Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
August 2005

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


Bishop Briand and the Civil Authorities


[This text was written by Gilles Chaussé and published in 1996. For the full citation, see the end of the document.]

The harmonious relations that the bishop of Quebec had cultivated with Governor Murray continued with his successor Guy Carleton, a former officer with General James Wolfe who arrived in Quebec in September 1766. Having already met Bishop Briand in London and promised his full co-operation, Carleton did not share the anti-Catholic prejudices of the new attorney general, Francis Masères, an English lawyer of Huguenot descent. He under-stood all the advantages of the compromise reached by his predecessor with Bishop Briand. To impose the authority of Great Britain on the newly con­quered colony and maintain the strict obedience of the population, the governor depended on the support and collaboration of the religious leaders who were the only ones with any real influence over their compatriots. This was all the more important in view of the increasing discontent and defiance in the thirteen colonies since the imposition of new taxes in 1765. Anger was brewing among the Americans, and the prospect of a revolt was more likely each day. In addition, Carleton still feared a renewal of hostilities by the French, who looked forward to exploiting the American situation to their own advantage and whose spies had already been at work since 1764. Under these circumstances it was essential that Carleton gain the support of the Canadiens through conciliatory policies towards the people and cordial relations with Bishop Briand.

 It was not long before the bishop had become not only Carleton's friend but one of his most trusted advisers. As a result, the governor rejected the idea, advocated by the archbishop of Canterbury, of converting French Canada to Protestantism. Briand had nothing but praise for Carleton, who had succeeded in making the people forget the harshness of the Conquest and the precarious situation of the Catholic Church, which still had no official status. 'Here we enjoy perfect peace,' wrote Briand, 'under the government of one of the most amiable of men. Religion is practised here in complete freedom, and in many cases more fervently than ever.’ (1) 'We hardly notice,' he remarked in another letter, 'that we are under a Protestant prince. It must be admitted that no nation is as humane as the English one, and that it possesses all the virtues that flow from this. (2) The two men came to collaborate very closely. Thus on the matter of choosing a coadjutor bishop for Quebec, Carleton favoured the appointment of the parish priest of Saint-Pierre, Louis-Philippe Mariauchau d'Esgly. With his consecration on 12 July 1772, the delicate question of episcopal succession was settled. Henceforth there would be two bishops at Quebec: a titular bishop and a coadjutor with the right of succession. 'In this way,' explained Briand, 'if one of the two should die, the other will immediately choose, with the approval of the government, a coadjutor; he will submit his nomination, receive his bulls from Rome, and consecrate the new coadjutor, and so it will continue without cost and without any need to travel to Europe.'  (3) The elevation of d'Esgly, the first Canadien to become a bishop, marked the beginning of the Canadianization of the Catholic Church in the colony. This was what the governor wanted, in order to expedite the breaking of the remaining ties between French Canada and its former mother country. 

In the meantime, in August 1770, Carleton had returned to London to brief the British authorities on the situation in Canada and explain his policy of tolerating Catholicism. Anxious to do justice to the country's people, and convinced that he needed to win the confidence of its ruling classes to ensure their loyalty, he condemned the unrealistic assumptions of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which had ignored the people's rights and grievances especially with respect to French laws and access to civilian employment. After four years of laborious negotiations his point of view finally prevailed when, on 22 June 1774, George III gave royal assent to the Quebec Act, which re-established French civil law, extended the borders of the country, exempted Canadiens from the oath of the Test Act, and officially recognized the Catholic religion by allowing the church to collect tithes. It is true that the Act contained serious restrictions, forbidding the bishop to correspond with Rome and giving governors the right to oversee the appointment of parish priests and the selection of new ordinands. In practice, however, the governors never objected to the bishop's forwarding his mail to Rome through the intermediary of France, and they accepted the lists of new parish priests and ordinands that the bishop sent them each year. Overall, the Quebec Act was a victory both for the Catholic Church and for the Canadien people. 

Of course the motives behind this liberal legislation were not entirely disin­terested. Carleton had witnessed the growing unrest to the south, especially since the Boston massacre of March 1770, and had counted on the Quebec Act to gain French Canada's co-operation in stemming any American revolt. Recognizing this intention, the inhabitants of the thirteen colonies considered the Quebec Act to be one more in the series of intolerable laws that followed the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Reactions were very strong. There was talk of a pact between George III and the pope to sell out the Americans. Josiah Quincy exclaimed: 'What! have we Americans spent so much of our blood and trea­sure in aiding Britain to conquer Canada, that Britons and Canadians may now subjugate us?' (4) And Alexander Hamilton declared: 

“The affair of Canada, if possible, is still worse [than that of Boston]. The English laws have been superseded by the French laws. The Romish faith is made the established religion of the land. The free exercise of the Protestant faith depends on the pleasure of the Governor and Council.... Does not your blood run cold, to think that an English Parliament should pass an act for the establishment of arbitrary power and Popery in such an extensive country? . . . They may as well establish Popery in New York, and the other colonies. ...” (5) 

The English who had settled in Quebec and Montreal since the Conquest—mostly merchants and government officials—had also reacted with anger to the proclamation of the Quebec Act, which refused them the elected assembly on which they had counted to establish their dominance over the Canadiens. Without guarantees for either their property or their religion, the anglophone community expected dire repercussions. (6) Petitions to the king, the House of Lords, and the Commons demanding repeal of the Quebec Act were in vain. Sharing the indignation of their counterparts in the thirteen colonies, the English inhabitants of Quebec were forced to recognize that their cause was virtually hopeless. 

This is the background to the American invasion that would have important repercussions for the Catholic Church and for Canadien society. On 26 October 1774, the General Congress of the colonies, meeting at Philadelphia, approved a letter to be sent to the people of Canada inviting them to side with the rebel colonies. In a tone that was conciliatory, for recent enemies, the letter strongly condemned the Quebec Act, claiming that far from being liberal, it in fact reduced them to slavery by depriving them of their most basic rights. It then invited the Canadiens to join their rebellion and send a delegation to the next Congress, to be held on 10 May 1775. The letter did not have the desired effect, for scarcely had it been made public when another document drafted by the congress arrived in the province. Entitled Address to the people of Great Britain and dated 21 October 1774, this document spoke in disparaging terms of the morals and religion of Canadiens. A third letter from the Congress, dated 29 May 1775, did not succeed in dispelling the suspicions aroused by this double-dealing. The Canadiens had just received their first lesson in democratic government. 

Indeed, the invasion of Canada had already begun with the capture of Fort Ticonderoga on 10 May and Crown Point, on Lake Champlain, two days later. Benedict Arnold's incursion into Saint-Jean on 18 May demonstrated the threat hanging over Montreal. Bishop Briand, who was more than happy with Carleton's attitude towards the church and the advantages granted by the Quebec Act, considered it his duty to intervene and warn the people against the Americans' policy of friendly co-operation. He also mistrusted the American rebels, who in his view were seeking the Canadiens' support only in order to subjugate them the more easily later. Nor was the bishop unaware that antipapal prejudices were still widespread in the thirteen colonies; in fact, the proposed alliance was nothing more than a massive fraud: 'No other sect has persecuted Catholics as the Bostonians' has. None has insulted priests, desecrated churches and the relics of saints as it has, none has attacked the confidence of Catholics in the protection of the Saints and the Holy Mother of God with more horrible blasphemies than it has.' (7) 

On 22 May 1775, in response to a request from the governor, Bishop Briand addressed a solemn pastoral letter 'to all the peoples of this colony' and not simply, as was the custom, 'to all the faithful of this diocese'—as if at this grave moment he was conscious of making a historic gesture. In it he recalled the church's official doctrine with respect to obedience:

“Your oaths and your religion impose on you the essential obligation to defend your country and your king with all your power. Close your ears, therefore, dear Canadiens, and do not listen to these seditious men who seek to make you unhappy, to extinguish the feelings of submission to your legitimate superiors that your upbringing and religion have engraved on your hearts. Carry out with joy everything you are told to do by a beneficent governor whose only care is for your interests and your happiness.” (8) 

The bishop's pastoral was soon followed by a circular letter from the vicar-general of Montreal, Étienne de Montgolfier, in support of Governor Carleton's proclamation re-establishing militias in the parishes. (9) But the response to these efforts on the part of the religious leaders was far from satisfactory: the people were not at all enthusiastic about defending the interests of Great Britain. Bishop Briand, whom some suspected of collusion with the governor, was unable to hide his surprise and disappointment: 'My pastoral was read, and the nonsense spoken on that occasion was pitiful; it presupposes a serious lack of religious spirit.' (10) The Canadiens displayed the same neutrality during the invasion of their territory by American troops in the autumn of 1775. By the time of the unsuccessful attack on Quebec of 31 December 1775, many even secretly wished that the city would fall into American hands. Nevertheless, despite the sympathy they showed for the invaders, very fewCanadiens—500 at most joined their ranks, and 'most of them,' claimed Bishop Briand, 'were just poor wretches, beggars and drunkards.' (11) 

In truth, the Canadiens were scarcely more fond of the Americans than of the British. The failure of the attack on Quebec City had cooled the enthusiasm of quite a number, and they distanced themselves even further from the Americans when, in the final weeks before leaving Canadian soil, the latter behaved more like enemies than liberators. The Bostonian cause had been so compromised that when, in April 1776, a group of Americans led by two members of Congress, Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Chase, and including Charles Carroll and his cousin, the former Jesuit John Carroll, travelled to Montreal to win Canadien support, the mission went by unnoticed. Father Carroll, on whom the Congress was counting to gain the support of the clergy, was politely received by Vicar-General Montgolfier. But the only other member of the clergy he met was the Jesuit Pierre-René Floquet, with whom he had several meetings. When the Americans left Montreal at the end of May, the friendship and neutrality that the congress had so earnestly sought were, in Trudel's words, 'lost for good'. (12) 

Even so, Bishop Briand had many reasons to be shocked and disappointed. Canadiens had shown very little desire to obey the governor's orders and come to the defence of their territory. Some had even fought side by side with the Americans. Others had blatantly ignored the instructions of their bishop and taken the liberty of handing over priests to rebel leaders because they were preaching in favour of the English. Finally, several had 'hoped that the Bostonians, those despicable highwaymen and bandits, would prevail'. (13) Briand must have realized that his authority was no longer respected as it once had been. At the beginning of the hostilities he had confided to Montgolfier: 'The situation of the colony seems dismal and its future highly uncertain.... I write and I punish, but what do people say? They say that the priests and I are afraid. . . . There should be troops; they would be more persuasive than the Word of God that we proclaim to them.’ (14) He made the same admission of impotence to the priest of Montmagny: ‘My authority is not respected any more than yours. Like you, I am called an Englishman. . . . I should put all the churches, even most of the diocese, under interdict.' (15) It was no coincidence that Briand considered it advisable in June 1776, when the American troops withdrew, to publish an unusually long and extremely harsh pastoral letter in which he reminded the Canadien rebels of the gravity of their crime: ‘What an abyss of sin you have plunged into... . How many sins you have committed before God! . . . It is clear that all, or almost all, those who refused to listen to their priests when they received instruction, either from the pulpit or in court, and who were not willing to follow their teaching, have fallen into schism and separated themselves from the Church.' (16) 

For the first time since the Conquest Canadiens had resisted the orders of their bishop, who had intervened on six occasions during the American invasion. After this episode Bishop Briand could no longer be considered the undisputed leader of the nation. The gulf between the clergy and the people had widened, even if the latter had not intended to call into question their adherence to Catholicism. A breath of freedom had touched them. The letter of 26 October 1774 from the American Congress, and the appeal for liberty issued on 28 October 1778 by the Comte d'Estaing, vice-admiral of the squadron sent by France in support of the rebel colonies, had given Canadiens their first taste of democracy and freedom. From then on they would always be reluctant to come to the defence of the king or British interests, or to follow the instructions of their religious leaders in this regard. 

Briand retired in 1784, and his successor, Bishop d'Esgly, died four years later. Yet the bishop of Quebec remained the principal intermediary between the people and the British authorities. Thus it was Bishop Jean-Francois Hubert who was called upon in 1789 by Judge William Smith, president of the Commission of Education set up by Carleton (now Lord Dorchester) to report on the education system in the province. Smith wanted the bishop's advice on a reform plan that would provide for the establishment of a school in every parish and a model school in each district, to be overseen by a mixed university at Quebec to which both Catholics and Protestants would be admitted. This plan was not without merit in a province where scarcely 4,000 people out of 140,000 knew how to read and write. But Hubert vigorously opposed it: he saw nothing in the plan to protect the faith and morals of Catholics, and above all he feared interference from the state. Faced with these objections, the reform plan was abandoned. In the course of this debate Bishop Hubert was taken to task by his coadjutor, the former missionary Billy de Messein; known as the 'priest of the English' because of his friendship with Dorchester, Bailly had been imposed on Bishop Hubert as coadjutor only months before. (17) Trained in France and sympathetic to the ideas of the French Revolution, the coadjutor bishop was known for his spirit of toleration. Unlike Hubert, he had no objection to the future university's being run by the state, nor to the establishment of a public education system in the province. For Bailly, the only role of the bishop should be the one 'that every university accords to people of knowledge and merit'. (18)

(1) Briand to Father Bocquet, missionary at Detroit (3 September 1768), RAQ, 1929-30, 75.

(2) Briand to Father Sébastien Meurin, missionary to the Illinois (February 1767), Ibid., 69.

(3) 'Mandement de Mgr Briand au sujet de la proclamation publique qu'il fit de Mgr de Dorylée, son coadjuteur, le jour anniversaire de sa consécration' (14 March 1774), MEQ, II, 254.

(4) Josiah Quincy, Jr, Memoir of the Life of Josiah Quincy (New York: Da Capo, 1971), 184-5.

(5) Alexander Hamilton, Works (St Clair's Shores, Mich.: Scholarly Press, 1971). 38-9.

(6) See Marcel Trudel, La Révolution américaine, 1775-1783 (Québec: Boréal Express, 1976) 66.

(7) 'Mandement de Mgr Briand' (June 1776), MEQ, II, 275.

(8) 'Mandement de Mgr Briand au sujet de l'invasion des Américains au Canada' (22 May 1775), Ibid., 264-65.

(9) 'Circulaire au sujet du rétablissement des milices' (13 June 1775), Ibid., 265-66.

(10) Briand to Abbé Saint-Onge (May 1775), quoted in Laval Laurent, Québec et l'Église aux États-Unis sous Mgr Briand et Mgr Plessis (Montréal: Librairie St-François, 1945), 37.

(11) Briand to the Pontbriand sisters (27 September 1776), Ibid., 39.

(12) Trudel, La Révolution américaine, 117.

(13) Briand to P.-L. Bédard, parish priest od Saint-François-du-Sud (30 August 1776), RAQ, 1929-30, 113.

(14) Briand to Montgolfier (5 November 1775), Ibid., 112.

(15) AAQ, CL, IV, 589-92, Briand à Jean-Baptiste Maisonbasse dit Petit (25 octobre 1775).

(16) 'Mandement de Mgr Briand au sujet des rebelles durant la guerre américaine' (May 1776), MEQ, II, 274, 276-77.

(17) See Galarneau, La France devant l'opinion canadienne, 49.

(18) 'Mémoire de Mgr Bailly au juge Smith' (5 April 1790), quoted in Louis-Philippe Audet, Le Système scolaire de la Province de Québec, 6 vols (Québec: Éditions de l'Érable, 1950-56), II, 166.

Return to the main page on Jean Olivier Briand

Source: Gillis CHAUSSÉ, "Bishop Briand and the Civil Authorities", in Terrence MURPHY, ed., A Concise History of Christianity in Canada, Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1996, 456p., pp. 70-75.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College