PONCIN, CLAUDE, Roman Catholic priest and Sulpician; b. 24 Feb. 1725 in Jarcieu, France, son of Jean Poncin, a merchant, and Marie Clameron; d. 10 May 1811 in Montreal, Lower Canada.
Claude Poncin completed the sixth year of the classical program (Rhetoric) with the Jesuits in Vienne, France, in 1744. He then did the two years of Philosophy at Bourg-Saint-Andéol, under the direction of the brilliant teacher Louis-Alexandre Crénier. From 1746 to 1749 Poncin studied theology at the Sulpician seminary in Viviers. There he obtained a solid grounding in ethics with Simon Guichard and in dogma with Jean-Baptiste Ravel. His Latin notes on the courses – more than a thousand pages in a fine, clear hand – attest to the care and application that characterized Poncin. In the course of his studies he passed through the stages leading to priesthood: tonsure, minor orders, sub-diaconate, and diaconate. Following custom, on 3 May 1748, before he was ordained sub-deacon, his father assigned him a life income of 100 livres a year to provide for his necessities. On 20 Dec. 1749 the bishop of Uzès, Bonaventure Baüyn, ordained him priest at Bagnols-sur-Cèze. After being admitted as a member to the community of priests of the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice in Paris, Poncin left for Brest and Canada on 3 April 1750; he reached Montreal on 23 August.
Poncin was first assigned to teach Latin at the school maintained by the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice in Montreal; his students included Pierre Denaut, later bishop of Quebec. In addition Poncin was occupied with ministry in the parish of Notre-Dame, taking care of the sacristy and teaching the catechism to the children from the town and the surrounding countryside. In 1755 he became assistant to Jean-François Pélissier de Féligonde, chaplain at the Hôpital Général in Montreal, which was run by Mme d’Youville [Dufrost*]. He succeeded Pélissier as chaplain in 1777 and held this office for 34 years.
Poncin did not, however, limit himself to the encouragement of spiritual life. He was gifted with remarkable manual skill and, after studying various techniques of the period, he began to instruct the nuns of the Hôpital Général. He taught them how to make chains and chaplets, candles for everyday and church use, and also copper tubing and springs for producing altar candlesticks; in the period 1792–97 lampmaking brought the nuns a profit of 3,547 livres. In addition he introduced the nuns to the art of printing; he even had printing equipment imported and consequently was able to reproduce and distribute music or repair the plain-song books. Poncin was also a lover of good music. He had brought from Bourg-Saint-Andéol a mass that he made popular in Montreal, and he learned to play the organ. An inventory of his library around 1800 reveals his chief interests. In addition to books on spirituality, preaching, and the catechism and works of literature, there were sixteen volumes on music, four on technical subjects, and one on algebra and geometry.
In 1799 the nuns and hospital residents celebrated the 50th anniversary of Poncin’s ordination: poems and plays written for the occasion extolled the chaplain’s qualities. The following year Poncin, who was then 75, suffered a paralytic stroke that afflicted him with deafness, making it more difficult for him to hear confessions. The seminary therefore gave him an assistant, Jean-Baptiste-Jacques Chicoisneau, in 1806 but Poncin was mortified. Later, blaming himself for never having preached to the parish or to the nuns, he began preparing sermons which he preached at the Hôpital Général.
In 1786 Poncin had become the first assistant to the Sulpician superior Étienne Montgolfier*, and he retained this office under Gabriel-Jean Brassier* and Jean-Henri-Auguste Roux*. In 1794 the arrival of 11 French Sulpicians who had been driven out by the revolution ensured the continuance of the Sulpicians’ work in Canada. This was of the greatest comfort to Poncin in the tranquillity of his declining years.
Although he was ill, Poncin continued to edify his colleagues by his courageous acceptance of suffering; he died on 10 May 1811, at the age of 86. He was buried under the chancel in the church of Notre-Dame in Montreal two days later. In 1784 Montgolfier, who did not usually express very gentle opinions about his colleagues, had written of Poncin: “Although he does not possess any great talents, he is infinitely useful to us through his services to the house and his steadiness.” Poncin’s 61 years in Canada are summed up in these words. Frequently in a community the humble tasks are those that render the greatest service to the group. From this perspective all the good Poncin did can readily be appreciated.
ANQ-M, CE l-51, 12 mai 1811. Arch. municipales, Jarcieu, France, État civil, Jarcieu, 24 févr. 1725. Arch. des sœurs grises (Montréal), Dossier Claude Poncin. ASSM, 14, Dossier 9; 15; 24, Dossiers 2, 6. Louis Bertrand, Bibliothèque sulpicienne, ou histoire littéraire de la Compagnie de Saint-Sulpice (3v., Paris, 1900), 2: 579–80. [É.-M. Faillon], Vie de Mme d’Youville, fondatrice des Sœurs de la charité de Villemarie dans l’île de Montréal, en Canada (Villemarie [Montréal], 1852). [Albina Fauteux et Clémentine Drouin], L’Hôpital Général des Sœurs de la charité (Sœurs grises) depuis sa fondation jusqu’à nos fours (3v. parus, Montréal, 1916– ), 1: 574–87.