BELLENGER, JOSEPH-MARIE, Roman Catholic priest, missionary, and journalist; b. 15 April 1788 at Quebec, son of Joseph Bélanger, a master furrier, and Marie-Catherine Manisson (Malisson), dit Philibert; d. 6 May 1856 in Longue-Pointe (Montreal).
Joseph-Marie Bellenger received a classical education at the Petit Séminaire de Québec from 1800 to 1808, and he continued his studies at the Grand Séminaire from 1810. Having been ordained priest on 13 March 1813, he became curate of Saint-Joachim at Châteauguay; that autumn he was appointed to a similar post at Saint-Laurent, on Montreal Island. Priests were then in such great demand that a curacy lasted barely long enough to provide pastoral training. In 1814, at the age of 26, Bellenger was sent as a missionary to Restigouche, on the Baie des Chaleurs, where he worked among the Micmacs for five years.
As a student, Bellenger had shown particular aptitude for versification and linguistics, and he now began to study the Micmac language. At the invitation of Bishop Joseph-Octave Plessis* of Quebec, who gave him manuscript notebooks left by Abbé Pierre Maillard*, the great apostle of the Micmacs, he set to work in 1817 on a Micmac alphabet, an outline of a grammar, and a collection of prayers; the following year he wrote a catechism.
In 1819 Bellenger was appointed parish priest of Saint-Paul (at Joliette), where he proved an able minister and gave particular attention to the pioneers of Rawdon Township, who for the most part were poverty-stricken Irish immigrants. He was parish priest of Saint-Pascal in 1829 and 1830, and of Saint-François-du-Lac from 1830 to 1833. The latter was the most important parish he served because the responsibilities also involved working as a missionary among a group of Indians. On his arrival, Bellenger set to work countering the initiatives of the Abenaki schoolmaster Osunkhirhine (Pierre-Paul Masta), who was introducing Protestantism to his people at the Saint-François-de-Sales (Odanak) mission, which was attached to Bellenger’s parish. Masta, while a student at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., had been an adherent of the Congregational Church. Since 1829 he had been employed by the Indian Department as a schoolmaster among the Abenakis of Saint-François-de-Sales, and was teaching some 40 children. He used, among other aids, an Abenaki-English vocabulary which he had put together and had had printed in Boston in 1830; furthermore, the Congregational Church was taking steps to provide his school free of charge with the books it needed, including a Protestant catechism.
To forestall “heretical” instruction Bellenger, with the agreement of his bishop, Bernard-Claude Panet*, had the short catechism of the diocese of Quebec translated into the Abenaki language, undertaking the work with the help of Masta himself. The book was revised by a Catholic Abenaki and published at Quebec in 1832 under the title Kagakimzouiasis ueji uo’banakiak adali kimo’gik aliuitzo’ki za plasua.
Masta, however, was becoming increasingly bold. With the agreement of his Abenaki assistant, Jacques-Joseph Annance, dit Kadnèche, who had also studied at Hanover, he had invited a Protestant minister of Trois-Rivières to preach in the village and was putting pressure on the government for a resident minister. In May 1832 Bishop Panet came to urge the Abenakis to desert Masta. The visit over, Masta preached more fervently than ever in an attempt to dissuade them from obeying the bishop.
In order to meet the needs of the parish of Saint-François-du-Lac and the mission, Bellenger suggested that a new church be built in the centre of the village. The proposed church would be easier for the inhabitants of the seigneury of Pierreville to reach and would be opposite the Abenaki mission, which Bellenger could then keep an eye on more readily. His plan was opposed by a number of parishioners who did not want a church built on another site and threatened to take the matter to court. On the advice of the new bishop of Quebec, Joseph Signay*, Bellenger agreed to shelve his plan until some more favourable time.
In June 1832 Bellenger asked the village chiefs to sign a petition to have Masta relieved of his post, but to no avail. The chiefs were “of the opinion that no man can prevent [Masta] from explaining the Bible, since in so doing he is acting according to his conscience and is teaching valuable things.” Kadnèche had interceded strongly on the schoolmaster’s behalf and considered him the pastor of the Abenakis. The chiefs, however, were soon to change their opinion about Masta, when they realized that he was seeking to assume control of the village. Masta went so far as to insult them by claiming that the commissions granted to Simon Obomsawin, as first chief, and to the other chiefs of the Abenakis of Saint-François-de-Sales were not worth “the tassel on a corn cob.” The new deputy superintendent of the Indian Department, Colonel William McKay*, was informed of the situation; he obtained a letter from the governor-in-chief, Matthew Whitworth-Aylmer*, threatening to strike Masta off the list of the department’s officials if he continued to spread discord among his people. But McKay died suddenly during the cholera epidemic in Montreal that year and the government postponed making a decision.
While at Saint-François-du-Lac, Bellenger had asked three times to be relieved of his responsibilities. On 21 Oct. 1833 Bishop Signay accepted his resignation. At the bishop’s request, the vicar general of the diocese, Louis-Marie Cadieux*, authorized Bellenger on 22 Feb. 1834 to act as assistant priest of Saint-Michel at Yamaska, where he remained until August 1835. Shortly thereafter he was sent to the Collège de Chambly, and on 12 October was made parish priest of Saint-François-d’Assise at Longue-Pointe. On 14 December he was given the same post in Saint-Esprit, a position he retained until 1846.
Bellenger also gained a reputation as a linguist, man of letters, and journalist. The outline of Micmac grammar which he had prepared in 1817 with the help of Abbé Maillard’s notebooks was to be used in 1864 in Grammaire de la langue mikmaque, published in New York by John Dawson Gilmary Shea; Shea had obtained the manuscript through Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Ferland*, a history professor at the Université Laval at Quebec. Bellenger was one of the first members of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, and with Michel Bibaud was an active contributor to La Bibliothèque canadienne during its existence from 1825 to 1830. This journal’s aim was to “spread knowledge of the sciences, arts, and letters, and bring out the unknown or unacknowledged talents of dead or living compatriots, make known literary movements, highlights of history, [and] memorable events, and impart them to the young and the general public.” In it Bellenger showed himself conversant with poetry, agronomy, and mathematics.
At the beginning of February 1846 Bellenger and André-Toussaint Lagarde took charge of the diocesan newspaper Mélanges religieux. The two new owners and editors were particularly anxious to have their paper carry what they considered to be worthwhile items from other papers or periodicals and from letters and documents sent to them for publication. Strictly speaking, they did not write editorials or articles but confined themselves to publishing the material they had chosen. Bellenger devoted his attention to the ecclesiastical news of the diocese of Montreal and beyond. He worked with Lagarde at Mélanges religieux until June 1846, and then alone until September 1847 when he gave up his post.
Little is known about Bellenger’s later years except that he no longer performed pastoral duties. In the absence of specific information it may be presumed, however, that Bishop Signay had forbidden him to carry on his ministry, since Bellenger had apparently not been altogether above reproach in his handling of money entrusted to him by his former parishioners. He is known to have lost his ecclesiastical powers in 1848, perhaps because he had been at fault or had been sick. Whatever the case, in the course of his life Bellenger had shown himself to be a cultured man, with a concern for truth and a mind open to various fields of knowledge.
AAQ, 12 A, G: ff.202, 224; H: ff.12, 34, 41; 210 A, VIII: 303–5, 377–80, 472–77; IX: 34–41, 109–11, 192–94, 254–56, 439–40; XII: 207, 538–39; XIV: 314–16; 26 CP, VII: 7a; T, Papiers J.-B.-A. Ferland, corr. ACAM, RLB, 1: 92–94, 227–28; RLL, III: 163–64, 168–71; IV: 413–15; VIII: 220–21. ANQ-M, CE1-51, 8 mai 1856. ANQ-Q, CE1-1, 16 avril 1788. Arch. de l’évêché de Joliette (Joliette, Qué.), Cartable Saint-Paul-de-Joliette, 1: 1825-5; Cartable Saint-Esprit, I: 1837-1, 4, 5, 1838-8, 9; Cartable Saint-Lin, 1: 1837-4, 1838-1. Arch. de l’évêché de Nicolet (Nicolet, Qué.), Cartable Saint-François-du-Lac, 1, 24 oct., 15 nov. 1830; 28 nov. 1831; 10 avril, 28 mai, 27 juin, 7, 16 juill., 13 août, 1er, 22 sept., 17 déc. 1832. ASQ, Fichier des anciens. Grammaire de la langue mikmaque, J.-M. Bellenger, édit. (New York, 1864). Kagakimzouiasis ueji uo’banakiak adali kimo’gik aliuitzo’ki za plasua (Québec, 1832). Mélanges religieux, 6 févr. 1846, 14 sept. 1847. Allaire, Dictionnaire, 1: 41. F.-M. Bibaud, Le panthéon canadien (A. et V. Bibaud; 1891), 20. Caron, “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Signay,” ANQ Rapport, 1936–37: 222, 241, 270; 1937–38: 53, 72. Le Jeune, Dictionnaire, 1: 170. J. C. Pilling, Bibliography of the Algonquian languages (Washington, 1891), 41, 539. P.-G. Roy, Fils de Québec, 3: 41–42. Tanguay, Dictionnaire, 5: 479; Répertoire (1893), 176. T.-M. Charland, Histoire de Saint-François-du-Lac (Ottawa, 1942), 233–50; Histoire des Abénakis d’Odanak (1675–1937) (Montréal, 1964), 179–80, 193–218. Meilleur, Mémorial de l’éducation (1876), 305–6. “Les disparus,” BRH, 32 (1926): 59.