BERNIÈRES, HENRI DE, first parish priest of Quebec, vicar general of the diocese, first superior of the seminary of Quebec, and dean of the chapter; b. c. 1635 at Caen (Normandy), son of Pierre de Bernières, Baron d’Acqueville, and of Madeleine Le Breton; d. 1700.
He was nine years old when his father died, a victim of his devotion to sick prisoners. The young boy’s upbringing was undertaken by his uncle Jean de Bernières de Louvigny. This personage was the founder, about 1644, of the Hermitage at Caen, which played a remarkable part in the religious history of France. After the dissensions and religious wars that followed the Lutheran Reformation, the need for a revival made itself apparent everywhere, and aroused powerful tendencies towards austerity and mysticism within the Catholic nations. The Council of Trent was the main inspiration of the Roman Catholic renaissance. The dissemination of the council’s decisions throughout the various classes of society owed a great deal to the efforts of eminent men such as St. Charles Borromeo, St. François de Sales, and St. Vincent de Paul. Distinguished women also played their part, as did a number of laymen, grouped in various associations. The Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement and the Hermitage at Caen, which was linked with it, were among these. Laymen and ecclesiastics met there to discuss religion, spiritual matters, mysticism, apostleship, and evangelization; at these sessions there was a great deal of prayer. Jean de Bernières was the initiator of the Hermitage, and its guiding spirit until his death in 1659. Abbé Montigny, that is to say François de Laval*, the future bishop of Quebec, frequented the Hermitage; the young Henri de Bernières was brought up and educated there. The Hermitage adjoined a monastery of Ursuline nuns founded by Jourdaine de Bernières, Jean’s sister. This convent brought the same influence to bear on girls and women as the Hermitage did on men.
The colony of New France had come to life again after the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1632. The Jesuits, who had followed the Recollets in 1625, opened a classical college at Quebec in 1635, and made it the centre of their evangelizing activity among the Indians and Europeans. The Sulpicians established themselves at Ville-Marie (Montreal) in 1657. Trois-Rivières and the Beaupré shore already had primitive parishes. The colony, around 1650, was still a great dream rather than a great reality. However, the French court took pride in this dream, and was formulating plans: the colony might be transformed into a real province of France. The Church also had lofty designs: Quebec might become a bishopric, at the least an apostolic vicariate. The colony did in fact become a province, and a vicar apostolic was appointed. According to Gallican custom, the bishops – and vicars apostolic – were chosen by the king and presented to the pope. François de Laval was first recommended for the apostolic vicariate of Tonkin, but shortly afterwards was designated for New France. He was consecrated in Paris and was to leave for Quebec in the spring of 1659. He would take some priests with him; his choice fell on Abbés Jean Torcapel, Philippe Pelerin, Charles de Lauson de Charny, and Henri de Bernières. The latter, aged 24 and a mere tonsured cleric (he had been tonsured when 9 years old), seems to have been the youngest of the four. He had been proposed to Bishop Laval by M. Jean de Bernières himself. The little group sailed from La Rochelle on 13 April 1659 and reached Quebec two months later, on 16 June. Father Jérôme Lalemant made the crossing with them. No residence had been provided at Quebec for the bishop and his group, but they found temporary quarters.
The most pressing matter was to allocate the various tasks: Charles de Lauson became the official, in charge of legal and canonical affairs; Torcapel was entrusted with the responsibility of ministering to the future parish of Quebec. Young Henri de Bernières was the bishop’s chaplain; he would continue his theological studies and tackle the Iroquois language. He was ordained priest on 13 March 1660. M. Torcapel left again for France in the autumn of 1660. The bishop appointed M. de Bernières in his place to look after the religious needs of the district of Quebec, which was not to be constituted a parish until 1664. The young priest supervised the building of a presbytery, which would also be the bishop’s palace; two years sufficed for this. Bishop Laval departed for France in 1662; he entrusted the administration to MM. de Lauson and de Bernières, whom he appointed vicars general. The bishop’s return in the summer of 1663 brought about a very important change: Bishop Laval had been authorized to construct a seminary; he had a royal charter signed by Louis XIV, a document which set up a corporation possessing wide powers to carry on teaching and to obtain all the help required for that purpose. It was at first a grand seminary, that is, a theological college. The Jesuit Fathers had been operating a classical college since 1635. Theoretically, the Jesuits’ college could have had graduates by 1640, and it could be hoped that certain of them would elect to become priests. Other young men might come from France. By 1665, the seminary appeared to be progressing sufficiently well for it to be given a superior, and Bishop Laval selected M. de Bernières for this post. He held it on four occasions: 1665–72, 1673–83, 1685–88, and 1693–98, a total of 25 years.
M. de Bernières’ work, both as parish priest of Quebec and as superior of the seminary, is most important. The parish of Quebec was the first in New France, and its organization would serve as a model for the establishment of other parishes. The seminary developed by stages: first a grand seminary (1663), then a classical college (1668), then seigneurial properties (1668, etc.), and then a single vast corporation, capable of ensuring the maintenance of all priests entrusted with missions. M. de Bernières was a witness of and an agent in all these stages with his associates, of whom the chief ones were Abbés Louis Ango* Des Maizerets and Jean Dudouyt, and all were in perfect harmony with their father and master, Bishop Laval. In a new country, temporal backing was a necessity. The priests engaged in the ministry looked to the seminary for support; the latter relied on the Séminaire des Missions étrangères in Paris, by virtue of an agreement concluded in 1665 and renewed in 1676. When M. de Bernières died in 1700, the seminary had behind it 37 years of active existence; it had formed a number of priests. Its founder, Bishop Laval, was still alive, but he had resigned as bishop: his successor, Bishop Saint-Vallier [La Croix*], thought fit to introduce changes, the most typical of which was to make the parish priests independent of the seminary. As for seigneuries, the seminary owned the one at Beaupré and the one at the Île-Jésus, as well as the Sault-au-Matelot and the Saint-Michel fiefs, located at Quebec itself. Other resources came from France, by arrangements with various priories and abbeys. Wealthy families gave generously; the French Crown sometimes made a contribution. The ardent desire for missions among the Indian tribes had already forced the seminary to extend towards the banks of the great Mississippi River, particularly among the Tamaroas Indians, and towards Acadia. Henri de Bernières took part in all this progress. He had given to the seminary his substance, and, to the colony, a third of a century of labour, privation, and prayer.
ASQ, Chapitre; Documents Faribault; Lettres; Paroisse de Québec; Paroisses diverses; Polygraphie; Séminaire; passim. Auguste Gosselin, Henri de Bernières, premier curé de Québec (Les Normands au Canada, Québec, 1902); Vie de Mgr de Laval.