LEPROHON, JOSEPH-ONÉSIME, Roman Catholic priest, teacher, and school administrator; b. 16 Feb. 1789 in Montreal, eldest son of Jean-Philippe Leprohon, a merchant, and Marguerite Parent; d. 19 May 1844 in Nicolet, Lower Canada.
When he was seven, Joseph-Onésime Leprohon was deeply upset by his mother’s death. His father sent him to the Collège Saint-Raphaël (the Petit Séminaire de Montréal from 1806), where he did his classical studies, despite delicate health, and stood out because of his concern for others. In 1809 he entered holy orders and was immediately sent to the Séminaire de Nicolet as a regent and teacher of the second-, third-, and sixth-year classes (Syntax, Method, and Rhetoric). He took great interest in the pupils and easily won their respect and affection. Having continued with his theological studies at the same time, he was ordained priest on 6 Feb. 1814. He served first as assistant priest in the parish of Saint-Joseph at Deschambault, and was then moved to the parish of Saint-Mathieu at Belœil; in 1816 he became director of the Séminaire de Nicolet.
At the time of his arrival the seminary was in a precarious state as a result of five years of financial difficulties and painful conflict between the superior, Jean Raimbault, and the preceding director, Paul-Loup Archambault*. Thus the bishop of Quebec, Joseph-Octave Plessis*, had sought an educator who was capable of taking the seminary in hand. Leprohon quickly proved the very man for the situation. At the beginning, however, he noted certain “prejudices” held against him by the superior, the teachers, and the pupils; for some years there was also friction with his family – “ill-arranged matters related to my father and my brothers” – as well as reproaches from his father for having left his parish charge, “where he saw me as his consolation and perhaps as his support.” To his father, and his bishop (in whom he confided), Leprohon pointed out his affection for the establishment “to which I have sacrificed all my personal interests.”
The substantial work that Leprohon put in helped him to come through these difficulties. Moreover, like his predecessors, he lent a hand to the parish priest of Nicolet, Jean Raimbault. He was spiritual director for 175 to 200 penitents and helped Raimbault to the best of his ability: “For high masses, baptisms, burials, visiting the sick at night, and sermons, I do what I can to comply with his wishes, because these functions do not keep me so far removed from the community.” In addition he was the spiritual director of the clergy at the school and professor of theology until almost the end of his term of office. He also helped manage the seminary, particularly before the office of bursar was created. Hence he travelled about the Quebec region in 1825 to raise funds for building the new seminary and he often had a say in the work, which went on for almost ten years.
Leprohon made his mark initially as director. As the person responsible for securing respect for the regulations from teachers and pupils, he demanded attention to duty and maintained strict control. He was insistent that the bishops of Quebec make explicit certain points that were not entirely clear; in particular he tried to get the date of the summer holidays moved forward, but without success. Although outwardly austere, Leprohon proved kind, fatherly, and affectionate to everyone, and on occasion he unhesitatingly sided with his young protégés. In 1836, for example, on the strength of some boys’ complaints, he asked Bishop Joseph Signay to advise the bursar to see that the pupils were well fed. He also endeavoured to provide more varied leisure activities for them. He encouraged them to grow flowers for the altar, and, according to Abbé Louis-Édouard Bois*, “he worked to such good purpose that first he got a small garden for all the boys, then a small flowerbed in the garden for each of them, then finally yearly prizes for the most devoted, the most constant, the most hard-working.” He also installed a carpentry shop out of which came some notable articles, such as a lattice-work pyramid and columns crowned with a globe made in 1836 by the future bishop of Trois-Rivières, Louis-François Laflèche*.
Leprohon devoted equal time to his duties as prefect of studies. Here too he had to innovate and deal with chronic shortages. To get the most from a largely untrained teaching body that was continually being replaced, he endeavoured to provide textbooks and teaching material – in 1836, for example, he had the archbishop of Quebec buy instruments used for physics, which Abbé John Holmes* brought back from Europe. Leprohon enriched the library, supervising the lending of books himself. He visited classes regularly and gave assignments which he corrected, and he organized sessions in his room at which historical works were read. Attaching special importance to competition and the awards made to the best pupils, he kept mark books and prize lists, compiled honour books in which were transcribed the best pieces of work, and arranged for public examinations and ceremonial prize days. It was also during his tenure as director that professors of theology and philosophy were recruited. Through these manifold efforts the Séminaire de Nicolet was able to come close to the standards of the Petit Séminaire de Québec and the Petit Séminaire de Montréal. But the double task of being director and prefect of studies became a handicap. Towards the end of the 1830s Leprohon was widely regarded as out of date, and his teaching methods were considered old-fashioned and inadequate. But he was so much part of the establishment and his devotion had been so complete that no one dared ask him to leave “his” seminary.
Raimbault’s death in 1841 provided a solution. It had long been anticipated that Leprohon would succeed to the parish charge of Nicolet, and it was offered to him; a logical promotion, the post did not take him away from his life-work. He accepted the appointment, though he was full of nostalgia for the seminary. According to Charles Harper*, for several weeks he was unable “to make up his mind to move into the presbytery . . . he is bored there, dislikes it there, and does nothing but talk of the seminary.” Little by little he got caught up in his new post, and he became a good parish priest, taking his predecessor as his example. But early in May 1844 he caught pneumonia, and on the 19th he died, at age 55.
Joseph-Onésime Leprohon typifies the administrators who shaped Quebec’s classical colleges and indelibly marked generations of boys who became its professional men and priests. Joseph-Guillaume Barthe* has well described the role he played: “This martyr to duty, this model of devotion, whose name not one of those who came under his motherly thumb (fatherly would not be tender enough) pronounces without emotion or without being transported. On earth, he was nothing but an instrument unknown outside but venerated as a saint inside this establishment, where he brought up three generations of men . . . all of whom were proud to own that they were his disciples.” Only one reproach can be made: he himself destroyed some of his papers and, further, stipulated in his will that “all the papers, letters, manuscripts, and writings in his possession on the day and at the hour of his death” be burned.
The ASN holds notes of various courses given by Joseph-Onésime Leprohon which were taken down by his students: AP-G, “Traité abrégé de mythologie” (1809); “De la versification latine” (1810); “Cours de philosophie et physique” (c. 1810); “Epitome rhetorices” (1821); “Rhetorica” (n.d.).
AAQ, 515 CD. ANQ-M, CE1-51, 16 févr. 1789. ANQ-MBF, CE1-13, 21 mai 1844. ASN, AO, Séminaire, cahiers de comptes de bibliothèque, J.-O. Leprohon, 1833–36; fonds Leprohon, I, 44; lettres des directeurs et autres à l’évêque de Québec, II–III. Barthe, Souvenirs d’un demisiècle. [L.-É. Bois], Notice sur M. Jos O. Leprohon, archiprêtre, directeur du collège de Nicolet . . . (Québec, 1870). Douville, Hist. du collège-séminaire de Nicolet. Claude Lessard, Le séminaire de Nicolet, 1803–1969 (Trois-Rivières, Qué., 1980).