LEFEBVRE, CAMILLE, Holy Cross father, vicar general, and educator; b. 14 Feb. 1831 in Saint Philippe-de-Laprairie, Lower Canada, only child of Louis Lefebvre, a labourer, and his third wife, Véronique Bouthillier, widow of Jean-Baptiste Moquin; d. 28 Jan. 1895 in Memramcook, N.B.
When Camille Lefebvre was born his father was approximately 63 and his mother approaching her mid forties. He was, in fact, his father’s 13th child and his mother had two children from a previous marriage. He was to lose his parents as a young man, his father in 1846 and his mother eight years later.
Lefebvre’s childhood and early youth were such as to prepare him in point of sympathy for his later work among the Acadians of New Brunswick. Economically, his family knew scarcity but not want. His father owned some property, and on his death the widow and the youngest child found help among caring relatives. The life of a member of an extended family, subsisting upon the land, with daily experience of the necessity to make do and provide for winter, was one that had much in common with the circumstances of the Acadians. His biographer Pascal Poirier*’s comment on the house in which there lived, at the time of Lefebvre’s birth, the parents, eight children aged between twenty-seven and ten, and the new baby was that it resembled the house of a Memramcook Acadian able to afford reasonable comfort. It was a wood and stone building that enclosed kitchen, living-room, and two bedrooms.
The economic restraints Lefebvre experienced at home were matched in education. There was opportunity for both elementary schooling and more advanced studies but the path was beset with financial obstacles, intellectual stimulus was random at best, books were scarce, and the training of those teaching was often sparse. Taught to read by his mother, Lefebvre began more formal instruction at age 10. He attended school in nearby Saint-Jacques-le-Mineur and then spent two years at a small and struggling “college” recently established in his native village. When he turned 17 he became a teacher himself, partly because he lacked funds for further study and partly because he had learnt all that could be taught him locally. During the next years he was a wandering village schoolmaster, working where there was both a need for his services and the capacity to pay him. He made a considerable reputation as a story-teller and reader, taking villagers on winter evenings through the Contes of Charles Perrault and the newly popular Geneviève de Brabant. He also read the prayers of the mass on Sunday, if no priest was available.
At the age of 21, in August 1852, Lefebvre sought entry and was accepted into the Congregation of Holy Cross at Saint-Laurent, near Montreal. According to the annals of the institution, he was the first Canadian postulant whose religious vocation was of “a serious and well-defined character.” For the next three years Lefebvre not only pursued the course of studies required for admission to the priesthood but also underwent the discipline imposed upon any novice. Contemporary records show that he had little difficulty with the vows of chastity and poverty, and none at all with the intellectual challenges he faced, but that he chafed under the vow of obedience. He was of an independent turn of mind, and questioned certain disciplines which appeared to him to be designed more to extirpate individual quirks of personality than to produce living models of theological virtue. His superiors were exasperated, though not deeply concerned. For the rest of his life Lefebvre would disconcert those in authority over him by granting them intelligent, rather than blind, obedience. He was ordained a priest on 29 July 1855.
Lefebvre’s first appointment was as assistant priest in the rural parish of Saint-Eustache, where he remained for five years. He was in his mid twenties and he found this period of his life one of great difficulty. The question of his vocation, as a religious rather than as a priest, had become a matter of anguish for him. Writing to Bishop Ignace Bourget* of Montreal on 13 Oct. 1857, Lefebvre admitted that he had joined the Congregation of Holy Cross solely in order to attend a college and had remained because any other action appeared the worst ingratitude. Letters sent to Bourget by Lefebvre’s superior in Saint-Eustache, Father Julien-Pierre Gastineau, clarify some of the roots of the young man’s difficulties. Obedience to authority was still a trial, bureaucratic regulations within the parish irritated him, and it was impossible to offer him the slightest advice without provoking an emotional scene. A further difficulty concerned his social relationships: the accusation of “particular friendship” was raised. Lefebvre was lucky in his bishop, who had the wisdom to recognize the problem was one of enthusiasm and earnestness rather than of moral turpitude and ecclesiastical indiscipline. Throughout his life Lefebvre was to display an affectionate caring for those with whom he lived and worked.
This early dispute with an immediate superior was resolved by inaction, and Lefebvre remained at Saint-Eustache until October 1860, when he was sent, still as an assistant priest, to the nearby parish of Sainte-Rose (at Laval). After eight months there he was appointed catechist for the Holy Cross college at Saint-Laurent. In this activity he showed sufficient flair to attract to his classes not only students but also colleagues and parishioners. As a result he was appointed in 1861 to the congregation’s struggling business college at Saint-Aimé (Massueville) in the diocese of Saint-Hyacinthe. His position was not that of a senior academic, however, but that of a bursar. There was an ambivalent attitude towards his talents, and his flamboyant rhetoric, so loved in his previous position, was considered too much of a liability for him to be allowed a free rein as a teacher. As was customary, Lefebvre was also involved in parish duties at Saint-Aimé.
He spent the next three years attached to the business college, during which time he also established a phenomenal reputation as a preacher. On one occasion he was able to persuade much of the town of Sorel to forswear alcohol through the vigour of his sermon. By the time he had reached the age of 32, he presented his superiors with both talent and trouble. His considerable abilities as a community leader, preacher, and teacher were matched by his considerable independence of spirit. A solution was found in the fall of 1863 at a meeting in New York between John Sweeny*, the bishop of Saint John, N.B., and Father Charles Moreau, the visitor general of the Congregation of Holy Cross.
The problem that Bishop Sweeny brought to Father Moreau was the lack of post-secondary education for Catholics in New Brunswick. Sweeny was by far the most francophile of the Catholic bishops in charge of the Maritime dioceses, and he considered that Acadian needs for education in their own language must be met. He owed something of his own intellectual formation to the influence of Father François-Xavier-Stanislas Lafrance*, the priest who had already attempted to establish a form of college education for the Acadians of New Brunswick. It was by no means solely a matter of education for those of Acadian descent, however. By the mid 1860s, out of a overall population of approximately 252,000, the Catholics of New Brunswick numbered more than 85,000, the Acadians making up about half of this total. What was needed in Sweeny’s view was an institution that would satisfy the educational requirements not only of the Acadians but also of Maritime Catholics of Irish and Scottish heritage. The particular mix of commercial studies and classical education taught at Saint-Laurent, coupled with the availability of personnel, persuaded the bishop that he had the solution to his problem. On 27 May 1864 he and Camille Lefebvre set out for New Brunswick. It was intended that Lefebvre should found a college offering post-secondary education at Memramcook, where he would also serve as parish priest. He reached the village on 7 June. For the rest of his life, 31 years, he would work for the development of Catholic higher education in the Maritimes, and above all for the higher education of the Acadians.
Lefebvre came to New Brunswick towards the end of the years that novelist Antonine Maillet has called “the century of silence” for the Acadians. His work would be part of the flow of energy through Acadian communities which led to emergence of a visible Acadian élite. The three decades of his working lifetime in New Brunswick saw major advances in Acadian development, not only the foundation of educational institutions and the establishment of Acadian newspapers but also the structuring of public affirmations of national identity, such as the organization of the Acadian national conventions. What coloured deeply the process of events during this time were the parallel energies of other societies within the province. Lefebvre displayed an extraordinary ability to pursue policies which would improve the position of the Acadians without alienating irremediably the leadership either of loyalist and other English Protestants or of those of Irish Catholic heritage.
Lefebvre opened his college on 10 Oct. 1864. A certain amount of groundwork had been done for him by Father Lafrance, who had established the Séminaire Saint-Thomas near Memramcook in 1854. This pioneer effort had lasted until 1862. There were two very important differences between Lafrance’s institution and the new endeavour: Lefebvre had episcopal support for his enterprise, and it was one which, from the beginning, took note of the educational needs of anglophone as well as francophone Catholics. Between 1864 and 1878 the new college graduated 260 English-language students and 240 Acadians. Further, within four years of its founding the institution received a provincial charter of incorporation as the College of St Joseph and was given a grant of $400 per annum by the government. The financial support was doubly welcome in 1868 because the buildings in which the college was housed burnt down that year and Lefebvre had to start once more from scratch.
After the passage by the New Brunswick legislature of the Common Schools Act on 17 May 1871, the government grant was withdrawn. It was not that the act forbad subventions to Catholic institutions as such, but subventions could be accorded only if the institutions ended all displays of religious symbols, submitted to government inspection, and abided by government rules as to pedagogy and curricula. These conditions were unacceptable to Lefebvre, and St Joseph’s developed without further provincial aid. The college was always on the edge of grave financial difficulty. Lefebvre commented in 1872 that having 107 students in the small recreation room economized on wood for heating. The student body of 1865–66 had been 69; that of 1875–76 was 200.
Part of the reason for the success of the college was Lefebvre’s ability to negotiate effectively the thickets of diocesan politics. By 1829 the hierarchical organization of the Catholic Church in the Maritimes had been emancipated from the control of the archdiocese of Quebec, a separation that resulted in the virtual disappearance of French-language priests from positions of recognized authority in Maritime Catholic institutions for a generation. The establishment of Catholic bishoprics in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island had begun in the 1820s, at a time when it was assumed that the needs of English speaking Catholics, whether of Scottish or Irish origin, were greater than the needs of those of Acadian or Amerindian heritage. In 1829 there were two Catholic bishops in the Maritimes, both of them Scots, William Fraser* in Nova Scotia and Angus Bernard MacEachern* in Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. By the end of the 1860s there were five: the archbishop of Halifax, Thomas Louis Connolly*, born in Ireland; Colin Francis MacKinnon*, a Scot from Nova Scotia, bishop of Arichat; Bernard Donald Macdonald*, a Scottish native of Prince Edward Island, bishop of Charlottetown; and Sweeny and James Rogers*, the Irish-born bishops of Saint John and Chatham, N.B. Although the Acadians consistently accounted for some 60 per cent of Maritime Catholics, their influence on the hierarchy was in no way proportional to their numbers. It was not until 1912 that the first Acadian bishop was named – Édouard-Alfred Leblanc*, bishop of Saint John.
When Archbishop Connolly left for Rome in 1869, he appointed Lefebvre vicar general for the Acadians during his absence. This action allowed Lefebvre a legitimate interest in the Acadians of Digby and Yarmouth counties in Nova Scotia and also encouraged the idea of St Joseph’s in the minds of the hierarchy. The understanding relationship that Lefebvre developed and preserved with Connolly and Sweeny averted the hostility that in 1882 led Bishop Rogers to close the Acadian Collège Saint-Louis at Saint-Louis-de-Kent, founded in 1874 by Marcel-François Richard*, because it was too successful in teaching French. Throughout his life Bishop Sweeny remained Lefebvre’s supporter, and on 17 June 1885 the 25th anniversary of his elevation to the episcopate was celebrated at St Joseph’s. Partly as a result of Sweeny’s continuous assistance St Joseph’s gained recognition as a university, not simply a college, from the provincial government in 1898.
Lefebvre was also able to draw upon a growing recognition of his talents by his own order and by Rome. In 1871 his name was proposed for the office of provincial of the Congregation of Holy Cross in Canada. Considerable pressure had to be brought to bear to make him accept, and he was able to force the Quebec-centred committee to agree that he would remain at Memramcook and continue his leadership of St Joseph’s. Officially appointed in August 1872, he held the post until 24 April 1880. In February 1876 Rome accorded him the title of apostolic missionary in recognition of his work for his congregation and for Maritime Catholics.
The office of provincial provided important benefits for Lefebvre as far as his promotion of Catholic higher education was concerned. First, travel – to France in 1873 for the general chapter of the provincials of the order – was required, travel which exposed him to new ideas about college education and broadened his intellectual horizons. Secondly, his position was of some aid in his continual search for teachers for St Joseph’s. The third impact of his appointment was more controversial: his new office undoubtedly tightened his links with Quebec.
Lefebvre’s contribution to the development of the Acadians has been commented upon unfavourably in the late 20th century by Acadian writers such as Michel Roy. His career has been depicted as that of an agent of Quebec clerical colonialism, a colonialism that imposed a foreign and false “national” identity upon the Acadians. This interpretation is based upon a particular vision of historical development and an even more particular assessment of the nature of Acadian nationalism. From this viewpoint the Acadians become quintessential victims, their identity the imposed fantasy needed by the powerful to keep them in a particular place within the power structure. Events of Lefebvre’s life provide the evidence to refute such ideas.
The estimation of Lefebvre as a man motivated and manipulated by ideologues rather than as an individual pursuing his own ambitions and dreams overlooks the demonstrable strength of his character. Self-knowledge may be merely self-delusion but if one accepts that Lefebvre’s sense of himself was correct, then one must accept also that his work in the Maritimes was begun because he saw the opportunity to help a people whose difficulties he had known about as a child and that it was continued from a sense of duty willingly pursued. Childhood impressions, early ambitions, and mature commitment were the basis of Lefebvre’s efforts in Acadia. He recounted to the students of St Joseph’s that as a youngster he had often heard of the Acadians and that the story of the deportation “sometimes made me weep. I began then to love them and to wish them well. My godfather is an Acadian.” His reaction to his appointment to Memramcook had been as to a call for a mission. He wrote to François-Edme Rameau de Saint-Père on 20 Sept. 1865 that he had been asked by Sweeny to work for the regeneration of the Acadian people through education. It was, he remarked, an appeal that was much to his taste. The appointment was to make full use of Lefebvre’s talents as a teacher, administrator, and priest. Even when offered advancement to a broader sphere as provincial of his congregation he preferred to remain in Memramcook. He turned down the possibility of political action beyond New Brunswick when, in 1884, he declined the presidency of La Ligue Française, newly formed to promote the use of French. On this occasion he wrote to his friend and former student Pascal Poirier that he felt he must remain where he was to do the work he considered his particular task. To describe Lefebvre solely as the agent of a form of clerical imperialism is to simplify the psychological universe that was his.
As to the politics of the Acadians, Lefebvre’s ideas were based on two main beliefs. In the first place, he saw an overarching unity binding those of French descent in North America. Secondly, he was convinced that the Acadians – both because of their past as defeated victims, a past that demanded recompense and restitution, and because of their present as a minority – had a future only if linked to a wider francophone community. His vision for their future was, inevitably, that of someone who came from another colony. His family was politically one that recognized the strength of English Canada, while having both pride and faith in its own culture. Lefebvre saw a unity between Québécois and Acadian but he was conscious that there was a unique Acadian heritage. Poirier recounts how Longfellow’s Evangeline was taught at St Joseph’s and how Lefebvre constantly and continually gave the students a sense of self-pride.
Nevertheless, in spite of his sympathy and respect for the Acadians, Lefebvre saw their future as properly joined to that of Quebec. In 1877 he arranged a ceremony for St Joseph’s at which, as he wrote to Poirier, the fleur-de-lis flew over Acadian soil for the first time since the conquest: “May it bring us (in its folds), peace, happiness, and prosperity.” For Lefebvre the Acadians could be strengthened only by being fully subsumed into the national sense of Quebec. The rejection of the festival of Saint-Jean-Baptiste and other Quebec symbols by the Acadians during their national conventions of 1881, 1884, and 1890 was a bitter disappointment to him. For the majority of Acadians his vision of an all-encompassing French Canadian nationalism flowing from Quebec was unacceptable.
It is this very disappointment that refutes those who see the Acadians as a simple people shaped in their desires and their ambitions by an outsider. Lefebvre was honoured and revered by those he educated. There was no doubt, even in 1881, that his work had provided an educated élite for the Acadians, an achievement alluded to over and over again in the orations given at his funeral 14 years later. But despite the respect and love the Acadians had for Lefebvre, they affirmed their own sense of themselves rather than accept his choice for their future.
Lefebvre’s status as an immigrant from Quebec to New Brunswick was repeatedly underlined to him by those members of the hierarchy who generally supported his endeavours. He was often enough made aware of the fact that he was a member of a religious order that was based in Quebec rather than in the United States. His attempts to extend his influence through strengthening the presence of francophone religious in New Brunswick were frequently frustrated by rival Catholic organizations whose roots were American rather than Québécois. In order to open up the possibility of religious life for Acadian girls he founded, in 1874, with Sister Marie-Léonie [Élodie Paradis*], the Petites Sœurs (Little Sisters of the Holy Family). He was unsure that the Sisters of Charity of Saint John, who had been brought to Memramcook in 1873 and whose links were above all with New York [see Honoria Conway], could effectively serve the Acadians.
But whatever difficulties Lefebvre faced, whatever disputes may have arisen between him and his superiors or between him and those among whom he spent his days, there is no doubt of the value for the Acadians of his life’s work. Nor is there any doubt that this value was recognized both while he lived and at his death. In 1880 there were great celebrations at St Joseph’s to mark his 25 years in the priesthood. The extent to which his work was appreciated during his lifetime was publicly demonstrated at the jubilee celebrations for the 25th anniversary of St Joseph’s in 1889. Telegrams of congratulation came from across Canada, including one from John Costigan*, then federal minister of inland revenue, that was both a personal accolade for Lefebvre and a recognition of the value of St Joseph’s for all the inhabitants of New Brunswick. In June 1894 Lefebvre was presented with a statue of himself cast by Louis-Philippe Hébert*. On viewing it, he concluded that, as he wrote to his friend Father Alfred-Valère Roy*, it resembled Marc Marquis, the local Micmac chief, more than it did himself. The same year also saw the award of an honorary doctorate from the Université Laval “for [his] services to the Acadian French cause in New Brunswick and for having been professor of theology for twelve years.” This award serves as a reminder that in the midst of all else Lefebvre did, he took an active role in the teaching program of the college in the early years of its existence. He can be said always to have taught, in view of the numerous sermons and lectures that he gave not only to the students but to many other gatherings. It is clear from the reports of his speeches at the national conventions that he never lost the gift of fiery oratory he had first shown in Sorel. The mention of his professorship of theology in the award of his honorary doctorate is a testimony to the orthodoxy of his religious opinions.
Camille Lefebvre died on 28 Jan. 1895. Poirier wrote to Rameau de Saint-Père eight days later: “We have just suffered a national loss and all Acadia is in deep mourning. . . . More than any other, this man has been our benefactor. He is the Moses who delivered us from the bondage of ignorance.” At Lefebvre’s funeral there was other, more fulsome praise but the words of one of his outstanding students are the most just of the tributes paid.
Lefebvre was, above all, a dedicated and charismatic teacher. Building on the work of Father Lafrance, whose achievements he always gave their proper due, Lefebvre structured the first institution that made post-secondary education available to the Acadians. Through the doors of St Joseph’s, not only during his lifetime but for over three-quarters of a century after his death, came the greater number of those Acadians who were to be the doctors, lawyers, and teachers in their communities. He was a Québécois who saw the future of French Canadians as something to be worked out through his homeland. He was a priest and a deeply devout Catholic. He presented to his students his beliefs as well as more formal instruction. He imbued them with his ideas about political action and his view of the future of French-speaking peoples in North America, his conviction that advancement should be sought peaceably within the framework of the constitution of confederation. His success in obtaining recognition for his work and in inducing the largely Irish Catholic episcopate to support his endeavours gave force to his persuasion that political action for the minority in a society where the power structure favoured those of different language and religion was not a lost cause. The long files of his correspondence with former students, in particular his letters to Pascal Poirier, demonstrate his beliefs and record his triumphs and his limitations. Lefebvre did not deform the Acadians’ identity. Rather, as Poirier wrote, he gave them hope for a future of their own.
The major primary sources for this biography, all held in the CEA, are the papers of Camille Lefebvre himself and those of Pascal Poirier, as well as the records of the Congregation of Holy Cross, and, in the papers of the Université de Moncton, those of the College of St Joseph. The main secondary sources are Pascal Poirier, Le père Lefebvre et l’Acadie (Montréal, 1898), and Étienne Catta, Le révérend père Camille Lefebvre (1831–1895) et la renaissance acadienne, a three-volume work printed by the Université de Moncton in 1974. Catta’s work was being revised by Father Clément Cormier at the time of his death. A recent study is Maurice Chamard et al., Le père Camille Lefebvre, c.s.c. (Montréal, 1988).
See also ANQ-M, CE1-54, 15 fevr. 1831; André Chapeau et al., Canadian R. C. bishops, 1658–1979 (Ottawa, 1980); Michel Roy, L’Acadie, des origines à nos jours: essai de synthèse historique (Montréal, 1981); Terrence Murphy, “The emergence of Maritime Catholicism, 1781–1830,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 13 (1983–84), no.2: 29–49; Mason Wade, “Relations between the French, Irish and Scottish clergy in the Maritime provinces, 1774–1836,” CCHA Study sessions, 39 (1972): 9–33.
© 1990–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
Naomi E. S. Griffiths, “LEFEBVRE, CAMILLE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 21, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/lefebvre_camille_12E.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:||Naomi E. S. Griffiths|
|Title of Article:||LEFEBVRE, CAMILLE|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1990|
|Year of revision:||1990|
|Access Date:||March 21, 2023|