-38, (Hurtubise HMH), 1975.

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