DESILETS, LUC, Roman Catholic parish priest and vicar general; b. 23 Dec. 1831 at Saint-Grégoire (now part of Bécancour), Lower Canada, eldest son of François Désilets, a farmer, and Marguerite Hébert; d. 30 Aug. 1888 at Trois-Rivières, Que.
The Desilets family were descendants of Antoine Desrosiers, who arrived at Trois-Rivières in 1645 and whose children followed the contemporary custom of taking the name of the land they occupied: Lafrenière, Du Tremble, Dargis, and Desilets. One of them, Jean-Baptiste Desrosiers, dit Desilets, settled at Bécancour in the area that became the parish of Saint-Grégoire-le-Grand (Saint-Grégoire) in 1835. François Désilets, who came from this branch of the family, was a prosperous farmer: nearly all of his eight children received an education and they were prominent in the Trois-Rivières region in the late 19th century.
Luc Desilets began his classical studies at the Séminaire de Nicolet on 17 Sept. 1845; having decided to become a priest, he entered upon his chosen vocation on 8 Sept. 1852. Except for a short period at the Séminaire de Sainte-Thérèse, he received his theological training at Nicolet where he also taught (1852–54) or served as librarian (1855–56). He was made a deacon on 22 Sept. 1855 but a serious psychological and physical illness kept his ecclesiastical superiors from ordaining him to the priesthood until 25 Sept. 1859.
Desilets was immediately appointed assistant priest of the cathedral in Trois-Rivières and secretary to Thomas Cooke*, the first bishop of the diocese. He quickly demonstrated great initiative, and a tendency to exceed the bounds of his office or at least claim credit for the success of various steps taken by his superior. A case in point was in the appointment of Louis-François Laflèche*, the superior of the Séminaire de Nicolet, to the bishopric of Trois-Rivières as vicar general and diocesan procurator in 1861. After two years of service, Desilets, whose health was still frail, was sent to work in quieter parishes: Saint-Eusèbe in Princeville from 1861 to 1862, and Saint-Frédéric in Drummondville from 1862 to 1864. Bishop Cooke then called him to the parish of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine in Cap-de-la-Madeleine where he remained until 1888.
At the time of Desilets’s arrival the parish, which had 1,100 inhabitants, was considered difficult to run, both because it had been without a resident parish priest from 1792 to 1844 and because there were frequent clashes between the villagers, labourers who came from the surrounding vicinity to work in the lumber industries, and the old farming families on the concessions. He engaged in a severe, corrective ministry yet was remembered as a charitable man who was pious and devoted, especially to the sick. Exercising control with a firm hand, he was rigorous and indeed punctilious. It was even said that he forced reconciliation upon quarrelling parishioners who nevertheless were consistently divided into two camps, particularly at election time. In fact his political interventions only led to renewed disunity, discord, and incidents of aggression in his parish.
The parish was also divided for a long time over the construction of a new church. The old stone building, erected between 1715 and 1719, was clearly too small and the diocesan authority ordered a larger one built. Desilets’s frequent illnesses and the difficulty of dividing the costs between the day labourers and the property owners, who claimed they were “assessed more heavily,” led to a delay of several years. The decision to build was finally taken in 1878 and the stone was cut at Sainte-Angèle-de-Laval across the river from the parish. Both priest and parishioners counted on a bridge of ice forming in the winter of 1878–79 over which they could transport materials more cheaply. Despite special prayers – every Sunday the parish made supplications to Our Lady of the Rosary, to whom the priest showed great devotion – the whole winter passed without their being able to cross the river on the ice, and the month of March was already under way when they realized that only a “miracle” would bring about the formation of an ice bridge. Prayers were intensified and on Friday 14 March 1879 the river began to freeze over as a result of an ice jam. On Sunday and the succeeding days the assistant priest, Louis-Eugène Duguay, and a group of men set to work to strengthen the bridge and mark the route. By 26 March, with the help of a corvée of parishioners, friends, and people from other parishes, enough stone had been transported for construction to begin. When the last load had been brought across, the ice bridge immediately became too dangerous for further use. As a result of what became known as the “miracle of the bridge of rosaries,” the new church opened for worship on 3 Oct. 1880.
The “miracle” attracted a certain number of pilgrims who came individually to pray in the old chapel, which had been preserved out of gratitude and had become the meeting place of the Confrérie du Très-Saint-Rosaire. The first public pilgrimage took place on 7 May 1883. Year by year the number of pilgrims slowly increased; they came from Trois-Rivières and Champlain and, after a dock was built in 1887, from some of the parishes on the south shore such as Saint-Grégoire-le-Grand. On several occasions Desilets himself went to urge pilgrims to come.
But Desilets was known more for his active interest in political life than as a parish priest and founder of the pilgrimage of Notre-Dame-du-Cap. Having come to the parish at the time when confederation was under discussion, he opted for the Quebec Resolutions and its promoters. Similarly when the Guibord affair arose [see Joseph Guibord*], when the Université Laval and a number of political figures were accused of Gallicanism, and when a group of intransigents launched the Programme catholique [see François-Xavier-Anselme Trudel], the parish priest Desilets was invariably and vociferously on the side of the “right principles.” An Ultramontane and a supporter of the Conservative party, he sometimes claimed the role of political organizer for his parish and even for the constituency of Champlain. No doubt when speaking to politicians and even to his bishop he exaggerated his influence, but it must be admitted that he pursued the Liberals relentlessly and that the candidate he supported was usually victorious. The best example is his report of his intervention at the time of the election of the sole “Programmist,” François-Xavier-Anselme Trudel, in 1871: “Anselme would not have got a single vote in Cap-de-la-Madeleine, not one, . . . if I had not made three or four pronouncements to the parishioners explaining their duties according to the Encyclical, the Councils, and the Bishop’s letters.”
In 1872 Desilets joined his brothers Pierre, Alfred, and Gédéon in purchasing the Journal des Trois-Rivières, even boasting that he ran up a debt of $3,000 to settle the transaction. More important, despite his persistent and vigorous denials, he was a regular contributor to the paper; although it is not always easy to attribute a specific article to his prolix pen there is no doubt that he was responsible for several texts on theological and political matters, as Laflèche, bishop of Trois-Rivières, acknowledged in 1877 in a letter to Bishop George Conroy*, the apostolic delegate. In addition to writing anonymous articles, he kept up a voluminous correspondence with politicians such as Sir George-Étienne Cartier*, Sir Hector-Louis Langevin*, and Trudel, as well as with religious authorities. His lengthy, well-written letters denounced the Gallican and liberal evils and proposed drastic action. He himself joined in veritable crusades bearing on political problems more or less connected to religion; for example he fought the public loan to the North Shore Railway [see Joseph-Édouard Cauchon].
Desilets made special efforts, however, to exercise a decisive influence on Bishop Laflèche. A frequent visitor to the bishop’s palace in Trois-Rivières, he got himself selected for special missions, such as negotiating the sale of the buildings of the Collège de Nicolet to the federal government in 1868–69, and in 1871 evaluating the orthodoxy of Judge Joseph-Ubalde Beaudry*’s Code des curés, marguilliers et paroissiens accompagné de notes historiques et critiques, which had been published in Montreal the year before. He plunged into these tasks with such enthusiasm that on almost every occasion he was reprimanded by the bishop. Despite the confused nature of his relations with Laflèche, Desilets was one of those who induced the bishop of Trois-Rivières to abandon his cautious stand in the conflict between Quebec City and Montreal, particularly in regard to a Catholic university in Montreal, and to side with Bishop Ignace Bourget against Archbishop Elzéar-Alexandre Taschereau*. An avowed opponent of Taschereau, the former rector of the Université Laval, the parish priest of Cap-de-la-Madeleine denounced him to Laflèche as a Catholic liberal who was responsible for the advance of liberalism in Quebec. His accusations became increasingly violent as conflict over politics and religion grew more acrimonious; it was heightened at the time of the elections in Charlevoix [see Pierre-Alexis Tremblay*] and Bonaventure which were disputed on grounds of clerical interference; it also increased as a result of the episcopal declarations unconditionally denouncing Catholic liberalism (22 Sept. 1875), and then recognizing the legitimacy of a kind of non-doctrinal political liberalism (11 Oct. 1877). The apostolic delegate, Bishop Conroy, did not escape the condemnation of Desilets who considered him a friend of the liberals and deemed his visit to Canada “a disaster.” Desilets’s intervention, together with the pressure from the dioceses of Montreal and Rimouski, convinced Laflèche that it was his duty to denounce to Rome Taschereau’s administration and Conroy’s mission, a step he took on 7 Oct. 1878.
In 1883, at the time of a second attempt to split the diocese of Trois-Rivières, Desilets mobilized the forces of the north against those of the south; he particularly attacked Abbé Joseph-Calixte Canac, dit Marquis, and the directors of the Séminaire de Nicolet, as the principal supporters of the division. That year he went to Rome with Laflèche and remained there as the bishop’s procurator. He entered into many negotiations and drafted numerous reports which he faithfully outlined to his superior in a weekly letter of 20 to 40 pages. He stayed in Rome until the summer of 1885 when Propaganda announced the division of the diocese and the appointment of Elphège Gravel as the first bishop of Nicolet.
In 1885, in recognition of all his services, Bishop Laflèche appointed Desilets titular canon and vicar general; the preceding year the bishop had promoted him to the important parish of Saint-Antoine at Baie-du-Febvre (Baieville) but the division of the diocese prevented him from filling this post. The indefatigable fighter remained at Cap-de-la-Madeleine to devote his last years to spreading the practice of the rosary. Stricken with a heart attack during the summer of 1888 he went to live with his brother Alfred, in whose home he died suddenly on 30 August. Laflèche officiated at his funeral and delivered a moving eulogy.
Luc Desilets’s private papers and pastoral work show him to have been a man of staunch faith as well as a charitable and devoted priest who fervently preached devotion to the Virgin Mary. On the other hand his political activism was based on a Manichean vision of the world which had little relationship to the true state of Canadian society at the time, and some of his interventions revealed at the least a certain lack of balance. This judgement had been reached years before by his teachers at Nicolet, and the historian of today finds it hard to reject their opinion.
AAQ, 33 CR, I: 96, 102, 104. ACAM, 295.104. ANQ-Q, AP-G-134. Arch. de l’archevêché de Rimouski (Rimouski, Qué.), Corr. avec Trois-Rivières. Arch. de l’évêché de Trois-Rivières, Fonds L.-F. Laflèche, Corr. reçue, Narcisse Pelletier, 15 déc. 1861; Luc Desilets, 16 oct. 1870, 27 juin, 14 juill. 1871, 15 févr. 1873, 23 sept. 1878; Paroisses, Sainte-Marie-Madeleine (Cap-de-la-Madeleine, Qué.); Reg. des lettres envoyées: L.-F. Laflèche, Giovanni Simeoni, 7 oct. 1878. Arch. du sanctuaire Notre-Dame-du-Cap (Cap-de-la-Madeleine), D7, chemise 4; D27; D28, chemise 3; D43, I: 16–28, 157–73. Archivio della Propaganda Fide (Rome), Scritture riferite nei Congressi: America Settentrionale, 18 (1877): f.480. Arch. du séminaire de Trois-Rivières, Mauriciana, Les villes et localités, Cap-de-la-Madeleine. Le Journal des Trois-Rivières, 7 avril 1879, 4 sept. 1888, 7–22 mars 1889. P.-É. Breton, Cap-de-la-Madeleine, cité mystique de Marie (Trois-Rivières, 1937). Alfred Désilets, Souvenir d’un octogénaire (Trois-Rivières, 1922). [Arthur Joyal], Deuxième centenaire du sanctuaire national de Notre-Dame du Cap, 1715–1915 (Trois-Rivières, 1915). Romain Légaré, Un apôtre des deux mondes, le père Frédéric Janssoone, O.F.M., de Ghyvelde (Montréal, 1953). [Eugène Nadeau], Notre-Dame-du-Cap, reine du Très Saint Rosaire; son histoire, ses prodiges, ses foules (Cap-de-la-Madeleine, ). Robert Rumilly, Monseigneur Laflèche et son temps (Montréal, ). Frédéric Janssoone, “Le sanctuaire du Cap-de-la-Madeleine; notice historique sur ses origines et son développement,” Le Souvenir (Trois-Rivières), 3 (1955), no.1: 1–22. Hermann Morin, “Le curé Désilets, fondateur du pèlerinage de Notre-Dame du Cap (1831–1888),” Notre-Dame du Cap, reine du Très Saint Rosaire (Cap-de-la-Madeleine), numéro spécial (avril 1955): 1–26. Albert Tessier, “Luc Désilets, un des ‘fanaux de tôle’ de Mgr Laflèche,” Cahiers des Dix, 19 (1954): 161–86; “Messire Luc Désilets, apôtre du rosaire et fondateur du sanctuaire national du Cap-de-la-Madeleine (1831–1888),” SCHÉC Rapport, 21 (1953–54): 67–77.