Quebec’s Catholic heritage is inescapable. As Mark Twain noted when he visited Montreal, “This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window”. Like the censer’s heady fragrances, the contradictions of this heritage fill the air, and if sometimes the odour is repugnant, it is always intoxicating. For a time, Quebec was the only place in the British Empire where Catholics, as well as some women, had the vote. Look up from the parties on St Laurent or Ste Catherine, look up from your dinner on St Denis or St Zotique, and beyond the street name there is a gigantic illuminated cross. Look up on the death of a pope and it will be purple. Today, communion hosts are sold in supermarkets, taking transubstantiation and the body of Christ into the realm of the snack. This is a heritage that will endure far beyond the day when the entrails of the last priest tighten round the neck of the last king. But then, why bother with that? Quebec freed itself of religious tyranny in 1963, becoming one of the most socially progressive places on the planet. Yet for all that, it takes a special kind of lunacy to doubt for a second that if this heritage dies, the cries of “Tabarnac” will be deafening.
As befits his times, the life of the man most responsible for this heritage, François de Laval, has the elements of a Dumas novel. His piety, vows of poverty and timing, mean the three musketeers and Cardinal Richelieu are absent, but here are intrigues at Versailles and the Vatican, as well as disputes between the two. Playing her part in the negotiation of Laval’s authority is Ann of Austria, regent of France and mother of Louis XIV. The result was not a bishopric, which would come later, but the office of vicar apostolic. Deriving authority from Rome, Laval was beyond the clutches of the Archbishop of Rouen, while in his Jesuit education was the assurance that Laval would be no creature of the Vatican, but amidst the practicalities of the life of a colony of two thousand souls in a tiny colony across the Atlantic these intrigues and disputes took their own peculiar form.
With absolute freedom from Rouen and virtual freedom from the Vatican, Laval’s first concern when he arrived in New France in 1659 was to establish his own authority in a colony used to administering its own religious affairs. He began by establishing an ecclesiastical court and made plans for the seminary, which would be the centre of his church. Established in March 1663, the Seminaire de Quebec founded a school for settlers and Huron boys 1668, before going on to found the Université Laval in 1858 and the Université de Montréal in 1820 In the 1660s though Laval’s freedom came at the price of legitimacy, and without any authority from France, the decisions of the vicar apostolic, a recent innovation, were often question by the civil authorities, on no matter more so than the giving of alcohol to the Americans, as the French called collectively the Algonquin, Huron, Iroquois and Mi’maq nations.
Although banned from the time of Champlain, the practice of giving of brandy to the “Americans” before buying their furs was widespread. The Jesuits in particular were concerned by this cheating, as well as the debauchery that came with drunkenness. In 1660, at the moment that unity between the civil and church authorities was beginning to fracture, Laval made the trade in alcohol sin punishable by excommunication .
Favoured in 1663 with a seat on the new Conseil Souverain and the support of Louis XIV, by 1665 the civil authorities in Canada considered Laval to be meddling in what was a purely commercial matter. By the 1670s, Governor Frontenac was suggesting that the Jesuits were against the sale of alcohol so they might dominate the fur trade while in the mind of the king Laval was
entirely under the domination of the Jesuits [who] have even designated governors for the King in that country, where they have employed all means possible to obtain the recall of those who had been chosen for that post without their participation . . .
New France was beginning to look like a theocracy and Louis’ first minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert had Laval removed from the Conseil Souverain. To counterbalance the severity of the Jesuits, who were “tormenting people’s consciences”, the Intendant, Jean Talon, arranged for the return of the Recollets. Absent since 1632, when England briefly took New France, their more pliable ministry was entirely indebted to Talon and Frontenac, the new Governor, for its place in the colony.
Seeing his church undermined, Laval appealed to Rome to create a see at Quebec and in 1672 he headed to France to regularize his position in the French clergy. Versailles had intended such a position since 1664 but insisted that the new bishopric subordinated to Rouen, something the Vatican would not stand for. For Laval though the matter was now urgent, and after two more years of delays, he was willing to agree to subordination to Rouen. At the same moment though Versailles gave up its battle with the Vatican and agreed to a separate see. Thus in 1674 Laval was created first bishop of Quebec, retaining the independence from Rouen and with the legitimacy of a French bishopric.
And yet it went on. The question of spirits remained unresolved and the former Archbishop of Rouen, whose control Ann of Austria and the Jesuits had avoided twenty years earlier, looked again to claim the revenues of the new colony, this time for his new see at Paris. He only gave up in 1679, the same year he delivered the final decision on the traffic in spirits.
While in Paris Laval had sought the opinion of the theologians of the Sorbonne. They had affirmed their decision of 1662 that:
in view of the disorders which arise from such beverages to the Americans, the ordinary or prelate may under pain of excommunication ipso facto forbid the Europeans to sell such beverages and may treat those who are disobedient and refractory as being under excommunication.
Through the Recollets, the civil authorities sought the opinion of the University of Toulouse, who pronounced that:
The Bishop of Quebec cannot legally make a mortal sin, and even less likely a reserved sin, of the sale of spirits.
Faced with the impasse, the matter was referred to the king who entrusted it to his confessor, Father La Chaise, and the Archbishop of Paris. Reports were made on both sides, but their decision was a predictable confirmation of the status quo: alcohol could only be given in the French settlements.
For Laval, who had battled for twenty years for a complete ban on the trafficking, the decision came as a blow, but for the “Americans,” apparently the only people not to be consulted, it was a disaster: among other things – smallpox, guns, and chicanery – alcohol has done more than cheat them of their furs. Unlike the Catholic heritage Laval did so much to create, it is theirs that stands on the precipice of extinction.
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