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Last revised:
20 September 2000

How Others Have Viewed French Canadians and Quebec

Quebec Now - Chapter 6 : The Cleric and the Layman
By Miriam Chapin

It follows that it is never permitted to ask, to defend, to grant the liberty to think, to write, to teach what a man wishes, whether right or wrong, and also the indiscriminate liberty of religion, as so many rights which nature has given to man. It follows equally, nevertheless, that these different kinds of liberty may for reasonable causes be tolerated, provided that proper moderation keeps them from degenerating into license and disorder.


PRIESTS and nuns are people like the rest of us. To be sure, they undergo a very special training, they live in a restricted atmosphere, but even so, in Quebec they come out of the mass of the people. Poverty is no hindrance to advancement in the Church. The younger men, the cures, are in daily contact with ordinary folk, they share their thoughts and concerns. In French Canada it is a rare family that has no religieux among its near relatives. Practically everyone has been educated by nuns and priests or teaching brothers.

French Canada gets much of its impression of the rest of the world from missionaries coming home, most of them from colonial or semi-colonial countries. An Oblate from South America tells of the terrible poverty among the nitrate miners of Chile, of the inhuman life in the deserts around the mines. Another remarks that the jewels on the altars of La Paz might be better employed in paying for parochial schools for Indian children. The reports of Franciscans expelled from China have given Quebec its picture of life under the Communist regime. Oblate Father Guilbault comes back from Basutoland to raise money for a seminary there, and guardedly suggests that the white man fears to educate the black man, that the black man has good reason to resent injustice. The sympathy of Quebec goes out to any people under foreign domination.

That is only one small part of the impact of the clergy on French Canadian life. Society would stagger if the priests and religious orders were to vanish overnight. Not only education, but all the social services are under their supervision. Not all the influence runs from cleric to layman. The clergy react to the demands for modern education, for higher wages, for more freedom of thought. They too are French Canadians. The Church is a national church. It takes its authority direct from Rome; it has always stood off interference from the Irish priests who make up the hierarchy in the United States and Ontario.

The priests differ among themselves. The rural parish ones live pretty much in the old world; they know every family, they advise their congregations how to vote, usually for National Union, they stay in one parish for years and are part of the community. But in industrial towns some of the priests fight alongside their parishioners in strikes, and they certainly don't advise them to vote for National Union. They would be laughed at if they did.

To an outsider the Church looks monolithic. He is apt to believe that all Catholics are devout, that all accept and obey every dictum of the Church, that the hierarchy itself sees with a single eye and speaks with a single voice. He could not be more wrong. The Church is torn by disputes on questions of doctrine and expediency, as it has ever been. Certainly, when there is a threat from without, ranks close and authority prevails. But occasionally in minor matters, differences pop into the open. When the late Msgr. Desranleau of Sherbrooke ordered his people not to join the "neutral" societies like Rotary (Free Masonry has always been beyond the pale), the Dominicans issued a pamphlet arguing against him, until the Pope backed him up.

The dismissal of Archbishop Charbonneau of Montreal was an upheaval which shook the Catholic world. The Archbishop was one of those who try to push the Church toward the side of Labour. During the strike in the asbestos mines, he proclaimed from the pulpit. "When there is a conspiracy to destroy the working-class, the Church must intervene." Sweeping along with him a reluctant Archbishop Roy of Quebec, he ordered collections for the strikers at every Catholic Church door throughout the Province. That was more than enough to make Premier Duplessis desire his downfall. If "le cheuf" had read a book, he might have exclaimed like Henry II, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" As it was, two trusty knights, in the guise of Quebec cabinet ministers, sped post-haste to Rome. Shortly after their return to Quebec and reportedly after receiving a midnight visit from officers of the Provincial Police, the Archbishop submitted his resignation to the Pope, "for reasons of health," and climbed on a plane for Victoria, B.C. From thence he assured an inquiring Montreal girl reporter that he never felt better in his life. If only Princes of the Church published their memoirs!

Archbishop Joseph Charbonneau was a strikingly handsome man, authoritative as a priest must be, brilliant, cultured, perfectly bilingual. Indeed, he was not wholly popular with his clergy, for that very reason-he was not un des nôtres, for he came from Ontario and had received part of his formation in the United States. Nevertheless, judging from a casual remark he made to me in 1942, he was as nationalist as anyone of them could wish: "Why should we fight for Liberty, when we are denied our liberties?"

He had made other enemies besides the Premier. He had urged strongly, and had appointed to the Catholic School Commission a prelate who would advance his views, that the few French public highschools, wholly inadequate in numbers and facilities, should be enlarged and give courses leading to the universities. This would cut into the monopoly of the classical colleges in higher education. They are private schools run by the Jesuits, Sulpicians, Clercs de St. Viateur, and other orders. They are powerful foes. That particular priest is no longer on the Commission. One day Premier Duplessis openly chided him, telling him the business of the Commission was elementary education. Yet the changes Msgr. Charbonneau advocated are slowly being made, forced by public demand, while he stays in exile, a humble chaplain in an institution, filling the sort of job usually assigned to old and nearly useless priests.

His successor, Cardinal Paul-Emile Leger, Archbishop of Montreal, has so far given the Premier no worry at all. He interferes in no strikes, he has done his best to eliminate the troublesome teachers' union of Montreal, which Charbonneau tacitly encouraged, he works very hard at his pastoral duties, behaving as an ecclesiastical rather than a political prelate. His press-agent sees to it that his good-looking countenance appears every day if possible-and it usually is-in every French newspaper of Montreal, and most of the English ones. His most conspicuous achievement so far as English Montreal is concerned, has been the ordinance passed by the City Council at his request, closing all stores on eight Catholic holy days. The big English-owned department stores are fighting this through the courts, and they with hundreds of smaller establishments keep open and pay the fines. The only Communist member of the Council (since expelled) voted with the majority on that occasion, on the ground of national rights.

But the Cardinal may soon find himself in politics, willy-nilly. Since the Church threw its weight behind the campaign to elect jean Drapeau Mayor of Montreal the question arises if it will continue its support when the going gets tough. For certainly if Drapeau fights to gain independence for Montreal, to settle its own problems of liquor-control, traffic, taxation, housing, vice and crime, he will run headon into the provincial administration. And he will need all the help he can get.

There are three archbishops in Quebec, and some sixteen bishops, whose dioceses are mostly divided between the authorities of Quebec and Montreal. In all Canada there are about 7,000 Frenchspeaking priests, the majority in Quebec of course. 2,500 are assorted in 35 orders, Jesuit, Franciscan, Trinitarian, Trappist, and so on. The rest are abbés, canons, cures, prelates of various ranks. There are about 6,000 brothers who teach, are employed in institutions, work as missionaries, or occupy themselves in prayer. Nearly 37,000 French-Canadian nuns are grouped in 140 congregations, mostly in Quebec. They teach, run hospitals, care for the insane, the old, the blind, the deaf and dumb, the orphans, the delinquent girls and unmarried mothers. They visit the poor, solicit alms, do all sorts of welfare work. They are Sisters of the Sacred Heart, of the Immaculate Conception, of the Five Wounds, of the Precious Blood, or are merely called the Gray Nuns, an order holding large properties in Montreal. An unknown number, perhaps a thousand women, spend their time in prayer and self-discipline. Certain orders are cloistered, and never leave their convent grounds. Others go about freely, in pairs, with pupils or on begging errands. The effort to make the long habits more practical for street and school wear has not yet shown results in Quebec, though at least one order wears pastel robes within the convent walls.

It is a very considerable drain to withdraw from a community of four million so many of its best intellects and noblest intentions, to deprive them of family life, of the hope of children born in honour. The value set on celibacy tends to accentuate the notion of women's inferiority, to make men and women regard each other as sources of temptation rather than as companions, to inculcate the idea that sex is somehow shameful. It exalts self-denial, not self-realization, as the highest estate of mankind.

It is no easy matter to become a priest. The brightest boy in a family or school is likely to be picked by his mother or his teacher, and directed along the way. His mother may believe, longing for his safety in after-life, that a priest goes straight to Heaven without a stay in Purgatory, or she may be considering his safety in this world, in that he will be exempt from any army draft. The pressure, though gentle, may be imperative. A letter to a French newspaper columnist from a youth of twenty said: "Ever since I can remember, they have said to me, `Toi, to seras prêtre!' When I was little, I said like a good parrot, that indeed I would be a priest. But now I know that I have no taste for the priesthood. I have prayed, I have consulted the Fathers, who said that if truly I had no vocation, it was useless to go on. My family will have none of it. My mother says she will die of grief . . . ." It was signed, "Soul in Peril."

Once entered, a candidate may be rejected for stupidity, for wrong political ideas, for any evil trait that might injure the Church. Probably only about a third win through. It is becoming hard to get suitable recruits. To become a Jesuit priest takes ten long years of the most intense application: two for the novitiate, two for the juvenate, three for philosophy and science, three for final theology. Periods of meditation and of prayer are as rigorous as in Yoga.

Selection for the sisterhoods operates on slightly different lines. Few girls are picked in childhood, unless they show some obvious disqualification for marriage, or some special religious zeal. A girl usually chooses for herself. She may be shy and homely, she may neither wish nor be able to attract a husband, she may simply have the urge to sacrifice herself to help others. The orders offer security and prestige. If she is independent, intelligent and rich, she may found an order of her own for some special work, or look forward to being the mother superior of some convent. Such a career can be satisfying and important. At St. Jean de Dieu, the mental hospital near Montreal, the Sisters of Providence run a community of 6,000. The woman at the head of such an enterprise must know how to deal with politicians and dicker with contractors; she speaks with authority. Rarely, a girl leaves a sisterhood; it is not impossible, though it may be costly. At least one woman who was once a cloistered nun is now a wife and mother, and still lives in Quebec.

The parish priests, under the bishops of their dioceses, carry the daily burden; they say mass, visit the sick, baptize, marry, give the last sacrament, hear confessions, bless the crops, guide their people's thinking on everything from vaccination to hydrogen bombs. In remote villages they are the chief source of information about the outside world, and they are expected to take the lead in any community enterprise, whether it be a co-operative or a new schoolhouse. For two hundred years and more, in Gaspé, the priest was the man who had to build the bonfire and keep the bell ringing to guide the fishermen home in fog and storm. As mechanisms take his place, as the villages have more relationship with the outer world, the priest becomes less essential, more confined to routine duties. If he is an able man, he meets the challenge by branching out in new fields.

In Quebec, alongside the hierarchy, the men's religious orders have acquired special importance. They supply teachers, preachers for special occasions, editors of journals, advisors to officials, librarians, trained men for any demanding job. They are the shock troops. The rivalries between them are sometimes funny, sometimes acid. Jesuits and Dominicans are traditionally opposed, and there are other longstanding feuds. Once a charming young Franciscan to whom in a far-off land I had offered to send his hometown newspaper thanked me by saying, "Madame, you will permit me to pray for you?"

I answered, "Surely. But I've already got a Jesuit friend who prays for me. Do you think that would do, for you to pray too?"

"Ah no," he said with an impish grin, "They would confleect!"

The Jesuits are very powerful. They own the best theatre in Montreal (there is no good one, and theirs is small), where they have been notably liberal in the choice of plays they have permitted to be produced. They run some of the Catholic Action groups for young French Canadians. They publish the monthly, Relations, whose carefully written articles often interpret Church policy. But when Relations published some articles by Burton LeDoux, an American of Quebec descent, on the scandalous conditions in certain china clay plants, and the even more scandalous neglect by the provincial Workmen's Compensation Board of the pleas from men dying of silicosis and from the widows of those who had died, the editor of Relations was swiftly removed and replaced by another more discreet Jesuit father. No more such articles have appeared to offend industry or the Premier.

The Dominicans are few in number, and have no direct share in secondary education; they preach, they publish a review, they work in psychiatry, reconciling modern knowledge with Catholic belief; they are interested in all the arts, especially painting. The best-known Dominican is Father Georges Lévesque, Dean of Social Sciences at Laval University. He has been a storm centre for years, and thrives on it. Extraordinarily good-looking in his white habit, attractive, a delightful companion, a brilliant, witty speaker, a thoroughly civilized man, he has gathered about him at the old university a team of young men who make Laval a Roman candle of ideas. They work for absurdly low salaries. Within Catholic doctrine, accepting the papal encyclicals and the bishops' pastoral letters as guides, they demand for labour a share in the profits of industry. They are carefully watched. When Father Gerard Dion of Laval criticized American capitalists for "exploiting cheap French Canadian labour," Premier Duplessis slashed at him in a press conference. Father Dion withdrew his statement, and went on a trip to the Argentine to study conditions there.

Laquemac is a summer camp in the Laurentians for workers in adult education. It is sponsored jointly by McGill and Laval. A meeting-place for men and women of all faiths, it has worked magnificently. Priests in lumberjack shirts have been known to call for square dancing, Protestant ministers learn to stammer in French. Father Lévesque was one of the original founders.

He was a valuable member of the Massey Commission on Arts and Sciences, which held hearings all across Canada. He sat beaming, his hands tucked into his wide sleeves, while Msgr. Maurault, rector of the University of Montreal, attacked UNESCO and asserted Canada should pull out of it. Then he fired some rapid questions which showed how wide can be the differences of opinion within the Church. Msgr. Maurault was presenting the orthodox view, for UNESCO is not seen with favour; it is far too freethinking. Father Lévesque has also been under attack for signing the Commission Report advocating federal aid to the universities.

The Church allows a measure of freedom to some of its gifted servants. Father Emile Legault, for fifteen years director of the theatre group, Les Compagnons de St. Laurent, gave his full time to the undertaking, and wore ordinary black clerical suits, not the soutane. He acted every part in rehearsals, but never appeared onstage. Brother Marie-Victorin was a great botanist; he built up and directed Montreal's Botanical Gardens. François Hertel, poet and essayist, lived in his own apartment and made his friends where he chose, though in orders.

The campaign to make French Canadians conscious of their affinity to Latin America, with the hope of forming a great Latin Catholic bloc, has been a failure as far as the mass of the people is concerned. It remains the special project of a small ecclesiastical and intellectual group. The provincial mentality is itself a block to any great interest in the world outside, unless it constitutes a threat. Quebec cares little what goes on in Brazil or Argentina. Nor are the practical politicians exactly ardent on the subject. Neither Peron nor Somoza swings a single vote in Charlevoix. Then, too, the vision has to be drastically modified by the necessity of fitting it into the pattern of American power in the nations to the South, and by the fact that most Latin countries are nowhere nearly as Catholic as Quebec. Cardinal Villeneuve made a triumphal visit to Mexico, carried in a procession which was illegal at the time, and brought criticism in the Mexican press. But since then interest has faded, though L'Union des Latins d'Amerique fosters it, with the patronage of the Spanish consuls.

The curious attitude of even devout Catholics toward what I have heard them call "the religious disorders," at first startles the naive Protestant. When one works on any social service project with Catholic women, one notices how they sheer away from any suggestion of consulting the nuns. Their own confessors or priestly advisors, certainly-but not the sisters. They shrug and make a little grimace. "If they get onto what we're trying to do, they'll take it right over." Business men feel somewhat the same way about any visit from les religieux. They fear, and with good reason, that their ideas may turn up in some clerical enterprise, and there is nothing they can do about it. A printing firm, for instance, whose owner displeased one order, was labelled communist in the schools where it did business.

Catholic laymen run the gamut all the way from the believer who kneels in the street when the statue of the Virgin from Cap de la Madeleine is carried past (more women than men in that category) to the bitter anti-clerical. One meets the successful lawyer who says firmly, "Je suis croyant," and another, equally successful, who scoffs at all religion. It is no easy glide to leave the Church and keep on living in Quebec, for careers depend on it, even livelihoods. The functions of civil life are tied in with the Church. To register a birth, one is expected to produce a certificate of christening from a minister, though in Montreal a civil registration can be obtained with some exertion. There is no civil marriage. To enter school, to be cared for at clinic or hospital, to receive poor relief, child or adult must classify himself as French Catholic, English Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish. Doctors must be outwardly conformist to have access to the French hospitals. Lawyers find employment in the charge of the Church's revenues and investments, secrets to all but the inner circle. Occasionally bits of information leak out, as when one order got into difficulty after the 1929 stockmarket crash. The Province kindly bought up their library and left it in their care.

The income of the Church? One can only guess. It holds lands granted it in early days, and others bequeathed it by those hoping for salvation. Some are covered with fine buildings, others are great forest tracts. None pay taxes. In Montreal alone, 700,000 persons go to mass every Sunday, and on the ten days of obligation. Ten cents is the price of a pew, and at least ten cents is expected in the collection. In villages, visitors have been amused to see the priest direct the acolyte, money-box in hand, back to some parishioner who had not given as he should. The basic figure for Montreal must be around $9 million a year. Then there are the millions due for special masses for the ill, the missing, the souls of the dead, and for the weddings, christenings, burials. Medals bring substantial sums. Candles are sold, bingo games were played until Msgr. Charbonneau found them scandalous, and still take place sometimes. Always money must be raised to build or repair the great churches. The obsession with immense structures to the glory of God recalls the fate of the Mayas and the Egyptians, who exhausted their peoples in piling up heaps of stone, so that they had no strength to resist the invader when he came.

Certain nuns spend all their days in begging, always in pairs. Msgr. Gautier [sic] announced one day from the pulpit that he thanked the Lord for his generosity, since, he said, every day a hundred nuns pass from door to door in Montreal, begging for the Sacred Heart Hospital in Cartierville, run by the Sisters of Providence. Each one was required to bring in a thousand dollars a week, but often received more. Five million dollars a year for the hospital isn't bad at all. The first step toward modernizing Quebec's social services would be a system of annual public reports on the finances of the institutions.

Perhaps a quarter of the money goes for social service; the rest for the upkeep of buildings, the tribute to the Vatican, publications, investment, the priesthood. Occasionally the Church puts on a big show, such as one of the Marian Congresses, or a special celebration.

Many professional and business men adopt a resigned conformism. They give the bishop a drink of Scotch when he calls, and a tribute for his charities. They pay the regular contributions, add the extra high mass when a daughter is married or a parent buried, shrug when the Church is mentioned, and tell dirty stories about priests.

The open anti-clericals are fewer now than thirty years ago, when rebellion was more difficult and more fashionable. Jean-Charles Harvey, who once meant to be a priest, is entirely outside the Church, and writes against it. Others are like Senator Bouchard of St. Hyacinthe, Liberal and liberal, rich enough to stand alone, who has fought the clergy all his life, exposed their secret manoeuvres during the war in a Senate speech, attacked their hold on education, demanded better teaching of science and English in French schools, asked for friendship and understanding between the peoples. Yet he and those who work with him protest their Catholicism. Such men will die with the holy wafer between their lips, the soothing murmur of absolution in their ears. The Church has always had men like that; it does not fear them.

The left-wing Catholic intellectuals in Montreal are grouped around the review Cité Libre. Remaining devout, believing that the Roman version of Christianity is the only way to the world's salvation, they do not hesitate to speak loud and clear against the acts of the clergy when they disapprove. Men like these too the Church has known, men like Pascal and Molinos, who led great heresies. They must be watched all the more carefully because some of them are connected with the Catholic unions, and have influence therein. Neither capitalist nor communist; they can quote Sartre and Camus and Claudel, or Lenin and St. Augustine. There is nothing quite like them in English Canadian life.

Gerard Pelletier' a thin, dark, tense young man who looks as if he never got enough sleep and probably doesn't, is one of the editors of Cité Libre. He also directs publicity for the Catholic Syndicates, and has edited their weekly, Le Travail. When he reviewed a Jesuit's book on labour relations in scathing terms, and was rebuked by a subscriber, he slashed back, "It is a book we are criticizing, not the Holy Trinity." That is a rather new note in Quebec. He takes on any opponent he thinks is worth a battle. One week he tells his readers that four of Duplessis' ministers are enemies of Labour, and three of them go down to defeat in the election, buried under Syndicate votes. Another day he publishes a long, painstakingly documented article, in beautiful French, explaining that the salaries of Montreal Catholic teachers are low because les religieux and les religieuses work for so little, and admonishing the Archbishop for his attitude to the teachers' union. Then he and his pretty wife-they have four small children-go on a radio forum to explain child psychology to Quebec parents. Between times he watches television and writes funny, sharp criticism of radio and TV for Le Devoir, or radio plays of his own. Life is not exactly dull for people like that.

The threat to the Church lies in none of these, any more than it does in the intemperate attacks of Toronto Orangemen. It lies in the apathy, the utter indifference, of the city workman, in his growing reliance on company nurse and doctor instead of on a pilgrimage to Brother André's Shrine, in his mingling with men of other language and ways of thinking, in his dependence on his boss and his union organizer for advice and help, rather than the cure He may even, as more than one Catholic has done in my presence, criticize the Church. Many for instance, think priests should be permitted to marry. As one woman commented, "Some who are completely dedicated would not wish to. But others-good priests tooI think it would be better. They do in the Eastern Church." Others complain about the birth-control regulations. And others just grumble about expense! A writer from the Cité Libre editorial board, describing French Canada to French readers in the Parisian magazine Esprit, said: "In the towns the parish no longer forms, either socially or nationally, an organic cell joined to the realities of daily life. Even religiously it is no longer anything but an administrative unit for the registration of civic affairs."

Outside the rites of passage, the ordinary, city dweller need not come in contact with the Church unless he wishes to. He almost never turns Protestant; usually he becomes a "non-practising" Catholic, who takes a realistic view of his environment, and adapts himself to it as comfortably as he can.

In education, however, the Church keeps its hold, literally for dear life.

Source: Miriam CHAPIN, Quebec Now, Toronto, The Ryerson Press, 1955, pp. 64-80.

© 2000 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College