HOLMES, JOHN (rebaptized Jean), Roman Catholic priest, educator, and school administrator; b. 7 Feb. 1799 in Windsor, Vt, son of John Holmes, shoemaker and farmer, and Anna Bugbee; d. 18 June 1852 in L’Ancienne-Lorette, Lower Canada, and was buried 21 June in the chapel of the Séminaire de Québec.
The story of John Holmes, whom his contemporaries as well as later generations considered one of the great educators of the 19th century, was unusual for French Canada. His parents, who were Protestants, left Windsor soon after his birth to settle in the neighbourhood of Hanover, N.H. They enrolled John in Moor’s Indian Charity School, a Congregational establishment founded in 1769 to give Indians a Christian education. After 1800 this school had many more sons of white Americans than of Indians. Since teaching was carried out under the supervision of neighbouring Dartmouth College, young Holmes embarked upon a serious program of classical studies at a school of good standing. There his desire to be a minister of religion became evident. In 1814 his father decided to buy a property for farming in Colebrook, near the border with Lower Canada. Needing labour, he informed his son in August 1815 that his studies were finished and that he was thenceforth to stay on the farm. Distressed, John decided after a few days’ reflection to leave home without notifying his parents. He crossed the border and went to Hyatt’s Mill (Sherbrooke) in Lower Canada, where he became an apprentice to the tanner Samuel Willard* until he could resume his schooling.
In the autumn of 1815 or the winter of 1816 Stephen Burroughs, a former student at Dartmouth who had become a Catholic schoolmaster at Trois-Rivières, met Holmes at Willard’s home. The latter agreed to let Holmes leave with Burroughs, who took him into his school at Trois-Rivières as an assistant. During an examination session in May 1816 the parish priest of Yamachiche, Charles Ecuier*, met Holmes and invited him to take up residence at his presbytery, promising he would allow him to continue his Latin studies. Even though the young American was as Protestant as ever – according to tradition he wanted to destroy the images and statues of the church at Trois-Rivières on his arrival – he accepted the priest’s offer. Holmes set to work with dispatch, and his studies made good progress under the guidance of Ecuier, a classical scholar. He experienced as swift a change in religion for he embraced Catholicism. On 3 May 1817 he received baptism and communion in the church at Yamachiche, and adopted a new Christian name, Jean. In the autumn Ecuier sent him to take the final part of the classical program, Philosophy, at the Petit Séminaire de Montréal, which was run by emigrant French Sulpicians. Antoine-Jacques Houdet* was its regular teacher. As Holmes’s course notes show, in the first of his two years he devoted himself to philosophy, studying logic, metaphysics, and ethics; in the second, following Houdet’s textbook, he took mathematical, systematic, and experimental physics.
Holmes decided to become a priest, and the bishop of Quebec, Joseph-Octave Plessis*, assigned him to the Séminaire de Nicolet. He was to teach there while pursuing theological studies, in accordance with the European custom already established at Quebec and Montreal. His studies were paid for by the diocese. In 1819–20 he taught the Philosophy program, and in the following year the fourth-year class (Versification). From 1821 to 1823 he was again with the Philosophy class, and taught philosophy and science using Houdet’s treatise. It was probably while studying theology that he learned Greek on his own, to judge by a book in his library, signed and dated 1820. Holmes was ordained priest on 5 Aug. 1823. In October Bishop Plessis appointed him assistant priest at Berthier-en-Haut (Berthierville, Que.) and missionary at Drummondville. In 1825 he was attending only to the latter post. He ministered to the faithful in the region between Drummondville and Sherbrooke, travelling constantly in both winter and summer. That year, visiting someone who was ill, he was drenched by icy rain and contracted rheumatism, from which he was to suffer for the rest of his life.
Whether Holmes had contact with his family over the years is no longer in doubt. Some assert that his father came to see him at Hyatt’s Mill in the autumn of 1815. According to others, once he had reached Trois-Rivières Holmes wrote to his father. In 1904 his sister, an Ursuline nun called Mother Sainte-Croix, noted that Holmes had gone with another seminarist to Colebrook just before his ordination in order to see his family, which included several brothers and sisters born after he had left home. Thereafter he returned to Colebrook every summer. On one occasion he brought back his eldest sister, Delia, and placed her in the convent of the Congregation of Notre-Dame at Berthier-en-Haut to learn French. On another trip he is believed to have baptized one of his young sisters in the Catholic faith. In 1827, after directing a week’s retreat at Saint-Michel-d’Yamaska (at Yamaska), he baptized Delia before the assembled parish. Just as much as the Protestants longed to snatch the Catholics from their idolatry, Holmes wanted to bring members of the reformed church back into the “true” religion.
The harshness of his missionary existence, made more miserable by his illness, prompted him to seek a new ministry, as did his love of study and attraction to teaching. Consequently, when Bishop Benedict Joseph Fenwick of Boston asked Bishop Bernard-Claude Panet* to send Holmes to him, the bishop of Quebec promised Holmes that he would secure a post for him in the Petit Séminaire de Québec if he stayed in the diocese. Holmes immediately applied for admission, which was granted on 3 March 1827. He arrived in August, was made responsible for the Philosophy class, and became a member of the community the following year. Since teaching proved demanding and his health was frail, in 1830 he was given instead the post of director of students and prefect of studies, in which he showed all his capabilities. He remained prefect until 1849, except during 1836 and 1837 when he was travelling in Europe. This appointment began an extremely fruitful phase of his career.
During his first three years at the seminary Holmes reflected on the gaps in the curriculum and the weakness of the programs. The syllabus included Latin, French, a smattering of English, and science and mathematics only in the Philosophy class. He thought the history and geography offered were thin. Holmes introduced Greek in 1830, and then put mathematics into the course of study for all years, including the sixth (Rhetoric), a step amounting to a revolution. From 1834 the seminary had a philosophy teacher and two science teachers, one for physics and chemistry, the other for mathematics. English, history, and geography were taught from textbooks and still partly in English.
Using textbooks was an innovation. Until then their use had been confined to Latin grammar. Languages were learned through the study of Latin and French authors. According to a custom dating back to the Middle Ages, teachers drafted course notes for the other subjects, and pupils copied the notes. But enrolment was increasing, and copying written courses took the students a great deal of time. Holmes and his colleague Jérôme Demers prepared history, geography, and philosophy texts, and Holmes bought manuals for other subjects. In 1838 he also introduced the teaching of Canadian history, and he encouraged students to take up music, public speaking, and drama. A brass band was formed in 1833. The “learned prefect of studies,” as Étienne Parent* called Holmes in Le Canadien, revised the end-of-year examinations to make them comparable to the literary exercises the colleges of France had been familiar with prior to 1760. Instead of having a day of examinations ending with an oration and a declamation, Holmes revived the great demonstrations held in the Jesuit and Oratorian colleges of the 17th and 18th centuries. For three days, in the presence of prominent local citizens, there was a feverish display of activity: each class was questioned by the audience on the subject-matter of the program and presented speeches, orations, fables, or dialogues. Gradually theatrical presentations were revived; extracts from plays of Racine and Molière were given in 1831, and from 1836 a complete sacred tragedy was presented, evidently by the students of Rhetoric. The pupils in the Philosophy program did chemistry and physics experiments; those in the first three classes (Latin elements, Syntax, and Method) dramatized geography by playing the roles of young travellers back from Asia and South America, wearing exotic costumes and bearing journals. This whole program was inspired, rehearsed, and often written by Holmes. It was also during his administration that the famous discussion circles, such as the Société Laval, were founded. The climate of emulation and animation, as well as the zest for study, never faltered during his 20 years as prefect.
Before Holmes, according to Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau*, the seminary had been a model of correctness, regularity, erudition, piety, and discipline, but not a very amusing place. Consequently the arrival in Bishop François de Laval*’s house of a young priest of most unusual background – an American and converted Protestant who had studied in Montreal and taught at Nicolet – might have been ill received, especially since he was considered to be an original, was enthusiastic, full of ideas, and not reluctant to criticize the curriculum’s weaknesses. Evidently Jérôme Demers, the seminary’s superior, and the other members of the council soon came to appreciate the new recruit, for they made him a member of the community as soon as he had completed his first year. Demers, Louis-Jacques Casault*, and Holmes quickly became inseparable colleagues, and they were joined after 1840 by Elzéar-Alexandre Taschereau*. Demers tempered the zeal of his two young associates, helped them overcome the resistance they occasionally encountered, and always gave them active and sympathetic support. He sometimes even had to act as a moderator between Casault and Holmes, since the first disliked publicity and the second believed in being visible.
His immense effort in the cause of classical education led many to assert that Holmes had taught all subjects. As a regent at Nicolet and at Quebec, before becoming prefect of studies, he taught the Philosophy program. From 1833 to 1835, at the invitation of the Ursulines of Quebec, he gave courses in the convent parlour to the most advanced nuns and students to help them prepare for their task as teachers. He also made himself available to students to furnish explanations on any subject or would go botanizing with a handful of pupils; in whatever he did he displayed the same pedagogical abilities.
Such a career in classical education alone would have sufficed to establish a solid reputation for Holmes. But circumstances were to demonstrate that he was as enthusiastic and knowledgeable about public education. An inquiry into education, instituted in 1835 by the standing committee of education and schools, revealed that one of the most important defects stemmed from the lack of training for teachers, and that it was necessary to set up normal schools. Jérôme Demers made this suggestion to the committee on 5 December. A bill was introduced on 25 Jan. 1836 and enacted on 21 March. It provided for two normal schools for men, in Montreal and at Quebec, each under a management committee of ten. Holmes was made a member of the Quebec committee. The two bodies asked him to obtain documentation on elementary instruction and teaching methods and on teachers’ colleges in other countries, and also to hire directors for the normal schools. Holmes left Quebec for the United States and Europe on 12 May 1836, bearing a letter of introduction from the governor-in-chief, Lord Gosford [Acheson*], to the colonial secretary, Lord Glenelg.
He visited colleges in Albany, N.Y., and New York City, in Boston, Cambridge, and Andover, Mass., and in Hartford and New Haven, Conn., collecting material on their administrative, pedagogical, and financial aspects and on their systems of teaching. He then drafted reports and forwarded documents and books to the management committees. All this was accomplished between 16 May and 8 June, the day he left New York.
Having seen the best that the United States had to offer, Holmes went to Europe to gather information on the British, German, and French systems. He was accompanied by three seminarists who had almost come to the end of their studies: Elzéar-Alexandre Taschereau, who later became archbishop of Quebec, Édouard Parent, the brother of Étienne, and Joseph-Octave Fortier. In addition to his responsibilities for the management committees, Holmes was instructed by the seminary and by the Ursulines of Quebec to attend to the question of the property in France they had lost during the revolution, and in this connection to approach both the authorities in London and Jean-Baptiste Thavenet*, the agent in Europe for the Canadian communities. He was also to buy an organ for Nicolet, and instruments for physics and chemistry or books needed by eight colleges, religious communities, the House of Assembly, the normal schools, the Quebec Education Society, and Thomas Cary*’s bookshop. Arrangements were made for him to meet members of learned societies in various countries on behalf of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec.
Holmes went to England, Scotland, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy to accomplish his objectives; he met ministers, rectors, and teachers of schools and universities, and members of the London and Paris academies; he bought books and instruments, and wrote letters at each stage of his journey describing his endeavours, his interviews, and his observations. He was uniformly successful in his missions, and he found two excellent teachers for the normal schools, Andrew Findlater in Scotland and François-Joseph-Victor Regnaud* at Montbrison in France. His three Canadian protégés, who had received the tonsure in Rome, sailed for home in mid August 1837. He himself did not leave Portsmouth until 1 October, after an extraordinarily busy year and a half of travelling. Reading the material he forwarded during those months, one wonders how he managed to see so many people, settle so many problems, make so many purchases, and write so many memoranda, reports, and letters to London, Paris, Rome, Quebec, and Montreal – all this from a man with a disease which caused him cruel suffering. He confessed, moreover, in letters to Jérôme Demers that he felt tired, indeed exhausted. On his return he made his report to the Montreal and Quebec committees. Findlater and Regnaud were already at their teaching posts and were to remain there until the schools were disbanded in 1842. Holmes resumed his position as prefect in August 1838 with the same zeal.
His inquiring mind was eager for knowledge; he studied and read a great deal. In Quebec he was a frequent client of the bookshops of Samuel Neilson* and William Cowan, Thomas Cary, Peter Sinclair, Gilbert Stanley, and Octave Crémazie*, and in Montreal that of Édouard-Raymond Fabre. An active member of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, founded in 1824, he chaired its arts committee from 1830. He had a hand in publishing the second volume of documents put out by the society in 1840, documents he himself had collected during his trip to France.
In the winter of 1848–49 Holmes gave a series of talks at Nôtre-Dame cathedral in Quebec. Published under the title Conférences de Notre-Dame de Québec, they are reminiscent of Henri Lacordaire’s famous preaching in Paris and they evoke Holmes’s own purpose as an apologist. The Catholics and Protestants in Quebec, who had known him for a long time, filled the church well before the appointed hour. He held his audience spellbound as he drew arguments from history, enlisted where necessary the help of science and scientists, and sought answers in nature, the monuments and arts of man, and the languages and customs of peoples. Liveliness of imagination, nobility of gesture, a resonant, harmonious voice, loftiness of thought, beauty of imagery: such gifts tradition associates with this religious orator. Chauveau, a pupil at the seminary before 1840, remembered the Easter and Christmas sermons, and those of the novena to St Francis-Xavier, true masterpieces no longer extant. The American who had become Canadian and mastered the French language was well loved; the converted Protestant whose words were as persuasive as they were subtle had won admiration.
Politically, Holmes was acknowledged as a true Canadian who was very interested in what was taking place in his adopted country. During his ministry in the Eastern Townships he had noticed that this region of Lower Canada needed an increase in population. Thus he encouraged the movement of settlers into the townships. After 1840 he is reported to have entertained the idea of a regrouping of the British territories in North America into a sort of customs union. Although he had well-articulated political notions, it cannot be said that he belonged to the Patriote party. Scattered remarks in his correspondence from Europe show that he too was marked by the counter-revolutionary spirit. A man of culture, equally interested and knowledgeable in politics and science or literature and the arts, Holmes also had the reputation of being well versed in Holy Writ. The erstwhile Protestant had not forgotten the Bible.
Throughout his life and despite all his occupations, John Holmes never neglected his family. Through his initiative, five of his six sisters studied under the Ursulines of Quebec, and the sixth under the nuns of the Congregation of Notre-Dame at Berthier-en-Haut. In 1825 he helped one of his three brothers, George, enter the Séminaire de Nicolet. The latter became a doctor at William Henry (Sorel), but had to flee to the United States in 1839 under suspicion of murder. The drama, retold in 1970 by Anne Hébert in Kamouraska, was never referred to by members of the family. But this “great tribulation,” as it was called at the time, caused inner sufferings which aggravated Holmes’s physical infirmities. He gave up his office as prefect in 1849. To find rest, he went alternately to La Malbaie and Île aux Coudres, but returned to Quebec to instruct candidates for the priesthood on preaching. At Christmas 1851, finding his room at the seminary too cold, he went to L’Ancienne-Lorette to stay with one of his friends. It was there that death claimed him on the morning of 18 June 1852. The seminary recognized the contribution Holmes had made as an educator by inscribing his name as a founder of the Université Laval in the charter granted on 8 Dec. 1852.
[John Holmes wrote Nouvel abrégé de géographie moderne suivi d’un petit abrégé de géographie ancienne à l’usage de la jeunesse (Québec, 1831) in connection with his pedagogical work, and he also prepared the four subsequent editions (1832, 1833, 1839, and 1846). Taking his inspiration from the best authors, he drew attention to the latest discoveries, indicated political changes, and gave population figures, and, mindful that his readers would be school children, included useful, picturesque, and diverting details. The statistical tables on Lower Canada and the United States he included are unique for the period. The work was republished a number of times after Holmes’s death, at first with no editor being named (1854, 1857, 1862, and 1864), and later under the direction of Abbé Louis-Onésime Gauthier (Montreal, 1870, 1877, and 1884). Holmes is also the author of Conferences de Notre-Dame de Quebec, première série (Quebec, 1850), a reworking of talks he gave in the winter of 1848–49; Alfred Duclos* De Celles published a second edition entitled Conférences de Notre-Dame de Quebec par Jean Holmes (Québec, 1875). c.g.]
AAQ, 12 A, I: f.52v. ANQ-MBF, CE1-52, 3 mai 1817. ANQ-Q, CE1-1, 18 juin 1852. ASQ, mss, 2, I, 16 août 1828; 12 nov. 1829; 19 mai, 2 déc. 1849; 25 mai, 29 sept., 25 déc. 1850; 18, 20, 21 juin 1852; 12: ff.71, 77–85; 437; mss-m, 53, 155, 159, 162, 433, 676; Polygraphie, V: 55–55B; XIV: 7A; XXVIII: 2; XXIX; XLII: 15A, 21, 22E; XLIII: 1–1B, 1D–1E, 1I, 3L–3N; XLIV: 2, 2H, 3, 3B–3D, 4, 14A, 20–20B, 20D–20F, 21B–21C, 22F, 22I, 22K–22L; Séminaire, 9, nos.21–21E; 56, no.19; 75, nos.5–5B; 85, no. 10B; 117, no. 20B; 123, no. 286. BVM-G, Coll. Gagnon, Corr., John Holmes à Mgr de Sidyme, 13 juill. 1850. L’Abeille, 23 juin 1842. Le Canadien, 10, 12 mars 1834; 18, 21 juin 1852. Le Journal de Québec, 19 juin 1852. Mélanges religieux, 24 juin 1852. Caron, “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Panet,” ANQ Rapport, 1933–34: 275–76, 300, 303, 322, 353; “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Plessis,” 1928–29: 170, 175, 182, 184–85, 191, 193, 207. L.-M. Darveau, Nos hommes de lettres (Montréal, 1873). L.-P. Audet, Le système scolaire, 4: 126–63. Ginette Bernatchez, “La Société littéraire et historique de Québec (the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec), 1824–1890” (thèse de ma, univ. Laval, Québec, 1979). [Catherine Burke, named Saint-Thomas], Les Ursulines de Québec, depuis leur établissement jusqu’à nos jours (4v., Québec, 1863–66), 4. P.-J.-O. Chauveau, L’abbé Holmes et ses conférences de Notre-Dame, étude littéraire et biographique (Québec, 1876). Douville, Hist. du collège-séminaire de Nicolet. Claude Galarneau, Les collèges classiques au Canada français (1620–1970) (Montreal, 1978). Marc Lebel et al., Aspects de l’enseignement au petit séminaire de Québec (1765–1945) 103–22. Maurault, Le collège de Montréal (Dansereau; 1967). Maurice O’Bready, Panoramas et gros plans, le Sherbrooke d’avant 1850 (n.p., n.d.). J.-E. Roy, Souvenirs d’une classe au séminaire de Québec, 1867–1877 (Lévis, Qué., 1905). Antonio Drolet, “Les éditions de l’Abrégé de géographie de l’abbé Holmes,” BRH, 53 (1947): 160–61. A.[-H.] Gosselin, “L’abbé Holmes et l’instruction publique,” RSC Trans., 3rd ser., 1 (1907), sect.i: 127–72. [Josephine Holmes, named Sainte-Croix], “An affectionate tribute to the memory of Abbé Holmes; a New England convert and Catholic priest,” Guidon (Manchester, N.H.), 11 (1904): 10–12, 43–47. Sylvio Leblond, “Le drame de Kamouraska d’après les documents de l’époque,” Cahiers des Dix, 37 (1972): 239–73. Maurice O’Bready, “Un pédagogue dynamique,” Le Devoir (Montréal), 14 mars 1957: 24. Jacques Rousseau, “Grandeur et décadence des monts Watshish,” Saguenayensia (Chicoutimi, Qué.), 2 (1960): 115–21. Mason Wade, “The contribution of Abbé John Holmes to education in the province of Quebec,” Culture (Quebec), 15 (1954): 3–16.
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Cite This Article
Claude Galarneau, “HOLMES, JOHN (rebaptized Jean) (1799-1852),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 6, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/holmes_john_1799_1852_8E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Claude Galarneau|
|Title of Article:||HOLMES, JOHN (rebaptized Jean) (1799-1852)|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||June 6, 2023|