GAY, JEAN-MARIE, Roman Catholic priest; b. 13 Aug. 1830 in Chilly (France), son of Joseph Gay and Pétronile Bachet; d. 30 June 1901 in Versailles, France.
Jean-Marie Gay began classical studies at the Collège de La Roche and completed them at the Collège d’Annecy in 1852. After studying theology with the Sulpicians in Orléans, France, he was ordained on 10 June 1855 in Paris by Bishop William Walsh* of Halifax. Gay was apparently destined for Walsh’s diocese.
After his arrival in Nova Scotia late in 1855 Gay was assistant priest in the parish of Ste Anne, in the Tusket River region at the southwestern end of the province. In February 1856 he took up residence in the parish of St Michel at Bas-de-Tousquet (Wedgeport), a former mission of Ste Anne. Called to Halifax in the spring of 1857, he spent several months there before being sent to the parish of Ste Croix, which at that time included Digby, Everette Settlement (Plympton), St Bernard, and Corberrie. In September 1859 he returned to Bas-de-Tousquet, and he remained eight years. He built a new presbytery in 1865 and before leaving had begun the construction of a new church. In the mid 19th century there were few French-speaking priests in Nova Scotia, so it is not surprising that Gay spent his sacerdotal career in predominantly Acadian parishes. His ten years (1867–77) at Minudie were no exception, though the French-speaking population was declining there.
Gay is most remembered for his ministry to Ste Marie, where he took up duties in April 1878. He was the first French-speaking priest to serve there since the death of Jean-Mandé Sigogne* in 1844. In 1879 the large parish, which included the villages along St Mary’s Bay from Grosses Coques to Meteghan as well as settlements inland, was divided in two, but Gay continued to minister to the entire region. He raised money and obtained donations of material and labour for the building of a church at Saulnierville in the new parish of Sacré-Cœur. The church was completed in 1882 and construction of a presbytery was begun in 1884. Gay also worked hard to foster the cause of temperance among his parishioners.
Although Gay was a capable administrator, he was a poor speaker. Shy and retiring, he was more comfortable tending his garden and pruning his trees than preaching a sermon. Yet he impressed his parishioners by his goodness, his simplicity of manners, and, above all, his support of the Acadians’ efforts to better their position. In 1883, when Bishop Cornelius O’Brien made his first pastoral visit to the region, Gay spoke to him about its need for an institution of higher education for Acadian boys and suggested that an order of French-speaking priests be asked to begin one. He offered to give up his parishes, the most prosperous in the area, to the priests so that they would have some revenue while laying the foundations of their college or academy. Although O’Brien did not respond immediately, by 1886 he began to search in earnest for an order. Through Archbishop Édouard-Charles Fabre* of Montreal and other prelates, he approached the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Redemptorists, Marist Brothers, Eudists, and Salesians, but all of them responded unfavourably.
Nevertheless, with O’Brien’s approval Gay’s colleague and friend Alphonse Parker, parish priest of St Bernard, launched a campaign on 17 July 1889 to obtain funds for the new institution, which was to be a memorial to Sigogne. Money was raised by lottery and subscription, especially during the Acadian national convention held in August 1890 at Church Point, in the parish of Ste Marie. Gay persuaded others to give money and contributed to the deliberations of the convention.
Meanwhile, the Eudists had reconsidered their decision. The anticlerical movement in France had succeeded in 1889 in having priests, members of religious orders, and seminarists made liable for military service, and the clergy faced the possibility of greater persecution. The Eudists therefore now welcomed the opportunity to establish a college which could also serve as a refuge for their priests and students should the need arise. On 16 Sept. 1890 Gustave Blanche* and Aimé Morin arrived at Church Point to establish the order’s first college in North America.
Although Gay had not been informed of the Eudists’ decision, he received the priests cordially. As Blanche later noted, he gave them his two parishes, together with “his carriage, his horse, his cows, etc., . . . his entire harvest of straw and hay . . . , linen, some blankets, in brief a presbytery all equipped.” He left quietly early in October, seeking to avoid any public display of appreciation from his parishioners, and eventually took up his former parish at St Michel, at Tusket Wedge (as Bas-de-Tousquet was now known). His efforts on behalf of what was soon to become the Collège Sainte-Anne would not, however, end.
During a special ceremony in 1892 the staff and students of the Collège Sainte-Anne, the only French-language institution of higher learning in Nova Scotia, thanked Gay and Parker for their efforts in helping to establish the college by naming a room in their honour and erecting commemorative plaques. Although Gay was primarily recognized then and later for having selflessly given up his parishes and for having facilitated the establishment of the Eudists in Canada, it is less well known that over the years he aided the college with donations, to a total of 10,000 francs. In November 1899, moreover, he lent Blanche’s successor as principal, Pierre-Marie Dagnaud, 20,000 francs to help rebuild the college after its destruction by fire in January. He also served on the college’s board of governors.
Gay left Nova Scotia in June 1901 for a visit to his family and native land. The pleurisy he had contracted before his departure worsened on his arrival in Paris. Seeking the comfort of friends, he arrived at the Eudist-run Collège Saint-Jean-de-Versailles, where he was welcomed by Blanche. Efforts to cure him were unsuccessful and he died of pneumonia. The Eudists treated Gay as one of their own, burying him in their cemetery after an impressive funeral service. Even in death Jean-Marie Gay remained a benefactor of the Collège Sainte-Anne. He left some money to poor members of his family and for masses; the remainder, about $800, was to go to the college.
Arch. Prov. des Pères Eudistes (Charlesbourg, Qué.), AP-1, 1 (Personnes), J.-M. Gay; 2 (Lieux), Church Point, N.-É. (mfm.); PR-9 (fonds Alexandre Braud), 3.2 (“La fondation du collège Sainte-Anne de Church Point et l’arrivée des eudistes en Acadie”). Centre d’Études Acadiennes, Univ. de Moncton, N.-B., Fonds Placide Gaudet, 1.24-23, 1.57-16, 1.65-14, 1.69-18; Fonds V. [-A.] Landry, 7.1-23. L’Évangéline, 17 juill. 1889; 24 juill., 1, 28 août, 25 sept., 16 oct. 1890; 18 févr., 17 mars, 5 mai 1892; 4 avril 1895; 1 août 1901. Le Moniteur acadien, 19 août 1890; 15, 26 avril 1892; 1 août 1901. P.-M. Dagnaud, Les Français du sud-ouest de la Nouvelle-Écosse . . . (Besançon, France, 1905). [Wilfrid Haché], Les cinquante ans du collège Sainte-Anne ([Church Point, 1940]) [LaPlante, cited below, attributes this history to Haché]. Léopold LaPlante, Chronique du collège Sainte-Anne; les pères eudistes au service de l’Église et de la communauté (Yarmouth, N.-É., 1986). René LeBlanc et Micheline Laliberté, Sainte-Anne, collège et université, 1890–1990 (Pointe-de-l’Église [Church Point], 1990).