New France at one time embraced all of North America apart from the American seaboard and the Hispanic Southwest. Eventually its control receded, but it had meanwhile established the Province of Quebec as a Francophile and Catholic territory. Francis Laval, the first bishop of Quebec, had had a strong influence in confirming its Gallic character and Catholic identity.
His full name was Francois de Montmorency Laval. He was born in Normandy, the third son of a soldier of high aristocratic level. Destined for the priesthood according to custom, but also according to his own content, Francis entered the royal college of LaFleche, the most famous of French Jesuit schools, at the age of nine. At age 12, according to the contemporary church practice, he was admitted to the clergy and named a canon of Evreux by his uncle, the bishop of that diocese. At 19 he transferred to the Jesuit College de Clermont in Paris for his theological studies. There he associated with a number of zealous young seminarians who would eventually found the Seminary of Foreign Missions. Laval would have been ordained a priest before 1647, but the death in quick succession of his father and two older brothers left him heir to the family responsibilities, and he had to take time off to attend to them. Meanwhile, named archdeacon of the diocese of Evreux, he attended devotedly to the duties of that administrative office.
In 1653, Pope Innocent X appointed him vicar apostolic of Tonkin, Indochina, today Vietnam. (French Jesuits had established a stable mission there as early as 1615.) But ecclesiastical intrigue, war, traveling conditions, and renewed family obligations conspired against his setting out at once for Asia. From 1655 to 1658 he lived at the “Hermitage”, a retreat house at Caen, in the practice of piety and good works. This stay brought him into close contact with some of the leading spiritual reformers of the time. He was deeply influenced by the teachings of Jean de Bernieres-Bertigny, the lay mystic who had founded the “Hermitage”.
Finally Rome named him titular bishop of Petraea and vicar apostolic, not of Tonkin but of Quebec! Consecrated a bishop in Paris on December 8, 1658, he arrived in Quebec City June 16, 1659.
At that time French Canada was a typical frontier settlement. Quebec City had only 500 inhabitants, and Canada no more than 2200 souls, all struggling to make a living but fearful of being destroyed at any moment by the Iroquois Indians. The colony needed, above all, a strong shepherd. Laval proved to be the ideal leader: a churchman of vision, a patriot who was still not afraid to defend the Church when civil officials interfered; a nobleman who could command, yet was himself a pattern of humility and devotion.
The new Vicar Apostolic left the Indian missions in the care of his friends the Jesuits, although he later invited Recollect Franciscans to work in the local mission field. He personally baptized in a solemn ceremony, one of the outstanding Iroquois converts, the noble Onondaga chieftain Garakontie. He was tireless in his visitations, which entailed difficult travels through wild country. He encouraged the Catholics to practice religious devotions, especially to the Holy Family, the Immaculate Conception, and Saint Anne (the cult of St. Anne developed at Beaupre during his episcopate).
Laval’s focus on education was thorough and durable. He set up a complete educational system: primary, classical and technical, largely with his personal funds. He also founded a seminary (1663) that became both the source and center of his diocesan priesthood, and an institution paralleling the famous Seminary of Foreign Missions in France. Out of his seminary would arise, in 1852, Laval University, which subsequently acquired a Montreal branch as well. In 1668 the bishop also initiated a minor seminary. Obedient to the instructions of the King, he admitted Native American boys as candidates for the priesthood to this “little seminary”, but priestly and religious vocations would always be rare among the Indians. In 1674 Quebec was created a diocese, the first in Canada, and Msgr. Laval was, of course, named its bishop.
Laval’s greatest struggle was against the liquor trade. The liquor merchants exploited the Indians’ weakness for firewater, and were in danger of corrupting them completely. Eventually, after much consultation, Bishop Laval decreed excommunication for those liquor sellers whose greed made them enemies of all Canadian society. Excommunication helped solve the problem, but it gained for Laval many enemies in business and government.
The first bishop of Quebec loved Canada and contributed greatly not only to its piety but to good government, law enforcement, and even military security. In 1688 he retired, worn out by his tireless efforts. Personally, he was devout, self-denying, and devoted to the poor.
On June 22, 1980, he was declared “blessed” by Pope John Paul II. Beatified on this same occasion were Marie Guyard, foundress of the Canadian Ursulines, and Kateri Tekakwitha, “Lily of the Mohawks”. They were three great heroes of pioneer Quebec!
–Fr. Robert F. McNamara
Editor’s Note: Francis-Xavier de Montmorency-Laval was canonized by Pope Francis on April 3, 2014.