HÉBERT, JEAN-FRANÇOIS, Roman Catholic priest; b. 24 June 1763 in Saint-Pierre, Île d’Orléans, Que., son of François Hébert and Marie-Joseph Côté; d. 20 Aug. 1831 in Saint-Ours, Lower Canada.
Jean-François Hébert came from a family of farmers in modest circumstances. As is usual in a devout Christian milieu, he felt the call to the priesthood early in life. He attended the Petit Séminaire de Québec from 1777 till 1785, and then began theological studies. On 12 Oct. 1788 he was ordained by Bishop Jean-François Hubert*.
After serving briefly as curate at Saint-François on Île d’Orléans, where he replaced the ailing parish priest, François Le Guerne*, and then at Notre-Dame in Montreal, Hébert was appointed curé of Sainte-Thérèse (at Sainte-Thérèse) in September 1789. The presbytery was barely fit to live in, and a number of the habitants refused to pay their tithes. Evidently the new priest was not happy in this difficult parish and wanted to leave as quickly as possible. Although he urged Bishop Hubert to give him another charge, it was not until 1792 that he was sent to the parish of Immaculée-Conception in Saint-Ours. When he arrived there at the end of October, he was acutely aware that he had to act with tact and circumspection. In the coming years he was to meet the challenge, carrying out his priestly duties to his parishioners’ satisfaction for the rest of his life.
Hébert, who was a man of the ancien régime, first concentrated on the maintenance and embellishment of the church, which he saw as visible signs of religious vitality in the parish. In 1793 he had the building repaired. Two years later he hired woodcarver Louis Quévillon to decorate the tabernacles. From then on improvements and purchases were made regularly. He bought a silver-plated crucifix and candlesticks, fitted out the sacristy and had two chapels built, completed the collection of vestments, secured consecrated vessels of better quality, bought a new bell, had a rood loft constructed, and purchased several paintings.
Hébert was concerned about the spiritual life of his parishioners and undertook to visit them regularly, even though many lived at quite a distance. This visiting brought rapport with the habitants, who discovered in him a man close to their worries and their way of life. Thus he succeeded in 1824 in setting up the devotion of First Fridays, an observance that prompted his flock to practise their religion fervently and take communion frequently. While deeply conscious of his spiritual duties, he also paid close attention to his own interests. In his correspondence with Bishop Joseph-Octave Plessis and later with Bishop Bernard-Claude Panet, the matter of tithes was frequently discussed. Hébert in addition was particular about his records and proud that they were well kept.
Plessis considered Hébert a steady, reliable person, respectful of the rules governing his state and obedient to his instructions. In recognition, he named him archdeacon in 1818 and delegated him to supervise the construction of the presbytery for the parish in Sorel. Similarly, in 1827 Archbishop Panet asked him to look into the prospects of creating the parish of Saint-Pie. Two years later, again at the archbishop’s request, Hébert chaired an inquiry into the incorporation of Beloeil under canon law. In 1830 and 1831 he received similar commissions for the parishes of Saint-Hugues and Saint-Denis.
Hébert’s relations with the seigneur, Charles de Saint-Ours, were marked by cordiality and good feeling. Their submission to the authority of the crown brought them even closer together. Both belonged to the association that had been created in 1794 to support British rule in Lower Canada. To Hébert’s pleasure, Saint-Ours donated 600 livres to build the church cupola in 1805. Twelve years later he and Hébert both favoured the creation of a second parish in the seigneury.
For more than 30 years Hébert led an uneventful existence, one that kept him busy with work on the church, collecting tithes, keeping records, administering the parish, and carrying out his ministry. The only new direction he took in the latter part of his life was to become more interested in education. In 1830 he was one of the few parish priests who accepted the government grant provided under the 1829 schools act. But Panet soon pointed out to him that its terms kept parish priests from running the schools, which were to be administered by parish syndics. Respecting his superior’s opinion, Hébert was nevertheless quick to explain his action. He reported that his authority was not threatened, since he had had himself appointed school chairman. The parish priest of Saint-Ours consequently remained in complete accordance with the ecclesiastical authority. His simple, quiet life held no surprises in store. On 18 July 1831, with the unanimous support of his parishioners, he sent a petition to Panet asking that the parish be incorporated under canon law. Unfortunately he was not able to follow the progress of this initiative. On 15 Aug. 1831 he was stricken with apoplexy and five days later he passed away.
Jean-François Hébert stands in the tradition of the rural parish priest of the ancien regime, preoccupied with material and spiritual matters, entirely obedient to his bishop, and devoted primarily to administrative tasks. This attitude had led to certain conflicts with the rural community, which he had managed to attenuate by adroit and flexible manœuvring.
ANQ-M, CE3-6, 1792–1831. ANQ-Q, CE1-12, 24 juin 1763. Arch. de la chancellerie de l’évêché de Saint-Hyacinthe (Saint-Hyacinthe, Qué.), XVII.C.39, 23 août 1792, 18 juill. 1831. Allaire, Dictionnaire. Caron, “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Panet,” ANQ Rapport, 1933–34; 1934–35; 1935–36. Azarie Couillard-Després, Histoire de la seigneurie de Saint-Ours (2v., Montreal, 1915–17), 2: 174–210.