THAVENET, JEAN-BAPTISTE, Sulpician; b. 2 Sept. 1763 in Bourges, France; d. 16 Dec. 1844 in Rome.
Jean-Baptiste Thavenet entered the Séminaire de Bourges in 1782 and was ordained priest in 1789. In May 1785 he had been admitted into the Society of Saint-Sulpice to do his solitude (noviciate) in Paris. In the course of the French revolution the Sulpicians, like many members of religious communities, experienced difficulties since they refused to take the oath of loyalty to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Non-juring priests had to go underground or into exile: Thavenet sought refuge in London. Facing an influx of French priests, the British government agreed to give a number of them permission to go to Lower Canada, temporarily changing the policy it had maintained since the conquest. On 4 June 1794 Thavenet, along with ten other Sulpicians, sailed from Portsmouth [see Jean-Henry-Auguste Roux*].
After an uneventful crossing the group reached Montreal on 12 September. The advent of these new members proved a stimulus to the community at the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice, but it also created tensions that left their mark on Thavenet. The seminary was becoming Canadianized, since local candidates had been accepted to fill the vacancies and they were now in the majority. Some of them looked unfavourably upon the arrival in force of the Frenchmen. The French Sulpicians distrusted the Canadians and wanted to retain control of the seminary and to preserve links with the mother house in Paris. Such was the climate in which Thavenet started to work in Montreal.
By October 1794 Thavenet was teaching at the Collège Saint-Raphaël (which would become the Petit Séminaire de Montréal in 1806), but he did not get on well with its director, Jean-Baptiste Marchand*. In 1797 Bishop Pierre Denaut* of Quebec named him curate to assist François Cherrier* in the parish of Saint-Denis on the Richelieu. That same year he was assistant priest at Notre-Dame in Montreal. Then in 1800 he was sent as a missionary to Lac-des-Deux-Montagnes (Oka). There he learned enough Algonkin to translate works into that language and to prepare an Algonkin-French dictionary, which would remain in manuscript form. He began teaching again at the Petit Séminaire de Montréal in 1809 and in October 1815 he left for Paris.
Thavenet then embarked on a career in Europe as financial agent for several religious communities and lobbyist for the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice of Montreal. His mission went through two phases: from 1815 to 1831 he worked in France and England, where he was preoccupied with matters related to the recovery of debts; from 1831 to 1844 he lived in Rome and kept the views of the Montreal Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice before the Curia. He took a vigorous part in the various episodes of the dispute between the bishops of Lower Canada and the Montreal Sulpicians, which regularly ended up in Rome [see Joseph-Vincent Quiblier*].
The religious communities in Lower Canada had some capital invested in France, particularly in annuities. During the revolution and the Napoleonic Wars not only did interest payments cease, but ownership of the annuities was called into question. After the Restoration the communities tried to recover their investments. Thavenet acted specifically for the Séminaire de Québec, the Ursulines, the Hôtel-Dieu of Montreal, the Congregation of Notre-Dame, and the Hôpital Général of Montreal. Obtaining payment of financial claims took prolonged efforts but was finally accomplished. It is calculated that the three women’s communities of Montreal received 1,800,000 francs. According to historian Robert Lahaise, the infusion of capital signalled a new prosperity that resulted in a sudden upsurge of building by the Montreal communities and enabled them to modernize and enlarge their facilities. Thavenet’s success even prompted some families to make use of his services. In 1826, for example, Barthélemy Joliette and his brothers-in-law asked him to recover the estate left by a distant relative whose property had been sold as property of the nation.
Despite the positive results of his work and the devotion he had shown, Thavenet saw his administrative competence questioned. It was generally agreed that his bookkeeping was inadequate; Wilfrid-H. Paradis, who examined his files in Paris, considers them insufficently clear and precise. In addition Thavenet reputedly suffered from the bankruptcy of some of his agents and probably from their misappropriation of funds. In 1833–34 Abbé Thomas Maguire* spent several months with him trying unsuccessfully to make sense of his accounts; Maguire none the less thought that 150,000–160,000 francs had been lost through bankruptcies. When ordered by Archbishop Joseph Signay of Quebec to render his accounts, Thavenet equivocated; he appeared unconvincing to the representatives whom Signay sent on several occasions, published a reply in 1836 to the objections of the committee examining his accounts, and seemed to believe that he was the victim of injustice and persecution because of his work with the authorities in Rome on behalf of the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice in Montreal. Finally, in 1840 the archbishop withdrew his powers as agent, but his papers were not seized by the authorities in Rome until a few months before his death.
Thavenet had been instrumental in defending the seminary’s interests. He quickly became its principal lobbyist and, being well placed in Rome, he proved a formidable adversary of its foes. During the first half of the 19th century the Sulpicians were confronted with two major problems. The first, which dated from the conquest, concerned the title to the seigneury of Île-de-Montreal: the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice in Paris, which had been given the property, had made it over to the Montreal seminary in 1764, but the transfer had not been formally recognized by the government. This precarious situation rendered the Sulpicians cautious in managing their assets and encouraged them to remain loyal to the colonial authorities. Not until 1841 were their rights finally recognized. The second and much more complicated problem concerned the relations between the seminary and the ecclesiastical hierarchy of Lower Canada. The growth of the city and region of Montreal would lead to the creation of a new diocese in 1836 and a restructuring of authority within the church. Accustomed to being pre-eminent on the island and in the city, the Sulpicians were the losers from the start and did not look favourably on developments, particularly because they feared that a new bishop would covet their assets. This rivalry soon became linked with obvious friction between French and Canadians.
Thavenet was involved in all these problems. In 1819 he turned his attention to the rights of the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice along with his colleague Jean-Jacques Lartigue, who had been sent to London. From 1821 relations between the seminary and the hierarchy deteriorated rapidly. Lartigue’s elevation to the episcopacy, Bernard-Claude Panet*’s rejection of the proposed settlement of 1827 by which Saint-Sulpice would have exchanged its property for a government annuity [see Jean-Henry-Auguste Roux], the question of the episcopal authority to name the curé of Notre-Dame parish in Montreal, the archbishop of Quebec’s refusal to allow the seminary to recruit priests in France, and the creation of a diocese in Montreal – all made it necessary for the Sulpicians to put their case in Rome. The indefatigable Thavenet served as spokesman for them there. He played a central role in the disputes, and in the opinion of those who have looked into the matter, he personally added fuel to the fire and kept dissension going through the stands he took, his voluminous correspondence, his reports (some anonymous), and his prejudices about Canadians. The fact that rivalry between the seminary and the bishop of Montreal continued long after his death, however, indicates that what was at issue went well beyond simple personality clashes: the institutional framework to be established for the Catholic population was at stake.
One last aspect of Thavenet’s work must be stressed. He acted as agent of the Sulpicians and the religious communities in Montreal for the purchase of books, devotional objects, and accoutrements for use in religious rites.
Jean-Baptiste Thavenet’s career illustrates well the relations that the Catholics in Lower Canada maintained with the outside world, in particular with the three key centres of London, Paris, and Rome. It also shows that in this area an individual might come to play a strategic role. Thavenet lived in Lower Canada only from 1794 to 1815 but he held an important place in its religious life.
[The significance of Jean-Baptiste Thavenet’s career is reflected in massive files at the ASSM (section 21, nos.17–18) and the Arch. du séminaire de Saint-Sulpice in Paris. The ACAM and the archives of almost all of the other religious communities which he served as agent also have correspondence files for him. W. H. Paradis, “Le nationalisme canadien dans le domaine religieux; l’affaire de l’abbé Thavenet,” RHAF, 7 (1953–54): 465–82; 8 (1954–55): 3–24, provides a useful guide to the sources in Paris. Louis Rousseau, La prédication à Montréal de 1800 à 1830: approche religiologique (Montréal, 1976), describes the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice at the beginning of the 19th century, and B. J. Young, In its corporate capacity; the Seminary of Montreal as a business institution, 1816–1876 (Kingston, Ont., and Montreal, 1986), outlines its economic activities. The tensions that existed between Lartigue and the Sulpicians are examined in Chaussé, Jean-Jacques Lartigue. j.-c.r.]
J.-B. Thavenet is the author of Résumé de la discussion des erreurs qui a cru voir dans mes comptes le comité qui a été chargé de les examiner (Rome, 1836).
ANQ-M, CN1-295, 15 sept. 1826; CN5-25, 10 avril 1826. ASQ, Fonds Viger-Verreau, sér.O, 0141: 134. BVM-G, Coll. Gagnon, corr., J.-B. Thavenet à Morland and Co., 28 févr. 1831. Allaire, Dictionnaire. Dionne, Les ecclésiastiques et les royalistes français. [J.-]H. Gauthier, Sulpitiana ([2e éd.], Montréal, 1926). Robert Lahaise, Les edifices conventuels du Vieux Montréal: aspects ethnohistoriques (Montréal, 1980). Pouliot, Mgr Bourget et son temps, vol.1. Rumilly, Hist. de Montréal, vol.2.