LAHAILLE, JEAN-BAPTISTE (baptized Jean), Roman Catholic priest, superior of the Séminaire de Québec, and vicar general; b. 22 Oct. 1750 in Tarbes, France, son of Joseph Lahaille, a merchant and gold- and silversmith, and Barthelemie Grabot; d. 24 May 1809 in the Hôpital Général of Quebec.
Under the ancien régime colleges in France drew their pupils from bourgeois families, those of the gold- and silversmiths being among the most influential. It is not surprising, therefore, that Jean-Baptiste Lahaille attended the Collège de La Madeleine in Bordeaux; he completed his studies successfully, obtaining his baccalaureate and then, at the age of 21, his master’s degree. In the period 1771–74 he studied theology and received the tonsure and minor orders. In 1775 Abbé de L’Isle-Dieu, the bishop of Quebec’s vicar general in Paris, informed the Séminaire de Québec that Lahaille, who wanted to serve in the missions, had agreed to go to the province of Quebec. Having obtained Governor Guy Carleton’s permission, Lahaille landed at Quebec that year, along with another young cleric from Bordeaux, Arnauld-Germain Dudevant*. Their admission to the province constituted an exception, since after the conquest the British government had forbidden the Canadian clergy to recruit priests in France. His compatriot went back to France in 1783, but Lahaille spent the rest of his life in Quebec, although he tried on several occasions to return home or go to the missions in India. In 1799 he asked for letters of naturalization so that he could remain in Lower Canada free of harassment by British officials, who in that troubled period of the French revolutionary wars kept a close watch on foreigners and especially on Frenchmen living in the province.
On 20 Aug. 1777 Lahaille was ordained priest by Bishop Briand*; that year he was also admitted to the Séminaire de Québec as a member of the community. He taught philosophy at the Petit Séminaire from 1775 to 1778 and then became a professor at the Grand Séminaire. Although the lack of documentary evidence makes it impossible to evaluate Lahaille’s teaching, it is clear that he took a great interest in the sciences. He possessed physics instruments and a graphometer, and during the summer holidays at the “cotteau Fortin” or Petit Cap (Cap Tourmente, Que.) he used his microscope to introduce the pupils to the experimental method. Lahaille extended his scientific knowledge with the help of John Mervin Nooth*, a doctor and the former superintendent of hospitals in British North America, who after his return to England in 1799 sent him information on the latest experiments conducted at the Royal Society of London.
Since few priests were admitted to the seminary as members, Lahaille devoted himself more to administration than to teaching. He held the offices of director of the Petit and the Grand Séminaire as well as that of bursar, before serving as superior from 1805 to 1809. In the early years of the 19th century, the seminary faced a serious recruiting problem that was hard to resolve because Bishop Denaut was short of priests for the parishes and refused to allow them to be admitted as members of the seminary. Lahaille’s difficulties were compounded by the fact that he disputed the diocesan authority, refusing to accept its interference in the seminary’s affairs. This attitude did not please Denaut. The situation improved after Joseph-Octave Plessis* became bishop in 1806, although he shared Denaut’s views. Plessis brought Lahaille around to a better frame of mind by allowing a few priests to be admitted into the community of the seminary, appointing Lahaille vicar general on 12 June 1806, and taking up residence in the seminary himself.
Jean-Baptiste Lahaille was recognized as much for his moderation, good judgement, and prudence as for his intellectual endeavours. The exemplary modesty and thoughtfulness he displayed prevented the Canadian priests from taking umbrage at this Frenchman, who was indeed the last one to head the seminary. From September 1789 Lahaille had been a confessor to the Ursulines of Quebec and the nuns of the Hôtel-Dieu and the Hôpital Général. At the latter institution, in complete serenity, he ended his days. He was buried in the seminary chapel.
AAQ, 210 A, II: f.193; IV: f.11; 516 CD, 1, 25 mai 1809. AD, Hautes-Pyrénées (Tarbes), État civil, Tarbes, 22 oct. 1750. ASQ, Lettres, M, 57, 58, 61, 157, 205, 209, 256, 723, 724; T, 80, 85; mss, 12: f.45; 433; Polygraphie, VIII: 63; XII: 6; XVII: 22–29. Le séminaire de Québec (Provost), 455. L’Abeille (Québec), 8 mars 1861. Le Canadien, 27 mai 1809. Quebec Gazette, 25 May 1809. Caron, “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Briand,” ANQ Rapport, 1929–30: 116; “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Denaut,” 1931–32: 238–39; “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Hubert et de Mgr Bailly de Messein,” 1930–31: 215; “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Panet,” 1933–34: 235; “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Plessis,” 1927–28: 267; 1932–33: 23, 26, 37, 64. Claude Galarneau, “L’enseignement des sciences au Québec et Jérôme Demers (1765–1835),” Mélanges d’histoire du Canada français offerts au professeur Marcel Trudel (Ottawa, 1978), 86, 89. Lemieux, L’établissement de la première prov. eccl., 144. J.-E. Roy, Souvenirs d’une classe au séminaire de Québec, 1867–1877 (Lévis, Qué., 1905), 137.