PIGEON, FRANÇOIS-XAVIER (baptized François), Roman Catholic priest, teacher, author, school administrator, publisher, and journalist; b. 9 Nov. 1778 in Sault-au-Récollet (Montreal North), Que., sixth child of Barthelemy Pigeon, a carpenter, and Marie Delorme, a linen maid; d. 8 Oct. 1838 in La Prairie, Lower Canada.
François-Xavier Pigeon came from a family of humble artisans who were striving to move upwards from the place they shared with day-labourers and farmhands in the lower ranks of late-18th-century rural society. Education for their children represented a way to rise. In these circumstances Pigeon’s parents were counting heavily on him, for he showed himself to be an unusually gifted child. He quickly learned that life was difficult and money hard to come by; as a result he developed a taste for diligence and success and a desire for respectability. In 1785 Pigeon began attending the school in Sault-au-Récollet run by the parish priest, Jean-Marie Fortin. Six years later he started Latin with the new priest, Louis-Amable Prevost.
In 1792 Pigeon entered the Collège Saint-Raphaël in Montreal. He soon displayed an aptitude for study and the life of the mind. His scholarly successes drew him closer to his teachers, who took notice of his brilliance. At the completion of his classical studies, they considered him a young man of superior intelligence, profound faith, and unassailable moral character. His future as a priest looked bright. For his part, Pigeon was much attached to the college, which was known for its gallican and monarchist ideas. He apparently had not revealed all sides of his personality, however; though admittedly fervent, devoted, zealous, and enthusiastic, he was also devious, acrimonious, turbulent, and independent.
Pigeon began studying theology at the Grand Séminaire de Québec in 1800. He did not add greatly to his theological knowledge there because he spent most of his time supervising studies and lecturing at the Petit Séminaire. He continued to show an intellectual bent; he worked extremely hard, being keen on reading and passionately fond of philosophy. His superiors predicted an outstanding future for him in teaching.
In January 1803 Pigeon was ordained priest by Bishop Pierre Denaut* of Quebec and was immediately appointed professor of philosophy at the Petit Séminaire, which was undertaking certain educational reforms at that time. A year later Pigeon published a work considered to be the first geography textbook in what is now Canada, Géographie à l’usage des écoliers du petit séminaire de Québec. He was making his mark as a thinker at this institution, inspiring and giving leadership to pedagogical activity from both intellectual and practical points of view. He was appointed director of the Petit Séminaire in 1804. In his new office he was generally recognized and respected, but at the same time he met with some mistrust because of his inflexibility; he even set several teachers against him because of his free and outspoken style of discussion.
Bishop Denaut named Pigeon director of the students and professor of theology at the Grand Séminaire in 1805. Ardent and so impetuous as to take ill-considered action at times, Pigeon soon aroused distrust and suspicion. More and more Denaut feared this priest who found compromise repugnant and always wanted to assert his own ideas. It was evident that Pigeon was no longer wanted at the Séminaire de Québec.
Joseph-Octave Plessis*, Denaut’s successor, decided to bring him into line and sent him as curate to the parish of Sainte-Rose (at Laval) in 1806, and then to Notre-Dame-de-Saint-Hyacinthe (Notre-Dame-du-Rosaire) the following year. In a better frame of mind by then, Pigeon was named curé of the parish of Saints-Anges at Lachine late in 1808. There he maintained good relations with his bishop and his parishioners; he was active, set up a school, had an addition put on the presbytery, and encouraged the most visible forms of public worship.
In 1810 Bishop Plessis put Pigeon in charge of Saint-Philippe-de-Laprairie. From the outset, Pigeon was concerned to restore order in the parish. Full of a sense of responsibility towards parishioners, he exercised authority firmly and showed little tolerance for misdemeanours, demanding absolute respect for Christian morality; he fought against cohabitation, more or less accepted marriage of close relatives, and insisted on the annual observance of Easter duties by everyone. At the same time he favoured more frequent attendance at the sacraments and encouraged processions, which for him were tangible signs of religious vitality in the parish. He also replaced the novena with the forty hours’ devotion, which he thought more likely to bring his flock back to Christian piety. Thus he made himself known during his first dozen years as a pastor who demanded much of his parishioners. He was one of the few priests held up by Plessis as an example.
Jean-Jacques Lartigue’s appointment as the archbishop of Quebec’s auxiliary in Montreal in 1820 thrust Pigeon into the limelight. Like the Sulpicians, who did not appreciate the extension of episcopal authority on Montreal Island, Pigeon and a few dissatisfied priests were not pleased with the arrival of a new bishop who would interfere with routine matters in their parishes. A quarrel over the establishment of the diocese of Montreal thus surfaced and created a situation encouraging the expression of disagreement within the lower ranks of French Canadian clergy.
Pigeon became a leader in this movement of protest. In 1821 he ventured to differ with Lartigue about the division of his parish. A year later he categorically refused to read from the pulpit the bishop’s decree on the question. He set up a Latin school without consulting Lartigue and made plans to build an art school. He also took Lartigue’s appointment as an occasion for open display of gallican ideas. His gallicanism was in essence ecclesiastical, deriving from opposition to the advent of a bishop in the district of Montreal. To achieve his ends Pigeon was not afraid to engage in controversy: he wrote pamphlets asserting his claims and composed long lists of complaints full of biting sarcasm. In 1822 he sent Plessis a memorandum that was highly abusive of Lartigue. Cantankerous and provocative, he did not shrink from confrontation with his bishop; he even had his letters delivered to Lartigue by a bailiff.
Pigeon and the parish priest of Longueuil, Augustin Chaboillez*, wrote pamphlet after pamphlet, and article after article for newspapers, and they directed and coordinated the overall strategy of the protest movement. In 1823 they declared bluntly that the pope could not raise Montreal to an episcopal district without the consent of the clergy and the faithful. That year Chaboillez published a pamphlet entitled Questions sur le gouvernement ecclésiastique du district de Montréal. In 1824 Pigeon set up a printing-shop to carry on the fight with the bishop and keep both priests and people better informed. Some 15 pamphlets were printed, dealing with church doctrine on morality, ecclesiastical discipline, the sacraments, the lives of the saints, liturgy, and prayer. Pigeon undertook to publish his correspondence with Lartigue and Plessis, accompanied by quotations from gallican authors, in two pamphlets.
In 1826 Pigeon brought out a weekly newspaper, La Gazette de Saint-Philippe. It was the second church newspaper in the Canadas and he was its editor. The paper consisted of one or two articles of apologetics, a column of religious news, and correspondence from readers. His goal was to arouse both ordinary Catholics and his fellow clergy, who knew little about their rights within the church. The newspaper soon ran into resistance from Lartigue. Late in 1826 La Gazette de Saint-Philippe ceased publication, since most of the priests in the district of Montreal had shown little interest in it and had quickly come around to Lartigue’s viewpoint.
A year later Pigeon gave up and submitted unreservedly to the bishop. In an about-face, he attacked the liberal movement within the Patriote party, and he increased his contacts with Lartigue, as if eager to admit that the bishop was right about liberalism. From 1830 the two had more numerous and thoughtful exchanges of views. Assured of Pigeon’s subservient and even sympathetic silence, Lartigue could henceforth act with complete peace of mind. In 1835 Pigeon unhesitatingly signed a petition exhorting the Holy See to allow the district of Montreal to be raised to an episcopal see.
Having been reconciled with his bishop, Pigeon was content at the end of his life to perform the rites, administer the sacraments, and run his parish in a suitable manner. Freed of all his difficulties, he led a peaceful existence of prayer, reading, and visiting the priests in the neighbouring parishes. On occasion he even received them in his house, which was built of stone and surrrounded by a huge garden. With the 1,000 minots of wheat from the tithe, he had an income large enough to live comfortably, buy some land, and help his nephew enter holy orders. Pigeon also owned an impressive library, which consisted not only of books used in his ministry but also of works that defended the moral and philosophical doctrines of the church.
During the rebellions of 1837–38 Pigeon adopted Lartigue’s stance and used all the means at his disposal to keep his parishioners from taking part in armed revolt. If he read Lartigue’s pastoral letter of 24 Oct. 1837 from the pulpit with some hesitation, it was because he feared reprisals from the Patriotes in his parish. Physically exhausted by then, he passed away on 8 Oct. 1838.
François-Xavier Pigeon belonged to the intellectual and social élite among the clergy. Around 1820 this minority was giving close attention to the great doctrinal alternatives current among priests and laity. Some of the group championed gallicanism, others adhered to the school of Hugues-Félicité-Robert de La Mennais, and a few even spread a certain liberalism. Yet these priests were no match for a church that was strongly hierarchical and was dominated by an ultramontane Catholicism emphasizing Providence. Moreover, no common action or ideology linked them. These factors probably explain why Pigeon soon rallied to his superiors. At the time of the rebellions of 1837–38 the entire body of French Canadian clergy would blindly follow the directives of the ecclesiastical authorities, oppose armed revolt, and zealously defend the ideals of a society harking back to the ancien régime.
François-Xavier Pigeon is the author of Géographie à l’usage des écoliers du peitit séminaire de Québec (Québec, 1804), Réponse à M. Deshons Montbrun, adressée aux bons et honnêtes habitans de la campagne (Montréal, 1818), and Rapports entre le curé de St. Philippe et Monseigneur de Québec (s.l., 1826).
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