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GONTHIER, DOMINIQUE-CESLAS (baptized Théophile), Roman Catholic priest, Dominican, author, and professor; b. 22 Sept. 1853 in Saint-Gervais, Lower Canada, son of Magloire Gonthier, a farmer, and Catherine Mitron-Jolivet; d. 16 June 1917 in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que.
The youngest of 13 children, Théophile Gonthier spent his childhood in the small village of Saint-Raphaël, where his parents had settled soon after his birth. He described himself as a precocious child who could read by the age of three. Lively and mischievous, he reportedly had an ability to influence his friends that indicated leadership qualities. His brother Damase, who was ordained priest in 1857, supervised his education, enrolling him in the third year of the preparatory course at the Petit Séminaire de Québec in 1863. A gifted boy, Théophile skipped the next grade, Latin Elements, and still maintained a high standard, winning the third prize for excellence in rhetoric. After completing the Philosophy program, he entered the Grand Séminaire de Québec in September 1871. His professors included Benjamin* and Louis-Honoré Pâquet as well as Louis-Nazaire Bégin*. He formed solid friendships with Lionel Lindsay and Cyrille-Alfred Marois, future advisers to the archbishop of Quebec.
During his classical studies Gonthier had read the biography of Henri Lacordaire, who restored the Order of Friars Preachers, or Dominicans, in France, and it had sparked in him an intense attraction to this community. Since at least 1854 Bishop Jean-Charles Prince* of Saint-Hyacinthe and Abbé Joseph-Sabin Raymond*, his vicar general, had been urging that the order be brought into Canada. The Dominican ministry focused on the exposition of religious tenets and morality, especially in urban centres, by itinerant preaching of a doctrinal and polemical kind. The image projected suited Gonthier’s temperament; he had an independent, critical mind with a propensity for argument and confrontation. His vocation was decided after a meeting in the spring of 1873 with Father Bernard Chocarne, the Dominican provincial of the province of France and author of Lacordaire’s biography, who had come to lay the groundwork for a convent in Saint-Hyacinthe. Encouraged by Abbé Bégin, Gonthier left for France at the end of August 1874 with Hyacinthe Gadbois, a fellow novice. He took the Dominican habit on 10 September at the convent of Abbeville, and the name Dominique-Ceslas; on 8 Dec. 1875 he made his vows at the convent of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, where he was continuing his theological training. He was ordained priest on 7 June 1879 in Langres.
A few weeks later Gonthier was back in Canada. He was then appointed itinerant preacher attached to the convent of Saint-Hyacinthe. It was housed in the presbytery of the parish of Notre-Dame-du-Rosaire, which was ministered to by the Dominicans. Gonthier spent six years there, with neither luxury nor hardship, but with no well-stocked library to prepare for the retreats he preached to priests, religious brothers, and parishioners. Father Émile-Alphonse Langlais, a contemporary, found him less at ease in the pulpit, where his voice was not powerful, than in the intimacy of chapels, where his sound doctrine, clear expositions, piety, and soulfulness “suffuse into a persuasive, guiding light.” Gonthier faced some crucial decisions when, under the pressure of their expulsion from France, the Dominicans in 1881 founded a convent in Lewiston, Maine, which was linked administratively to the one in Saint-Hyacinthe, and considered establishing a noviciate in North America. The community was going through a difficult period. The French origin of its members and their reputation as liberal Catholics aroused suspicion within the Canadian episcopacy, and their vitality worried previously established male orders in Canada. Montreal was Sulpician territory, Ottawa the province of the Oblates, and Quebec City a fief of the Séminaire de Québec. The community itself was divided over its future direction. Many French Dominicans expected to keep the North American convents attached to the province of France for as long as possible; members from France would fill the top administrative positions, establish an itinerant, argumentative style of preaching, and distance themselves somewhat from the traditions of the order. Others were working for the emergence of two separate provinces, one Canadian, the other American. Gonthier took it upon himself to express and champion the Canadian point of view, which comprised the desire for a noviciate at Saint-Hyacinthe, the gradual Canadianization of administration, and the emergence of a single province; the acceptance of parish ministry for funding the order’s expansion and its itinerant preaching; and a respect for tradition and a strict observance of the Dominican rule. Gonthier’s opinions were based on his intuition that the community’s growth depended on its members’ empathy with the people, its ability to take full advantage of a Canadian Christian context rich in religious vocations, its rejection of Americanism, and its care to support the doctrinal and intellectual positions of the French Canadian episcopate. Thus he chose to be an ultramontane in a liberal order, a nationalist within the province of France, and a highly orthodox Dominican in North America.
With his companions Gonthier shared the task of establishing the order in the cities, especially those that were centres of intellectual life. In 1882, when he was named bursar and master of novices, he began planning for a convent in Ottawa. Irish and Oblate opposition, as well as the Dominicans’ liberal reputation, kept them from being installed in the presbytery of Saint-Jean-Baptiste parish until August 1884 (the convent would be built only in 1900). Gonthier was parish priest and superior from 1885 to 1894. He gave a vigorous impetus to this second Dominican house, but not without stepping on numerous toes by his penchant for taking charge.
In 1894 Gonthier was assigned to the convent at Fall River, Mass., where the Dominicans had been ministering to a French Canadian working-class population in the parish of Sainte-Anne since 1888. The province of France wanted to make it a refuge for young monks evading a French military-service law passed in 1889. Gonthier followed Canadian developments from afar and kept in touch with his Quebec City friends. Late in September 1896, at the request of Mgr Bégin, then administrator of the diocese of Quebec, he undertook the task of “pointing out the errors of fact and doctrine” in Laurent-Olivier David*’s Le clergé canadien: sa mission, son œuvre (Montréal, 1896), which summarized liberal grievances against the French Canadian episcopate. Gonthier hurriedly prepared a rejoinder which came out in December under the pseudonym P. Bernard, Un manifeste libéral: M. L.-O. David et le clergé canadien (2v., Québec). Written in a brisk, trenchant style, spiced with sarcasm and laced with bitterness, the work was a vigorous apologia for ultramontane ecclesiology and a legitimization of the episcopate’s attitudes and positions in the face of liberalism. It enjoyed considerable success: according to Gonthier, the first run of 3,000 copies was quickly picked up. Rome censured David; the episcopacy rejoiced, while the liberals planned revenge. Such success deserved a reward. On 29 May 1897 Gonthier left New York for Rome; there, at Bégin’s request, he was to look after the interests of the French Canadian bishops, who were disconcerted by the apparently favourable attitude toward liberals of Rafael Merry del Val, the apostolic delegate then inquiring into the religious situation in Canada. Gonthier’s mandate was a heavy one. He had to block the nomination of Bishop Joseph-Médard Emard* of Valleyfield, perceived as a liberal, to the see of Montreal, which had been left vacant by the death of Édouard-Charles Fabre*; he had to ensure that the position of the Canadian episcopate was endorsed in the encyclical being prepared in Rome on the Manitoba school question [see Thomas Greenway*]; and he had to oppose Canadian government endeavours to have a permanent apostolic delegation established in Ottawa as Rome’s antenna in Canada. Gonthier did his lobbying in a difficult environment. He had no friends in the curia, the Dominicans of the province of France complained to the order’s master general about his presence in Rome, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier resorted to the influence of Herbert Alfred Cardinal Vaughan, the archbishop of Westminster, to defend his stance on the Manitoba school question, and the special commission on ecclesiastical matters, which had been given the Canadian file, seemed biased in favour of decentralizing Rome’s administration. Gonthier returned almost empty-handed in the spring of 1898: Paul Bruchési* had been named archbishop of Montreal on 25 June 1897 but the encyclical Affari vos, promulgated on 8 December, was a disappointment. Although it declared the Laurier-Greenway agreement “unsatisfactory,” it asked the bishops to work in concert with politicians for a better school arrangement. That month the special commission on ecclesiastical matters approved the principle of a permanent apostolic delegation that would not, however, be created until 1899.
Despite these set-backs, Gonthier’s loyalty and devotion won him a wide audience within the episcopacy, which his superiors were quick to use. He was named professor of dogmatics, scripture, and apologetics at the Saint-Hyacinthe convent (1898–1902), and then provincial vicar and prior of Saint-Hyacinthe (1900–3). It was he who negotiated with Bruchési the establishment of the Dominicans in Montreal at the parish of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce in September 1901, and with Archbishop Bégin their establishment at Quebec in the spring of 1906. He thwarted the plan of the province of France to establish two provinces in North America. He wanted no ghettos separating ethnic groups and differing in their observance of the rule. Gonthier suffered the repercussions from this crisis of direction. Reduced to the role of master of novices in 1903, he used his spare time to give his literary bent and love of controversy free rein. Under the pseudonym Raphaël Gervais, he wrote a frequently polemical religious column for Le Canada français in which he denounced modern trends and raised the banner of Louis Veuillot and of Pius X, whom he portrayed in the most glowing terms.
Dominique-Ceslas Gonthier experienced some great joy in this period: the establishment on 2 July 1908 of the St Dominic Congregation of North America, which included the six Dominican convents of Canada and New England, and the creation on 1 Oct. 1911 of the Province of St Dominic of Canada; as well, he once more became prior of Saint-Hyacinthe (1909–12). He died at the age of 63, viewed by the Canadian Dominicans as the leader of their province, who not only had ensured the expansion of their order in Canada but had also kept alive in North America its great traditions.
Father Dominique-Ceslas Gonthier is the author of several sermons and speeches in addition to the monograph mentioned in the text. He also published a number of articles under various pseudonyms, including A. de Saint-Réal in L’Opinion publique (Montréal), Fra Dominico in the journal Le Rosaire (Saint-Hyacinthe, Qué.; continued in 1915 as La Revue dominicaine), and Raphaël Gervais in Le Canada français and La Nouvelle-France (Québec).
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