SILVY, ANTOINE, priest, Jesuit, missionary; b. 16 Oct. 1638, at Aix-en-Provence (France); d. 24 Sept. 1711, at Quebec.
At the end of his classical studies at the Jesuit college in his native town, he joined the Society of Jesus in Lyons on 7 April 1658. After two years there, he taught in the community’s houses at Grenoble, Embrun, and Bourg-en-Bresse. He completed his theological studies at Dole in the period 1667–71, and did the Third Year at Lyons (1671–72).
Silvy arrived at Quebec 30 Sept. 1673, and the following year he was assigned to the missions to the Ottawas. It was while thus engaged that he took his vows as a professed, on 15 Aug. 1675. Working out from Michilimackinac, he extended his apostolate to the tribes living south of Lake Michigan and between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi: these were the Ottawas and Mascoutens (with whom he worked as assistant to Father Claude Allouez*), the Crees, Temiscamings, Chippewas, Amikwas, Sauks, Winnebagos, Foxes, and Illinois.
Having gained recognition as a missionary “of consummate merit,” Father Silvy was associated in 1678 with Father François de Crespieul in the difficult missions in the Saguenay region. This immense territory, which extended from James Bay to the Gulf of St Lawrence, comprised various separate groups, the Mistassinis, the Montagnais, the Papinachois, and the Eskimos. The Jesuit missionaries did not, however, carry on their apostolate among the Eskimos. (At the time, this name was sometimes extended to the Naskapis, as Allan Burgesse has shown.) Father Silvy worked in various mission posts: Chicoutimi (1678, 1679), Métabetchouan (1678, 1679, the winters of 1681 and 1682), Lake Mistassini (1679), Baie des Papinachois and Portneuf (winter of 1683), rapidly mastering the languages, which were, it must be added, closely related, of these different tribes. In the summer of 1679 he went to James Bay with Louis Jolliet*, and on the way back founded a mission (St François Xavier) at Nemiskau, half-way between James Bay and Lake Mistassini.
In 1684 Father Silvy was chaplain with the expedition which the Sieur Bermen de La Martinière led by sea to Hudson Bay. He kept the journal of the progress and the incidents of the voyage from the time they left Île aux Coudres, on 12 July, until their return to the Strait of Belle-Isle on 15 August of the following year. This journal, which is headed “from Belle Isle to Port Nelson” and is reproduced in the preface of the Relation par lettres, edited by Rochemonteix, contains precise details concerning the ship’s course and its daily position, distances and meteorological data, military operations, and other incidents of all kinds. Silvy was not averse to putting a little humour into his journal; for example, in this description of their first meeting with some Labrador Eskimos: “We noticed coming towards us like eels under water a dozen Eskimo canoes with only one man in each; besides, they cannot hold any more, since they have only a round hole in the middle to take him. They came uttering cries continuously and waving in the air a piece of their take to indicate that they wanted to trade; they have only sealskins, made into hoods or otherwise, for which they ask for nothing but knives; they do not use tobacco at all, which is quite extraordinary for savages. They are childlike in nature and extremely given to laughing, but in a puerile and silly way. If they offer a sealskin, for which they are given a small knife, no sooner have they received it than they burst into laughter, as if they had acquired a treasure, and if they give us a hood made of 2 or 3 skins which are just as big, or even bigger, and finer, and very daintily sewn, for which they are offered nothing but a small knife, they receive it with the same demonstrations of joy and the same peals of laughter as if they were making a great acquisition; their distrust is such, that they want to receive with one hand while they are letting go with the other.” And on the way back Father Silvy wrote: “There we saw some Eskimos in canoes and Biscay boats who were as fat as the seals on which they live. Their eyes were so deep-set in their cheeks as to be barely visible.” In Saint-Pierre harbour, “surrounded by high mountains of barren rock . . . , we found a little warmth, and a number of daddy-long-legs that were as black as Ethiopians.”
Father Crespieul mentions that during the wintering-over at Port Nelson “with M. de La Martinière and 50 Frenchmen,” Father Antoine Silvy “began the mission to the North in that region.”
In March 1686 Father Silvy accompanied as chaplain the expedition led by the Chevalier de Troyes* which went overland to Hudson Bay to take the posts which had been set up there by the English; his knowledge of the country and the Indians of the region was very useful to the leaders of these operations. “Father Silvy followed me step by step and ran the same risks,” wrote the Chevalier de Troyes. In a letter dated 30 July 1686 Father Silvy gave a brief but substantial account of the expedition, the text of which was to be inserted by Bishop Saint-Vallier [La Croix] in his report on the Estat présent de l’Église: “It has not been without many risks and fatigues that, with God’s help, we have achieved our ends. The route from Mataoüan [Mattawa] on is extremely difficult; it is nothing but very violent rapids which are dangerous either to go up or to come down; several times I was in danger of being lost, with all those accompanying me; the carpenter Noël Le Blanc, one of our best men and whom we most needed, was swallowed up all at once, without coming to the surface again; M. d’Iberville [Pierre Le Moyne], who had him with him, escaped only through his skill and presence of mind, which he never lost. Others, who escaped by swimming, got off with losing their canoe, their belongings, and their supplies.” After the account of the little band’s brilliant military operations, Father Silvy concludes: “There, Your Excellency, are the first attempts of our Canadians, under the wise leadership of brave M. de Troyes and Messieurs Sainte-Hélène [Jacques Le Moyne*] and Iberville, his lieutenants. These two noble brothers have distinguished themselves wonderfully and the Indians, who saw what was done in so little time and with so little slaughter, are so struck with astonishment that they will never stop talking about it, wherever they are.”
Father Silvy adds, on the subject of evangelizing the Indians: “I saw only a small number of Indians from various tribes, some of whom understood me, and the others did not: as we converse with them only fleetingly, because they are always on the move, there is hardly any likelihood that we can very soon christianize them; it must nevertheless be hoped that God, through His omnipotent goodness, will give them the means of being converted, if they are willing to cooperate with us in this important work.” He applied himself to this apostolic work when he had more time, during the winter at Fort Monsipi (Moose Fort), which was captured 21 June 1686.
After his return to Quebec in 1687, he went back to Hudson Bay, where he carried on his ministry in the French posts, especially at Fort Sainte-Anne (Fort Albany), and among the Indians until 1693. He then returned to Quebec and spent the rest of his career there in the Jesuit college, first as a mathematics teacher, and then as minister, spiritual director, and mission adviser. He died 24 Sept. 1711.
In addition to the writings already mentioned, we have from Father Antoine Silvy a letter written from his mission to the Mascoutens in 1676. During one of his winterings-over at Lac Saint-Jean (1678) he wrote some “catecheses,” constituting a sort of list of expressions in Montagnais language which Father Claude-Godefroy Coquart* later translated and to which he added a commentary. The Relation par lettres, which was edited by Rochemonteix, has been attributed to Silvy; Rochemonteix wrote: “Among the Jesuits of New France we do not know a single one of that period who was in a position to know and who did know as thoroughly as Father Silvy, the French-Canadians, the Indians, all of this immense North-American country.” This observation is justified, but it does not prove sufficiently the affirmation that Silvy was really the author of the text in question. Concerning Rochemonteix’s affirmation, Father Arthur Melançon, the eminent archivist of the Jesuits in Canada, has made this note: “Nix, but rather Raudot (junior) [Antoine-Denis Raudot].” This opinion carries weight. It is supported by an observation. These letters dwell at length on the Indians of the Great Lakes region, including the Iroquois, and also give details concerning those of Acadia, whom Father Silvy did not know personally, whereas they give no space, not even an allusion, to those of the Saguenay country, who presented many special traits and among whom he carried on his apostolate for seven years; that he should be silent in this way in his texts is an argument against the supposition that he was the author. He must, however, have supplied many elements of these letters to Antoine-Denis Raudot, with whom he could have been in contact for four years (1705–9).
In announcing Father Antoine Silvy’s death in his report on the Canadian missions, Father Joseph-Louis Germain wrote of him: “[He] spent 40 years in Canada . . . ; he always carried out worthily all his duties towards God by constant exactitude in all devotional exercises, towards his neighbour by great charity and great zeal for saving souls, and towards himself by constant mortification of his senses and passions.”
Father Antoine Silvy embodied the all-round type of missionary in Canada, gifted for all sorts of functions, ready to accept everything and capable of carrying everything out successfully.
Documents relating to Hudson Bay (Tyrrell). HBRS, XXI (Rich). JR (Thwaites). La Poterie, Histoire (1722), I, 147. Relation par lettres de l’Amérique septentrionale, années 1709 et 1710, éd. Camille de Rochemonteix (Paris, 1904). Saint-Vallier, Estat présent de l’Église (1688; 1857). Chevalier de Troyes, Journal (Caron).
DCB, I. Le Jeune, Dictionnaire. Liste des missionaires-jésuites, Nouvelle-France et Louisiane, 1611-1800 (Montréal, 1929), 69. Frégault, Iberville. Rochemonteix, Les Jésuites et la N.-F. au XVIIe siècle, III, 269. J. A. Burgesse, “Esquimaux in the Saguenay,” Primitive Man (Washington), XXII (1949), 23–32. Camille de Rochemonteix, “Biographies canadiennes: Antoine Silvy,” BRH, XX (1914), 83–85. P.-G. Roy, “Le chevalier de Troyes,” BRH, X (1904), 284.
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