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Taken from Notre-Dame-du-Cap magazine, June-July 1997 issue.

By Lucie Belinge


Bishop François de Laval

First Bishop of Québec

The 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.

We have to realize that 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.


His parents are both from high nobiiity. His father is a descendant of the baron of Montmorency who was a contemporary of Hugues Capet, king of France, founder of the Capetian dynasty. François has six brothers and sisters; at age 24, he is ordained a priest on May lst, 1647, 350 years ago. He is ordained a bishop on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1658. He is preparing to leave for a mission to Tonkin when he learns that the Jesuits of Québec are calling for him. King Louis XIV transmits 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 break out in the local clergy over this appointment; but the queen mnother, Anne of Austria, ratifies 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." Thus she was obliging the governor of Québec to send to France whoever should want to counter his authority. Bishop de Laval settles his family affairs, renounces his seigniory and his birthright in favor of his younger brother, Jean-Louis. His father has died already and his mother will die during the year of his departure.


The ship, sailing frorn La Rochelle on Easter Day 1659, arrived in Québec on June 16, 1659. The whole colony is on the wharf, together with numerous aborigenes; the city resounds with shouts, the sound of bells, and the noise of the fort cannons. On the same day, Bishop de Laval baptizes a young Huron and walks over to the cabin of a dying man to give him the last sacraments. Later, he will baptize the Iroquois chief, Garagonthie. Having barely ianded in Québec, the bishop observes the disastrous effects of aicohol which the Indians consume abundantly. These aicoholic beverages are imported from France and exchanged for furs. Bishop de Laval wants to stop this: the traders are furlous and set the peopie against the bishop. Unable to restrict or stop this trade which 15 the cause of fights or even murders, of division among familles, Bishop de Laval strikes a hard blow: he excominunicates the Catholics wbo will continue this commerce. He will have to face the anger of the notables and even certain governors. Marie de l'Incarnation writes to her son, Dom Claude Martin, benedictine, "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 will last twenty years! At last, in 1679, Bishop de Laval obtains from King Louis XIV to prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages to Indians. A long and exhausting battle has ended... for a time. In Québec City, winters are very cold. Large stoves stand in the middle of churches and several of the latter will be destroyed by fire! Twice the new basilica of Québec will burn... but the courageous bishop builds a new one, aided by volunteer settlers.


Bishop de Laval works above ail on organizing religious life and building schools. His immense diocese extends from Québec Gity to Acadia and to Louisiana, then a French colony. He undertakes several exhausting visits, for he believes 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 our writers, thinkers, political and religlous leaders who will fight for the rights of the fatherland after the English conquest. After 1760, parishes stood firm, tightly gathered around their pastors, as the bishop of Québec had taught them. He was well deserving of his title of "Father of the Gountry'1.


Brother Houssart, after the death of Bishop de Laval on March 6, 1708, revealed the high spiritual and mystical value 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 through long plilgrinages 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." The valiant bishop, in winter as well as in summer, relentiessly travels through his immense vicariate. On the St. Lawrence river, riding a frail canoe, he paddies himself; in winter, his "chapel" on his back, he ventures on snowshoes as far as Montreal, often caught by winds and snow. He visits the sick of the Hotel-Dieu of Québec and looks after them, encourages them and assists them in their last hours. This descendant of the first Baron of France walks alone to the Basilica every morning at 4:00 A.M. Like a sacristan, he opens the doors, rings the bell and prepares 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 bis bare room at the Seminary, he sieeps on boards, putting under his bed the straw mattress that Brother Houssart lent him.


At bis death, Bishop de Laval had nothing left. He had given everything to the poor. Pope John Paul Il 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 days when "bis country" is still in danger.

This translation has been made possible by the gracious help of Father Georges Marceau from "Société des prêtres du Séminaire de Québec" (SME) , a community of diocesan priests founded by Blessed François de Laval in 1663.

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Last update of this page: November 30th 2009.

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