Today, the Church of Canada remembers its first bishop, François de Montmorency Laval, with an optional memorial permitted in the liturgy.
Biographers of the first bishop of Québec will never be able to completely cover all the aspects of his rich personaiity. Bishop de Laval was all at the same time a clever administrator, a missionary with a burning heart, a proud and humble man, a heroic and discreet mystic. He spent fifty years in Québec, overcoming countless difficuities, while conserving an impressive serenity. His life is a real epic, like that of numerous founders of the Canadian Church. He was a friend of all, noble and humble, Indian and French, of the governors, of the founders of Montréal and Three Rivers.
DESCENDANT OF FRENCH NOBILITY His parents were both from high nobiiity. His father was a descendant of the baron of Montmorency, a contemporary of Hugues Capet, king of France, founder of the Capetian dynasty. François has six brothers and sisters; at age 24, he was ordained a priest on May lst, 1647 and ordained a bishop on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1658, just over 350 years ago. He was preparing to leave for a mission to Tonkin when he learned that the Jesuits of Québec were summoning him. King Louis XIV transmitted their request to the Holy Father, writing: "We wish the Sieur de Lavai, bishop of Pétrée, to be recognized by all our subjects in New France, to perform there the episcopal duties."
Quarrels broke out among the clergy over this appointment; but the queen mnother, Anne of Austria, ratified everything by writing to the Queébec Governor: "It is my firm intention and that of my son that Bishop de Laval, and no other, should exercise the episcopal jurisdiction."
Bishop de Laval settled his family affairs, renounced his seigniory and his birthright in favor of his younger brother, Jean-Louis. His father had died already and his mother would die during the year of his departure.
STORMY QUEBEC The ship, sailing frorn La Rochelle on Easter Day 1659, arrived in Québec on June 16, 1659. The whole colony gathered on the wharf, together with numerous aborigenals; the city resounded with shouts, the sound of bells, and the noise of the cannons from the fort. That day, Bishop de Laval baptized a young Huron and walked over to the cabin of a dying man to give him the last sacraments. Later, he would baptize the Iroquois chief, Garagonthie.
Having barely ianded in Québec, the bishop observed the disastrous effects of aicohol which the Indians consumed to extremes. These aicoholic beverages were imported from France and exchanged for furs. Bishop de Laval tried to stop this: but the traders became furlous and set the peopie against the bishop. Unable to restrict or stop this trade which was the cause of fights, even murders, of division among families, Bishop de Laval struck a hard blow: he excominunicated Catholics who continued this commerce. He would have to face the anger of the notables and even certain governors. Marie de l'Incarnation wrote her son, Dom Claude Martin, a Benedictin, "Our bishop is very zealous for what he believes will increase the giory of God. He thought he wouid die of pain on this matter, and he can be seen withering away."
This struggle against the sale of spirits would last twenty years! But finally, in 1679, Bishop de Laval obtained from King Louis XIV the prohibition of sales of alcoholic beverages to Indians. A long and exhausting battle ended... for a time. In Québec City, winters are very cold. Large stoves stand in the middle of churches and several of the latter would be destroyed by fire! Twice the new basilica of Québec would burn... but the courageous bishop built a new one, aided by volunteer settlers.
FATHER OF THE CANADIAN CHURCH Bishop de Laval worked above all on organizing religious life and building schools. His immense diocese extended from Québec Gity to Acadia and to Louisiana, then a French colony. He undertook several exhausting visits, for he believed in building the Canadian Church on the basis of the strength and unity of parish, school and family life. His Québec Seminary was the first to train and educate local writers, thinkers, political and religious leaders who would fight for the rights of their fatherland after the English conquest.
MYSTIC WITH A MISSIONARY HEART Brother Houssart, after the death of Bishop de Laval on March 6, 1708, revealed his deep spiritual and mystical values of the one he served by pubiishing a memoir. During the last years of his life, the bishop of Québec had become severely handicapped physicaiiy, on account of his missionary journeys: "He was seen going on long pilgrinages on foot, without money, begging for his bread and hiding his name. He wanted to imitate the first apostles of the eariy Church, and he thanked God that he had something to suffer for his love."
This valiant bishop, in winter as well as in summer, relentiessly travelled through his immense vicariate. On the St. Lawrence river, riding a frail canoe, he paddied himself; in winter, his "chapel" on his back, he ventured on snowshoe as far as Montreal, often caught in winds and snow. He visited the sick of the Hotel-Dieu of Québec and looked after them, encouraged them and assisted them in their last hours. This descendant of the first Baron of France walked alone to the Basilica every morning at 4:00 A.M. Like a sacristan, he opened the doors, rang the bell and prepared the altar to celebrate the mass as early as 4:30 A.M. It was said that he celebrated this mass like an angel! And in his spare room at the Seminary, he slept on boards, putting under his bed the straw mattress that Brother Houssart had lent him.
SAINTLY GREATNESS At his death, Bishop de Laval had nothing left. He had given everything to the poor. Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1980, based on the sizeable file of miracles and favors obtained through his intercession. The bishop of New France was a great saint to whom we can still pray in these our days when his church still faces danger and challenges to the faith.
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Mass of the NEOPHYTES (April 18, 2010)
A couple of Sundays ago, at the Cathedral's 7:30PM Eucharist, I welcomed the newly-baptized to the Annual Easter-season Mass of NEOPHYTES (newly-born of water and the Holy Spirit). Several of them wore their white garments or other festive attire.
Afterwards, as is the practice, I invited them into the sanctuary to explain to them the artistic treasures they have inherited a share in as members of Christ's disciples who should feel at home at any Catholic Church in the world, whether as simple as a country chapel or as ornate as the Ottawa Basilica. Then, we processed into the sacristy, where our sacristans had put out for display vestments, reliquaries, chalices, bishop's accoutrements, etc--the works. It was a delighful evening of inquiry, teaching and celebration. The following photos are of the visit to the sanctuary and the sacristy.
The sanctuary is crowned with the high altar and the statue of Christ the King sharing his rule with his Blessed Mother (Notre Dame)
The view of the sanctuary from the bishop's cathedra--teaching chair--allows the exploration of marvellous statuary
Explaining the ecclesiastical and liturgical paraphernalia in the sacristy
There are large drawers to store chasuble sets
Miters plain and precious
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Sister Paule Cantin, SCH Please remember in your prayers a dear friend with whom I enjoyed many a fine discussion about religious life and the church when I was first posted to Halifax in 1975-81, during part of which time she served as the Superior General of the Sisters of Charity of Halifax.
This is an excerpt from the necrology published yesterday in Québec City'sLe Soleil:
Sister Paule Cantin (1938 - 2010)
À l'hôpital Saint-Sacrement, le 3 mai 2010, à l'âge de 71 ans, est décédée Sister Paule Cantin, fille de feu Charles E. Cantin et de feu Marguerite Madden. Elle est partie rejoindre sa sœur Denise et son frère André. Elle demeurait à Québec. Elle a été enseignante, Provinciale et Supérieure Générale de la Communauté des sœurs de la Charité d'Halifax.
Le service religieux sera célébré le vendredi 7 mai 2010 à 14h, en l'église St-Patrick, 1145, rue de Salaberry, Québec. La famille recevra les condoléances à l'église à compter de 13h15. L'inhumation se fera au cimetière St-Patrick à une date ultérieure.