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CRONYN, BENJAMIN – Volume X (1871-1880)

d. at London, Ont., 21 Sept. 1871


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

LA ROCQUE (Larocque), CHARLES, Catholic priest, third bishop of Saint-Hyacinthe; b. 15 Nov. 1809 at Chambly-sur-Richelieu, L.C., eldest son of Henri La Rocque and Sophie Robert; d. 15 July 1875 at Saint-Hyacinthe, Que.

Charles La Rocque was still a child when the parish priest of Chambly, Abbé Pierre-Marie Mignault, detected in him aptitudes which he resolved to nurture. Charles’ cousin, Joseph La Rocque*, who was to precede him in the episcopal see of Saint-Hyacinthe, was also noticed.

On 1 March 1821, at the initiative of Charles-Louis-Roch de Saint-Ours*, legislative councillor, an association to improve educational opportunities in the Chambly River area had been established. Its aim was to obtain – for gifted but poor children of the region – scholarships which would allow them to receive their full classical education at the college of Saint-Hyacinthe. Charles and Joseph La Rocque were chosen by Father Mignault to be among the first of the 30 students to receive the association’s bursaries. The two La Rocque cousins vied with each other and were formidable rivals. Later Charles readily recalled these eager struggles, and added: “nature made us relatives, the college made us friends, and we have always cultivated our friendship as being one of the sweetest pleasures of life.”

His classical education finished, Charles La Rocque donned the cassock, and in 1828 began to study theology. While preparing himself for the priesthood, he taught humanities at the college of Saint-Hyacinthe, of which the authoritarian Abbé Thomas Maguire* had been director since 1827. In the middle of 1831, Bishop Jean-Jacques Lartigue* summoned La Rocque to Montreal to complete his theological studies at the seminary of Saint-Jacques, which was established in the first floor of the bishop’s residence. It was no doubt there that Abbé La Rocque was introduced to the propositions of ultramontanism, of which Bishop Lartigue was a firm supporter, and particularly to the doctrine of papal infallibility, which he was to see confirmed with great ceremony when he took part in the Vatican Council in 1870.

La Rocque, curate since 1832, was summoned to his native parish in 1835 to assume the direction of the classical college of Saint-Pierre, established ten years before by his childhood benefactor, the parish priest Mignault. The following year he began his own career as a parish priest at Saint-Pie (Bagot County), where he spent four years. In 1840 he became the sixth parish priest of L’Acadie (Saint-Jean County), and the first priest of this parish to be appointed by the bishop of Montreal.

It was at L’Acadie that Abbé La Rocque first encountered the Protestants of Swiss origin who were waging an intense campaign of proselytism in the region. These Protestants originally included Henriette Odin* Feller and the pastor Louis Roussy; they had taken up residence at Grande-Ligne in 1835, and were joined there, in 1840, by four ministers who were compatriots. One of La Rocque’s confrères, Abbé Louis Normandeau*, whom he was lodging out of charity, even left him to take refuge among them and become a Baptist minister.

In 1844 Abbé La Rocque was transferred to the parish of Saint-Jean-l’Évangéliste (Saint-Jean). This parish formed part of the barony of Longueuil, of which Charles William Grant, 5th Baron of Longueuil, had held the title since 1841. A shipping and rail terminal, and a large commercial entrepôt between New York and Montreal, Saint-Jean was to see its population grow from 1,315 inhabitants in 1841 to 4,500 in 1858. Thanks to this growth, and to its commercial and industrial activity, Saint-Jean received its charter as a municipality on 15 Sept. 1856. The Civil War still further increased its prosperity, through the extensive growth of transit trade and the export of grain, hay, and manufactured products.

According to the 1851 census, out of a total of 3,215 persons there were 2,577 Catholics to constitute the flock under the care of La Rocque, who displayed the qualities of a born administrator in this rapidly expanding parish. In the spring of 1845 the church, whose construction had been finished in 1828, was provided with an organ built by Joseph Casavant. The financial state of the parish council was a thriving one. In 1848 La Rocque had a convent built for the sisters of the Congregation of Notre-Dame. Two years later he asked the college of Saint-Hyacinthe to set up a branch in his parish. In 1864 he renewed his request. This time the offer was accepted. On 29 September of that year, a teacher from Saint-Hyacinthe, two seminarists, and 85 pupils inaugurated the college of Saint-Jean, with a programme of two distinct courses, one commercial and the other classical.

La Rocque did not always have an easy time as the parish priest of Saint-Jean. He had had apprehensions about going there because of a population in which Catholics mingled with Protestants, and because the events of 1837–38 had left some open wounds. Indeed at Saint-Jean he encountered once more the “Swiss” who had greatly worried him at L’Acadie. Despite his pacific intentions – he wrote that “no bitter word” had ever left his mouth to “attack a Protestant of any denomination, because of his religious opinions” – he perforce engaged in polemics when in 1852 he published a controversial book which drew much attention at the time, and in which he deplored “the setting up of this Branch of the Bible Society specifically for Saint-Jean and Saint-Athanase, in the midst of a completely Catholic population, and with the firm intention of doing violence to their principles and conscience.” In particular he blamed Normandeau, who had been sent to Saint-Jean “with the express purpose of having him preach there for my parishioners,” Normandeau, “a poor wretched Canadian priest” who had “passed from the Catholic church to Protestantism by such a sorry path.”

One of his own parishioners, the notary Pierre-Paul Desmaray, gave Abbé La Rocque no less trouble. Desmaray had drawn attention to himself during the rebellion by his zeal for the cause of Louis-Joseph Papineau and had been one of the first to be arrested, on 17 Nov. 1837, with Dr Joseph-François Davignon. Some years later Desmaray had returned to Canada from the United States, and had taken up his profession again at Saint-Jean. He had not forgiven the clergy for its attitude towards the events of 1837, and contrived to harass La Rocque continually. On 7 Jan. 1844 he transmitted to him a petition to have the position of the pulpit changed, and the appointments of churchwardens made in future by a general meeting of the property owners resident in the parish. However, the affair of the seigneurial pew gave Desmaray the chance to flout the parish priest and the council even more effectively.

The seigneurial pew was reserved for the Baron de Longueuil. As the seigneur was a Protestant, the pew was left at the disposal of his representative, the notary Desmaray, who occupied it for nothing, thus getting out of paying the pew rent to which all other parishioners were liable. This awkward situation, which lasted for five years, ended with Desmaray’s death on 17 Sept. 1854.

Abbé La Rocque maintained cordial relations with his bishop, Ignace Bourget*. The latter had requested him to pronounce Bishop Lartigue’s funeral oration at the memorial service celebrated at the church of St James on 29 April 1841, and La Rocque had accompanied Bourget on his voyage to Rome in 1854, to be present at the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. But despite these relations, La Rocque kept his distance, for the bishop’s intransigent ultramontanism sometimes clashed with La Rocque’s sense of what was possible and his concern for pacifying by compromise. In 1857, when the Roman liturgy was adopted in the diocese of Montreal, La Rocque did not conceal from the bishop that he disagreed about the application of certain points of this liturgy. The bishop was obliged to admit the cogency of the reasons put forward by the parish priest of Saint-Jean, although holding firmly to his own line of conduct: “In one liturgy as in another,” he replied to La Rocque on 22 May 1857, “there are questions on which differences of opinion are permitted. . . . By consulting very skilful masters of ceremonies in Rome, I reached the conviction that all questions of liturgy were not yet clearly decided, at least for them. It must not appear surprising, therefore, that in a country like ours we should still find ourselves perplexed. Yet one must not remain in a state of indefiniteness, the worst state of all. But while settling many undecided cases, I conceived it my duty to leave to the discriminating conscience of good priests a way of avoiding needless worry.”

Charles La Rocque had been parish priest of Saint-Jean for 22 years when, on the resignation of the second bishop of Saint-Hyacinthe, his cousin Joseph La Rocque, he was persuaded to agree to succeed him. Out of affection for his parishioners, he decided to receive the episcopal consecration in the new church of Saint-Jean, the building of which had been the object of his attentions since 1857 and which had scarcely been completed. On 29 July 1866 he was consecrated by Bishop Charles-François Baillargeon*, administrator of the archdiocese of Quebec, who was assisted by Bishop Bourget and Joseph-Bruno Guigues, bishop of Ottawa. One of those present in the congregation was George-Étienne Cartier, who wanted to indicate by this gesture the friendship between himself and the new bishop.

It was not without distress that on 20 March 1866 La Rocque had agreed, at the request of the bishops of the ecclesiastical province, to be appointed by Pius IX bishop of Saint-Hyacinthe. He foresaw the financial difficulties and the political-religious conflicts in which he would wear out his health prematurely, and he is said to have confessed at that time to one of his close associates: “I accept this high position, because it is a veritable sacrifice that is imposed on me. I must not now expect to reach the age of my worthy old mother. This will give me 10 years, certainly not 15.”

Indeed, the episcopal corporation was encumbered with a debt of $44,000, an enormous sum for the period. But the dissensions that split the town and the diocese were far more disturbing. Saint-Hyacinthe was probably at that time, after Montreal, the town of Canada East where partisan struggles were most bitter: the Papineau and Dessaulles families had their roots there; the college, whose superior was the vicar general Joseph-Sabin Raymond*, had been a target for the violent attacks of Louis-Antoine Dessaulles* ever since the Bleu candidate, Rémi Raymond, had won against Augustin-Cyrille Papineau, Dessaulles’ cousin, in the 1863 elections. The first six months of 1867 were to see the opponents Sabin Raymond and Dessaulles waging a savage paper war; each man put together some 20 interminable letters, Raymond’s prose being reproduced by Le Courrier de Saint-Hyacinthe, which was edited by Oscar Dunn*, a brilliant former pupil of the college and an ardent supporter of Louis Veuillot into the bargain, and that of Dessaulles appearing in Le Journal de Saint-Hyacinthe and Le Pays of Montreal.

Bishop La Rocque therefore arrived in a diocese that was in complete ferment. His attitude towards confederation, an “occurrence of immense significance,” an “achievement without parallel in the annals of our history,” as he wrote in a pastoral letter of 18 June 1867, was not calculated to induce calm, as can easily be imagined. He acknowledged that through his letter he would show himself to be more a patriot than a bishop, for he feared above all annexation to the United States, which according to him would amount to the death of the French Canadian nation. At this time too Alexandre Dufresne, the mla for Iberville, had introduced into his county a branch of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, a centre of resistance to confederation, but also, to some extent, a secret society, and as such an object of suspicion to the church. In March 1867 Dufresne published a pamphlet reproducing his stormy correspondence with Bishop La Rocque; after his defeat Dufresne passed to Alphonse Lusignan*, editor of Le Pays, the documents relative to his quarrel with the bishop, and Lusignan gave them a wide publicity in the issues of Le Pays of 24 and 29 Oct. 1867.

To the vexations that his stand on political-religious matters brought him were added the financial straits of the diocese. To meet the debt and gradually pay it off, La Rocque appealed to each of his priests through a plan which he outlined in circular letters of 19 Sept. and 27 Dec. 1866, and expanded on in a pastoral letter of 11 May 1867. Abbé Isaac Lesieur-Desaulniers, on whom he conferred the title of vicar general, beggared himself for his bishop’s sake. La Rocque reduced his own expenses by departing from Saint-Hyacinthe and going to live in the parish of Beloeil, leaving as locum tenens his secretary, Abbé Louis-Zéphirin Moreau*, who disposed of current business. After seven years of absence La Rocque returned to his bishopric, with the satisfaction of having liquidated by the beginning of 1875 the debt that had so concerned him at the start of his episcopate.

In 1870 he attended the Vatican Council. Unfortunately a serious illness forced him to leave Rome, “at the moment when the doctrine [of infallibility],” which he had advocated all his life, “was about to be made an article of faith by a solemn definition,” as he wrote, on his return, in a pastoral letter of 15 Nov. 1870.

The following year, in a circular letter dated 28 April 1871 from Beloeil, he declared himself on the side of the archbishop of Quebec, Elzéar-Alexandre Taschereau*, and the bishop of Rimouski, Jean-Pierre-François Laforce* Langevin, who had just disavowed the Programme catholique – an ultramontane political programme – as having been “formulated without any participation by the episcopate.” Taking an increasingly independent stand in relation to Bishop Bourget, La Rocque intervened in the affair of the keeping of the civil registers, when Le Nouveau Monde, semi-official organ of the bishopric of Montreal, was leading a ruthless campaign against the “gallican” George-Étienne Cartier. In a circular letter of 23 Jan. 1871 to his clergy, La Rocque exhorted his subordinates “to bless and praise God for the independence, the liberty, and the most ample and wide privileges enjoyed by our modest Church of the Province of Quebec, perhaps better endowed in this respect than any other Church in the world.” These lines and many others in Bishop La Rocque’s circular letter startled Bishop Bourget, who was struggling relentlessly “against the encroachments of civil law,” and who, as he wrote to the bishop of Saint-Hyacinthe on 11 Feb. 1871, was “preparing to ask for the reform of the civil code at those points that are at variance with canon law and the authority of the Holy See.” Bishop Bourget con-continued: “. . . that you should have rendered your circular letter public in the present circumstances, by placing it in the hands of your clergy, is in my opinion a great scandal. For the world will not fail to conclude that you are a slavish supporter of the secular authority; and that, to serve the cause of a few friends belonging to the world, who consider you their defender, you are turning your back on your colleagues and being evasive over principles that we are responsible for upholding at all costs.”

Other incidents revealed to the public at large that the spiritual heads of the diocese of Saint-Hyacinthe did not concur with the extravagant arguments of Bishop Bourget and his friends. The one that created the most stir was probably the Raymond-Pinsonnault dispute. Bishop Joseph-Sabin Raymond stated in a lecture in 1872 that there were neither liberals nor gallicans in Canada in the religious sense of the term; Bishop Pierre-Adolphe Pinsonnault*, who had been attached to the bishopric of Montreal after a stay in the United States, his deafness and administrative follies having obliged him to resign as bishop of Sandwich, retorted that Bishop Raymond was precisely one of those Catholic liberals that Pius IX had condemned. The dispute was turning into a dialogue of the deaf!

Bishop La Rocque thought it advisable to set aside these polemics, in order to devote himself to more useful projects. In October 1873 he had the joy of welcoming to his episcopal town four French Dominicans, the forerunners of a permanent establishment; he had overcome the prejudices of the prior of the Dominican province of France, Father Bernard Chocarne, who after a first visit to Canada in 1868 had scoffed at those “half-savage Canadians, backward in politics, in philosophy, in literature, out and out preservers of a past that all peoples truly worthy of liberty and progress consider done away with.” From Bishop La Rocque too came the plan of starting a new episcopal see in the Eastern Townships, using a part of the dioceses of Quebec and Trois-Rivières. He argued convincingly for this plan during the fifth provincial council of Quebec. At the request of the priests on this council, Pius IX created the diocese of Sherbrooke by a brief dated 28 Aug. 1874.

Exhausted by the opposition that had beset him, and by the work he had imposed upon himself during nine years of an episcopate notable, in addition to the achievements already described, for the founding of two missions, the erection of seven parishes, and the ordination of 55 priests, grievously distressed also by the death of his mother in the spring of 1875, Bishop La Rocque passed away on 15 July 1875 at the Hôtel-Dieu of Saint-Hyacinthe. His body was placed in the vault of this establishment, near his mother’s.

Tall in stature, with regular features and a florid complexion, alert, searching eyes, a well-shaped, usually smiling mouth, and distinguished bearing, he was nicknamed “handsome La Rocque.” To this impressive physique corresponded qualities of the heart, the chief of which was probably his capacity for warmth and understanding. The balance he maintained in the midst of the furious discords that troubled the second part of the 19th century made his role by no means a negligible one. We may conclude with Abbé Élie-Joseph-Arthur Auclair* that Bishop La Rocque “was an outstanding man of action, a zealous priest, devoted to his flock, a bishop of great distinction, a true leader of the Church.”

Philippe Sylvain

[Charles La Rocque], Une autre récompense de 1 600 louis ou réponse au défi de Mr Atkinson avec la preuve des dogmes catholiques attaqués dans ce défi (Montréal, 1852).

ACAM, RLB, 10, pp.109–10; RLB, 19, pp.306–12. Mandements, lettres pastorales et circulaires des évêques de Saint-Hyacinthe, A.-X. Bernard, édit. (8v., Montréal, 1888–98), II, 313–27. Le Courrier de Saint-Hyacinthe, 16 juill. 1875. L’Opinion publique (Montréal), 22 juill. 1875. J.-P. Bernard, “La pensée et l’influence des Rouges (1848–1867),” unpublished phd thesis, Université de Montréal, 1968, 343ss. J.-D. Brosseau, Saint-Jean-de-Québec; origine et développements (Saint-Jean, Qué., [1937]), 213–15. S.-A. Moreau, Histoire de L’Acadie, province de Québec (Montréal, 1908), 71–74. É.-J. Auclair, “Les trois évêques Larocque,” SCHÉC Rapport, 1945–46, 11–17. Robert [Philippe] Sylvain, “Aperçu sur le prosélytisme protestant au Canada français,” RSCT, LV (1962), 3rd ser., sect.i, 69–72. Armand Yon, “Les Canadiens français jugés par les Français de France, 1830–1939,” RHAF, XIX (1965–66), 578.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Philippe Sylvain, “LA ROCQUE, CHARLES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 21, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/la_rocque_charles_10E.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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/la_rocque_charles_10E.html
Author of Article:   Philippe Sylvain
Title of Article:   LA ROCQUE, CHARLES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1972
Year of revision:   1972
Access Date:   September 21, 2023