Francois de Montmorency Laval
First bishop of Canada, b. April 30, 1623, d. at Quebec on May 6, 1708
Laval FRANCOIS DE MONTMORENCY, first bishop of Canada, b. at Montigny-sur-Avre, April 30, 1623, of Hugues de Laval and Michelle de Pericard; d. at Quebec on May 6, 1708. He was a scion of an illustrious family, whose ancestor was baptized with Clovis at Reims, and whose motto reads: “Dieu ayde au premier baron chrestien.” He studied under the Jesuits at La Fleche, and learned philosophy and theology at their college of Clermont (Paris), where he joined a group of fervent youths directed by Father Bagot. This congregation was the germ of the Seminary of Foreign Missions, famous in the history of the Church, and of which the future seminary of Quebec was to be a sister institution. His two older brothers having died in battle, Francois inherited the family title and estate. But he resisted all worldly attractions and a mother’s entreaties, and held fast to his vocation. After ordination (1647), he filled the office of archdeacon at Evreux. The renowned Jesuit missionary, Alexander de Rhodes, having obtained from Innocent X the appointment of three vicars Apostolic for the East, Laval was chosen for the Tonquin mission. The Portuguese Court opposed the plan, and from 1655 to 1658 the future bishop lived at the “Hermitage” of Caen, in the practice of piety and good works, emulating the example of the prominent figures of that period of religious revival, Olier, Vincent of Paul, Bourdoise, Eudes, and others, several of whom were his intimate friends. This solitude was a fitting preamble to his apostolic career. Appointed Vicar Apostolic of New France, with the title of Bishop of Petrwa, Laval was consecrated on December 8, 1658, by the papal nuncio Piecolomini in the abbatial church of St-Germain-des-Pres, Paris. He landed on June 16, 1659, at Quebec, which then counted hardly 500 inhabitants, the whole French population of Canada not exceeding 2200 souls.
Laval’s first relation to the pope (1660) breathes admiration for the natural grandeur of the country, courage and hope for the future, and praise for the zeal of the Jesuits. From the outset he had to assert his authority, which was contested by the Archbishop of Rouen, from whose province came most of the colonists, and whose pretensions were favored by the court. Laval claimed jurisdiction directly from Rome. This conflict, which caused trouble and uncertainty, was ended when the See of Quebec was definitively erected by Clement X into a regular diocese depending solely on Rome (1674). But the hardest struggle, the trial of a lifetime, was against the liquor traffic with the Indians. The problem, on whose solution depended the civilization and salvation of the aborigines and the welfare of New France, was rendered more arduous by the intense passion of the savage for firewater and the lawless greed of the white trader. Laval, after exhausting persuasive measures and consulting the Sorbonne theologians, forbade the traffic under pain of excommunication. The civil authorities pleaded in the interest of commerce, the eternal obstacle to temperance. First d’Avaugour relaxed the severity of prohibition, but, through Laval’s influence at court, was recalled. De Messy, who owed his appointment to the bishop, first favored, but then violently opposed his authority, finally dying repentant in his arms. His successors, envious of clerical authority and over-partial to commercial interests, obtained from the king a mitigated legislation. Thus, the Intendant Talon and Frontenac, notwithstanding their statesmanship and bravery, were imbued with Gallicanism and too zealous for their personal benefit. The viceroy de Tracy, however, seconded the bishop’s action.
At this period the Diocese of Quebec comprised all North America, exclusive of New England, the Atlantic seaboard, and the Spanish colonies to the West, a territory now divided into about a hundred dioceses. Laval’s zeal embraced all whom he could reach by his representatives or by his personal visitations. In season and out of season, he made long and perilous journeys by land and water to minister to his flock. His fatherly kindness sustained the far-off missionary “His heart is always with us”, writes the Jesuit Da ion. He was a protector and guide to the religious houses of Quebec and Montreal. He was deeply attached to the Jesuits, his former teachers, and recalled to Canada in 1670 the Franciscan Recollets, who had first brought thither the Gospel. By the solemn baptism of Garakontie, the Iroquois chief, an efficacious promoter of the true Faith was secured among his barbarous fellow-countrymen, who received the black-robed Jesuit and gave many neophytes. Laval’s foresight made him foster the most cherished devotions of the Church: belief in the Immaculate Conception, the titular of his cathedral, and the cult of the Holy Family, which flourished on Canadian soil (Encyclical of Leo XIII). He was a devout client of St. Anne, whose shrine at Beaupres was rebuilt in 1673. As a patron of education Laval occupies a foremost rank. At that early period, with a handful of colonists and scanty resources, he organized a complete system of instruction: primary, technical, and classical. His seminary (1663) and little seminary (1668) trained candidates for the priesthood.
An industrial school, founded at St-Joachim (1678), provided the colony with skilled farmers and craftsmen. To these institutions, and particularly to the seminary, destined to become the university which bears his name, he gave all his possessions, including the seigniory of Beaupre and Isle Jesus. In view of the future he built the seminary on a relatively large scale, which excited the envy and criticism of Frontenac. No regular parishes having been yet established, the clergy were attached to the seminary, and thence radiated everywhere for parochial or mission work, even as far as the Illinois. The tithes, after much discussion and opposition, had finally been limited to the twenty-sixth bushel of grain harvested an enactment still legally in force in the Province of Quebec. These tithes were paid to the seminary, which, in return, provided laborers for Christ’s vineyard.
Laval’s patriotism was remarkable. The creation of the Sovereign Council in lieu of the Company of New France was greatly due to his influence, and conduced to the proper administration of justice, to the progress of colonization, and the defense of the country against the ever-increasing ferocity and audacity of the Iroquois. He later concurred in obtaining the regiment of Carignan for the last-named object (1665). Exhausted by thirty years of a laborious apostolate, and convinced that a younger bishop would work more efficaciously for God’s glory and the good of souls, he resigned in 1688. His successor, Abbe de St-Valuer, a virtuous and generous prelate, did not share all his views regarding the administration. Laval might have enjoyed a well-earned retreat in France, whither he had sailed for the fourth time. He preferred returning to the scene of his labors, where many opportunities occurred of displaying his zeal during the many years of St-Vallier’s absence, five of which were spent in captivity in England. During that period, the seminary was twice burned (1701 and 1705) to Laval’s intense sorrow, and rebuilt through his energy and generosity. The end was near. The last three years he spent in greater retirement and humility, and died in. the odor of sanctity.
His reputation for holiness, though somewhat dimmed after the Conquest, revived during the nineteenth century, and, the cause of his canonization having been introduced (1890), he now enjoys the title of Venerable. Laval has been accused of attachment to his own authority and disregard for the rights of civil authority, a reproach that savors somewhat of the Gallivan spirit of the rulers of the time, and of the historians who endorsed their prejudices. The truth is that he had to protect his flock from the greed and selfishness of worldly potentates for whom material interests were often paramount; to defend the immunities of the Church against a domineering Frontenac, who pretended to arraign clerics before his tribunal, and oblige missionaries to secure a passport for each change of residence, and refused the bishop the rank due to his dignity and sanctioned by the king, in the council of which the prelate was the chief founder, the soul and life. In an age when churchmen like Mazarin and Richelieu virtually ruled the State, Laval’s authority, always exercised for the country’s weal, was probably not exorbitant. He was loyal to the Crown when superior rights were not contradicted, and received nought but praise from the Grand Monarque. The charge of ambition and arbitrariness is equally groundless. In the Sovereign Council, Laval showed prudence, wisdom, justice, moderation. His influence was always beneficent. Although firm and inflexible in the accomplishment of duty, he was ready to consult and follow competent advice. He was of the race of Hildebrand, and to him likewise might have been applied the text: “Dilexisti justitiam et odisti iniquitatem.” His sole ambition was to be a bishop according to God’s heart. His spirit and practice of mortification and penance, his deep humility, his lively faith, his boundless charity towards the poor, rank him among the most holy personages.