Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Abbé Henri-Raymond Casgrain



CASGRAIN, HENRI RAYMOND (1831-1904) cleric and historian, was born in the Manor House, Rivière Ouelle, Que., 16 December, 1831, to Col. the Hon. Charles Eusèbe Casgrain by his wife Elizabeth-Anne Baby. Mme. Casgrain was the daughter of the Hon. Jacques Baby, of Detroit, Sandwich and York (now Toronto ). On the recommendation of Col. Simcoe, Baby had been appointed by the King as one of the three men to set up the Government of Upper Canada in 1791. The Baby family is one of the oldest in Canada , and one of the most cultured. From them the Abbé Casgrain inherited not a little of his taste for history and literature.


He received his early education in the College of Ste. Anne de la Pocatière, Que., and went from there to the Quebec Seminary. For two years he studied medicine, but feeling called to a higher ministry, he prepared himself for holy orders, and was ordained priest in 1856. He returned to his old college at Ste. Anne's for three years as a professor. In 1860 he was appointed vicar of Beaufort, and eventually moved to Quebec where he became the vicar of the Basilica. During these years up to 1873 he had suffered increasingly from trouble with his eyes, and it was a great disappointment to him when he was compelled to sacrifice the work to which he had consecrated his life. He retired from the active ministry in 1874.


Casgrain had not waited for the fall of this blow before starting to develop his intellectual resources. The pioneers Garneau, Chauveau, Crémazie and Taché had opened a way to the realms of higher learning, and by 1860 an enthusiastic band of talented young men were devoting their energies to the cause of good literature unmindful of all other considerations. Among the younger members of the "school" were Larue, Fréchette, Lemay, Turcotte, Routhier, and as their leader, l'Abbé Casgrain, not the mature man of letters, but the youth in whom the fire burned, who was one day to be rewarded by the French Academy.


In his early work there is evidence of a love of words, of striking phrases, and of flowing cadences. The delightful imagery of youth was tinged with a thin veneer of pedantry, which he gradually threw off as he increased in experience, and learned to express his noble thought with simple elegance and quiet dignity. This development in the clarity and vigour of his style was not as is so often the case, accompanied by anything in the nature of cynicism. On the contrary, at the age of forty he insisted "that in a century flooded with realism it is a great virtue to conserve always the enthusiasm and poetry of childhood"; and when the deeper understanding of life came to him with the years, it came as to the wide-eyed boy who dreamed in the calm and smiling countryside of the St. Lawrence below Quebec.


His first published volume was Légendes canadiennes (Quebec, 1861), three imaginative tales related in colourful and romantic prose. There followed two sacred works, L'Histoire de la Mère Marie de l'Incarnation (Quebec, 1864), (new and revised Ed., Montreal, 1886), and Vie des Saints (Ottawa, 1867). For the former he received a medal from His Holiness the Pope in recognition of its literary merit. He was collaborating at this time with the editors of Soirées canadiennes, and undertook some biographical sketches published under the title Biographies Canadiennes in 1885. It was this that convinced him that his future lay in history and in historical research with particular reference to Canada .


The true historian lives in the past with the illustrious dead, and the Casgrain family was imbued with a deep sense of the romance of history. The Abbé's mother had written a Mémoire de famille (Rivière Ouelle, 1891), containing much valuable material concerning their ancestors, as well as a life of their father who had died young. His brother, Philippe Casgrain was noted for his archaeological researches in and around Quebec, while the family tradition by word of mouth over two generations only, spanned more than a century and a half.


Casgrain set himself then to unearth and preserve those things which reflected the glory of his race, and which illuminated the forgotten incidents of former days. In his quest he travelled far, making friends wherever he went. His first journeys were to Europe, and concerned more especially the origins and descendants of the family. On the second of these he was accompanied by his brother who was preparing the genealogies of both sides of the house. Later he made several trips to the old French settlements of Louisiana, New Orleans and Florida. He preferred to spend his winters in Paris or the South in order to escape the rigours of the northern climate. In France he had access not only to the great public libraries and the State Archives, but also to many smaller private collections of manuscripts, documents and records, which proved to be of invaluable assistance to him in his literary work. His discoveries so impressed the Quebec Government that it published all the documents which he had found in the possession of the descendants of Lévis. From this voluminous collection the Abbé, with fine discrimination selected the material for his Montcalm et Lévis (3 Vols. Quebec, 1891; Tours, 1898).


This was one of his last important works, but it was preceded by another historical book, Un Pélerinage au pays d'Evangéline (Quebec, 1898), which was crowned by the Académie Française in 1888. He received the degree of Doctor of Letters from Laval University in 1877.


Despite his poor eyesight, he continued valiantly preparing papers and essays on many subjects, and writing the excellent poetry when the muse was upon him. He wrote the introduction to the works of Crémazie, he assisted L'Abbé Laverdière with his Les Oeuvres de Champlain (6 vols. Quebec, 1870), and Le Journal des Jésuites (Quebec, 1871), he collaborated with Le Foyer Canadien and Le Canada Français, and he contributed many papers to the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada of which he was a charter member, and president in 1889. Casgrain's exact knowledge of the Jesuit missions and their history in Nova Scotia was revealed in the publication of Mémoires sur les Missions de la Nouvelle- Écosse (1895), in reply to Rev. Cornelius O'Brien's publication, Memoirs of Edmund Burke (1894). At last when he could no longer read, he set his "Mémoires" in order, and wrote his last touching "Adieu à ma Plume" which appeared in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada.


His closing years were passed peacefully and happily in Quebec in the Convent du Bon Pasteur. Beside his room was the little chapel where he spent many hours of prayer and meditation. In his library were his beloved books and manuscripts which he could no longer see, and on the ground floor was his dining room which was far too small for the largeness of his heart. There he entertained a host of distinguished friends who fared as well on his brilliant conversation and sparkling wit as they did on his excellent dinners.


Casgrain died 12 February, 1904, and was buried with his fathers [sic] in the parish of Rivière Ouelle. There is a portrait of him by Wickenden now in the possession of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Quebec.


Other publications of Casgrain are as follows: Les pionniers canadiens (Quebec, 1876); Opus cules (Quebec, 1876); Histoire de l'Hôtel-Dieu de Québec (Quebec, 1878); Une paroisse canadienne au xvii e siècle (Quebec, 1880) ; Une seconde Acadie (Quebec, 1894); Les sulpiciens et les prêtres des missions étrangères en Acadie (Quebec, 1897); Les origines du Canada (Quebec, 1898); Montcalm and Wolfe (Toronto, 1905); also two small volumes of verse, A ma soeur Rosalie (Privately printed, 1860), and Les miettes (Quebec, 1869).


[ Morgan , Can. Men, 1898; Wallace, Dict. Can. Biog. 1926; Rose, Cyc. Can. Biog. 1886; A. B. Routhier, Eloge historique de M. l'Abbé H. R. Casgrain, in Trans. Roy. Soc. Can. 1904; I,. M. Darveau, Nos hommes de lettres, Montreal, 1873; Abbé C. Roy, L'Abbé Casgrain, in La Nouvelle-France, 1904; private information.]


Source : G. A. G., in Charles G. D. ROBERTS and Arthur L. TUNNELL, A Standard Dictionary of Canadian Biography. The Canadian Who Was Who, Vol. 1, Toronto, Trans Canada Press, 1934, pp. 106-108. A few minor typographical errors have been corrected.






© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College