LE CLERCQ, CHRESTIEN, priest, Recollet, missionary to the Micmacs of the Gaspé Peninsula, historiographer; b. 1641, probably at Bapaume (Pas-de-Calais, France); was still living, in France, 1700.
In 1668 he joined the Recollets of Saint-Antoine-de-Padoue, in Artois, and was the first novice and first professed of the order in that province, as he tells us himself. He received the name Chrestien upon taking the habit. Two members of his family belonged to the same order and followed him to New France: Father Zénobe Membré, his cousin, and Father Maxime Le Clercq, who was either his brother or his cousin. Both of them, missionaries and companions of Cavelier de La Salle in the Mississippi country, were massacred in 1689 at Fort Saint-Louis-des-Illinois by the Indians of that region.
At Béthune Father Le Clercq had as novice master Father Gabriel de La Ribourde, who in the spring of 1670 sailed for Quebec to establish the Recollets again in New France. This order had been the first community of permanent missionaries in this country, where they had carried on their work from 1615 to 1629. It was a reformed branch of the Order of St. Francis which had developed in Spain, and then in France from 1592 on. The religious wore a grey habit with a white cord.
We possess absolutely no details about Father Le Clercq’s activities in the years 1670–75; perhaps during this time he was pursuing his studies in preparation for the priesthood, which he must have received shortly before his departure for Canada.
On 15 March 1675 Father Le Clercq was appointed to the missions in Canada. Before sailing he made a brief visit to his village, Bapaume, where he won a recruit for the Recollet noviciate, Emmanuel Jumeau, who seven years later became his companion in the missionary work in the Gaspé Peninsula. Father Le Clercq sailed from La Rochelle in the month of June in company with Fathers Louis Hennepin*, Luc Buisset, and Zénobe Membré; on the same ship had also embarked Bishop Laval*, the newly appointed titular bishop of Quebec, Robert Cavelier de La Salle, and Intendant Duchesneau. The group landed at Quebec two months later. In the middle of October Father Le Clercq left for the missions in Gaspé; he reached Percé on 27 October, after meeting with a violent gale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The post at Percé, which served as a shelter for French fishermen, had been ministered to since 1672 by Fathers Hilarion Guénin and Exupère Dethunes. Le Clercq seems to have been the first missionary of this group to be assigned specifically to the missions to the Micmacs, whom he called Gaspésiens. Indeed, if the two previous Recollets had carried on a ministry among these Indians, they would have recommended to him “the study of the prayers in the language of Gaspé” instead of writings in the Algonkin language which the Indians scarcely understood.
Le Clercq quickly learned the dialect of the inhabitants of Gaspé and was able to teach them religion thanks to a system of figurative letters that he invented. This hieroglyphic writing subsequently remained in use and served as the basis for the present-day writing. The Recollet also composed a dictionary for the future apostles to these peoples.
In the spring of 1676 he visited the Gaspé Indians; he spent the summer with the Micmacs of Restigouche, and in September he went to Nipisiguit (Bathurst, N.B.). In January 1677 he visited Miramichi (near present-day Chatham); travelling with a Frenchman and two Indians, he became lost and was almost dead of cold and hunger when an Indian, who happened to be passing, helped him. The Micmacs of this area brought great and pleasant consolation to the missionary because of their habit of carrying the cross “next to the skin and on their clothes.” This custom, which was rather paradoxical in a tribe that had not yet been deeply affected by Christianity, furnished the Recollet with the theme of a long treatise on the origin, the extent, and the import of this practice among these Indians; in token of this, he gave them the name of Porte-Croix (Cross-Bearers).
During the summer of 1678 Father Le Clercq went to Quebec in order to renew his spiritual strength and to visit his superior. During the following winter he was beset by discouragement brought on by the paltry results of his zeal among the Indians. He thought of giving up his post; in the months of April and May 1679 he wrote to his superior, Father Valentin Leroux*, to reveal to him his difficulties. Leroux sent him a long letter in which he requested him not to give up his work; and in fact the missionary remained a further eight years with the Micmacs. He did, however, take advantage of the permission that his superior accorded him to come to spend the winter at Quebec. On 30 Oct. 1679, on the Beaupré shore, he solemnized the marriage of Catherine Pelletier, sister of Brother Didace Pelletier, a Recollet; then on 2 Feb. 1680 he officiated at a baptism at the Côte Saint-Ange (Cap-Rouge), where he drew up the certificate that remains the only autograph of his that we possess.
Before returning to Percé, Le Clercq was sent to France with Father Dethunes to obtain the authorizations necessary for the founding of a hospice at Quebec and a house at Montreal. Immediately upon his arrival he sent the documents concerning his request to Father Allart, the provincial of Paris, and went to visit his relatives at Bapaume. After a rest he sailed from La Rochelle in the summer of 1681 with Father François Masson and reached Quebec 30 days later. Then he accompanied Governor Buade de Frontenac to Montreal as his chaplain. There he received from M. Dollier* de Casson, superior of the Sulpicians, a grant of four acres of land near the river, as the contract signed on 26 Oct. 1681 proves. On his return to Quebec, Le Clercq does not seem to have continued on to the missions at Percé immediately. He would even seem to have spent the winter in Quebec, since he officiated at a baptism on 23 Jan. 1682 on the Île d’Orléans, as is indicated by the parish records of Saint-Laurent.
After this date Father Le Clercq’s comings and goings are almost completely unknown to us; he tells us that he returned to his Indians of Gaspé, where he was received “with all the warm welcome that they were capable of.” We find him back at Quebec on 7 Oct. and 5 Nov. 1684.
He must have remained at Percé during the summer of 1685. On 2 December of that year he was at Sorel, where he spent the winter as a replacement for the parish priest. The consecration of the church at Percé, which he presided over himself, must have taken place during the summer of 1686. Then he said good-bye to the Micmacs and returned to France. In February 1687 he called upon Bishop Saint-Vallier [La Croix*], who was making a short stay in Paris. In 1690 he was superior of the convent at Lens (Pas-de-Calais). At the request of the mayor and the aldermen he preached the Advent sermons in 1697 at Saint-Pol. According to Father Hennepin, he was definitor of the province of Artois in 1698, and then we last hear of him as superior of the Recollets in Saint-Omer in 1700.
Father Le Clercq owes his place in history principally to the two precious volumes he published to recount his apostolate and that of the Recollets in Canada.
The Nouvelle Relation de la Gaspésie was published in Paris in 1691 and in Lyon the following year, this time without the author’s name. The Recollets had from 1615 on acquired the habit of sending relations or yearly letters to their superior, and their relatives and friends; the Relations des Jésuites came later.
The Nouvelle Relation is devoted entirely to the Micmacs, among whom the author carried on his apostolate for 12 years. The book begins with a description of the Gaspé Peninsula (Father Le Clercq was the first to use the name “Gaspésie”). The following chapters study in logical order everything concerning the inhabitants of Gaspé – their origins, birth, dress and ornaments, dwellings, food, language, religion, beliefs and superstitions, government, laws, marriage, war, hunting, feasts and dances, maladies and death. The author mentions in passing his apostolic labours and those of the Recollets who lived in this region. Although it is of local interest, this information is very important. Le Clercq recounts facts as he observed them, and since he knew the language and was held in great esteem by the Indians, his report takes on the value of authentic evidence. He informs us himself in his book that in his story he intended simply to write of things as he knew them. Some inaccuracies, however, found their way into it, and his personal chronology, particularly from 1679 on, is rather confused; as for the worship offered to the cross by the Indians of the Miramichi region, modern historians, without denying the fact, have tended to recognize in this cross the stylized figure of the tribal totem, which was originally a bird with outspread wings.
Certain authors have minimized the value or the usefulness of this document. Father Charlevoix*, a Jesuit, declared loftily that “there is not enough of interest in it to fill a volume of 600 pages.” Séraphin Marion is more caustic: he said that the chapter concerning child-birth among the Indians of Gaspé is filled “with mediocre details about the life and the everyday customs of the tribe.” On the other hand Ganong, who translated and analysed Father Le Clercq’s work, maintains that the Nouvelle Relation constitutes one of the finest pages on the native population of Canada, and in speaking of Chapter V he made this pertinent remark: “Nowhere does our literature offer a finer picture of the family life of the Indians.”
Father Le Clercq’s other work, entitled Premier établissement de la foy dans la Nouvelle-France, which was published in 1691, was reprinted the same year under the title Établissement de la Foy. In 1692 a second edition, entitled Histoire des colonies françaises, was published in Lyon.
The author divided his work into three parts: the first runs from 1615 to 1629 and tells of the first planting of the faith in New France by the Recollets; the second, for the period from 1632 to 1663, mentions the efforts by these religious to return to their former missions; the third, extending from 1663 to 1691, speaks of the Recollets’ return to this country, La Salle’s discoveries, and Frontenac’s victories over the Indians and the English.
In this book, unlike the Nouvelle Relation, the author plays the part of a historian rather than a witness; he was not a witness of the events except for a brief episode in the third part of the work. He had necessarily to accumulate material and to have recourse to written and oral sources. His testimony will be worth what the documents he consulted are worth. But Father Le Clercq warns us that he has founded his account only upon the truth: “As truth is the soul and the very essence of history, this account does not need to seek support and authority elsewhere.” No one has seriously doubted Le Clercq’s good faith; impartial critics are of Ganong’s opinion: “Without doubt this author always intended, to my way of thinking, to tell the exact truth.” Nevertheless, with the aid of present-day documents, one cannot help pointing out here and there some more or less important errors: Le Clercq gives 1635 as the year of the founding of Trois-Rivières, and 1636 for that of Montreal; he changes Father Nicolas Viel’s French companion at Rivière des Prairies into a Huron; he is in error about Father Leroux’s successor and the end of his term at Quebec. But on the whole these are not serious. The major error with which Father Le Clercq has been charged is that he criticized the Relations des Jésuites and suspected these fathers of having thwarted the Recollets’ return to New France after 1632. To what extent was he right? The question is not easily settled. What is certain is that Le Clercq took too literally certain affirmations in the Relations, and he hastened to put things in their true light with statements such as the following: “Would to God that all these churches described in the Relations were as real as the country knows them to be imaginary.” We know today that the Relations, which had been composed largely for propaganda, betray here and there pious exaggerations.
Is the Premier établissement indeed Father Le Clercq’s work? Certain persons have denied his authorship. Father Hennepin, a contemporary of the author, attributed this book to Fathers Valentin Leroux and Zénobe Membré. Shea maintains that several persons had a hand in the work. Ganong admits that certain parts of the volume are not by Le Clercq. Guy Frégault, in Iberville, le conquérant, speaks of a “pseudo-Leclercq.” None of these affirmations is based upon any decisive proof. On the contrary, it is obvious on reading the text that the Premier établissement is certainly the work of a Recollet; and for anyone who has read the book attentively, this Recollet can be no other than Father Le Clercq. On the title-page he presents himself as the sole author, and throughout the account brief but precise personal references oblige us to attribute this work to him.
The Nouvelle relation and the Premier établissement remain valuable sources of information about the history of Canada. Father Le Clercq’s writings emerge as a work of great value from the literary, social, religious, and historical point of view. The language is lively, harmonious, and correct, in keeping with the canons of the 17th century, and the ideas are clear and well organized. For studying the Micmacs of the Gaspé Peninsula the Nouvelle Relation provides valuable and original documentation; for the history of the Recollets and of Catholicism in North America, the Premier établissement continues to be a reliable and sincere guide. Consequently Father Chrestien Le Clercq ranks among the great historiographers of New France, and as such he merits our profound admiration.
Recensement de 1681. [Jean Cavelier], The Journal of Jean Cavelier. The account of a survivor of La Salle’s Texas expedition, 1684–1688, translated and annotated by Jean Delanglez (Chicago, 1938), 9. Charlevoix, Histoire. Le Clercq, First Establishment of the faith (Shea); New relation of Gaspesia with the customs and religion of the Gaspesian Indians, tr. and ed. W. F. Ganong (Champlain Soc., V, 1910); Premier établissement de la Foy.
Frégault, Iberville. Archange Godbout, “Leclercq,” dans Centenaire de l’histoire du Canada de F.-X. Garneau (Montréal, 1945), 269–90. Séraphin Marion, Relations des voyageurs français en Nouvelle-France au XVIIe siècle (Paris, 1923), 53–57. H. A. Scott, Nos anciens historiographes et autres études d’histoire canadienne (Lévis, 1930). Marc de Villiers du Terrage, L’expédition de Cavelier de la Salle dans le golfe du Mexique, 1684–1687 (Paris, 1931), 196f.