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d. 16 June 1848 at Quebec


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LEROY, PIERRE-AUGUSTE, teacher and author; b. 20 Feb. 1846 at Mauves (Mauves-sur-Loire, Loire-Atlantique), France, son of Pierre Leroy, a doctor, and Marie-Anne-Rosalie Lebreton; d. after 1886 in France or Switzerland.

Pierre-Auguste Leroy arrived at Quebec on 6 March 1874, intent upon introducing a reform of classical education. Nearing the age of 30, he meditated on his past, which appeared to him to be a succession of failures and hardships. From earliest childhood he had wanted to be a missionary so that he could die a martyr to his Roman Catholic faith. It was for this reason, he asserted, that at the age of 14 he had vainly begged his father to let him join the ranks of the papal army after its defeat at Castelfidardo, Italy. He had then entered the Collège de Couet, in the department of Loir-et-Cher in France, to complete his classical education but in 1867, having reached the age of majority, he abandoned the medical studies he had taken up at his father’s insistence and after the battle of Mentana enrolled in the 3rd battalion of Papal Zouaves. In May 1868, at the end of his six-month term of service, he joined the Cistercians at the Abbaye d’Aiguebelle near Donzère, France, believing he was taking up his vocation. Less than a year later, however, his superiors made him resume life as a lay person to recover his health, which he had undermined by excessive privations. It was then that Leroy turned his mind to education.

The evidence suggests that he was a teacher for a few years, since at the beginning of 1874 he published at Lyons a pedagogical work, Commentarii de bello Helvetio; nouvelle méthode pour apprendre le latin en peu de temps. On 2 February he asked the minister of public instruction to try out his teaching methods which, he argued, could shorten secondary studies by one half. Experience had led him to consider the system of classical teaching an obstacle in his search for the way laid out for him by Providence. Hence he conceived the idea that each man had a particular mission to fulfil which was indicated to him in childhood by “virtually unquestionable signs.” In his view the system of classical teaching took no account of the vocations of children. Authoritarian and too restrictive, it placed excessive emphasis on memorizing; learning useless material consumed much of the time that a child should be devoting to exercising creativity and learning a trade, thus coming to realize what it was that Providence intended for his life. Rejected in France, Leroy turned his attention to Canada, which he had heard about during the 1867 universal exposition at Paris, in the hope that his “invention” would be welcomed there.

As soon as he reached Quebec in March 1874, Leroy went to see Abbé Thomas-Étienne Hamel, the superior of the Séminaire de Québec, and suggested that he be given a class where he could test his method of teaching Latin. He was invited to give a lecture on the subject to the seminary’s teachers on 8 April but, despite the interest aroused by what he said, his request was refused. He then appealed to Gédéon Ouimet*, the prime minister and minister of public instruction for Quebec. No doubt interested, the latter agreed to chair a second lecture by Leroy, given on 30 April at the École Normale Laval in Quebec City in the presence of the mayor, the leading citizens, and numerous journalists. The next day many newspapers praised Leroy’s system, and Napoléon Legendre*, associate editor of Le Journal de l’Instruction publique, even expressed the hope that the government would assist him. In fact, Ouimet did give Leroy the grant and the premises he had requested. Leroy therefore announced that from September 1874 he would offer an experimental three-year course covering, with the exception of philosophy, all the subjects required in France for the examination for the baccalauréat ès lettres, which marked the end of secondary studies.

The encouragement Leroy received in Quebec was not unconnected with the desire entertained in certain circles there since 1840 for a reform of classical education to adapt it to the exigencies of the industrial age. For example, when the members of the Institut Canadien at Montreal pointed to the gap in technology and in wealth between French Canadian and Anglo-Saxon society in North America, they denounced the education given in the classical colleges as the cause of this backwardness. In this respect Leroy’s system, which cut the time for Latin and Greek studies in half but maintained an adequate initiation in them, seemed a desirable compromise between the abolition of these subjects and their retention unchanged. Henceforth more time would be given to useful learning. However, some teachers considered this new system too demanding, since it forced them to offer instruction on almost an individual basis. Leroy responded to them in newspaper articles couched in aggressive and argumentative language. To prove he was right he proposed to give his 30 or so students examinations in public every three months to show the progress accomplished. So successful were these examinations that Leroy was again commended for his system. In December 1874 Joseph-Édouard Cauchon of Le Journal de Québec lauded the man and his work, and Napoléon Legendre continued to show enthusiasm. Abbé Antonin Nantel, the superior of the Séminaire de Sainte-Thérèse, predicted an early triumph for Leroy and hoped the power of public opinion would overcome all resistance. Abbé Dominique Racine, the superior of the Séminaire de Chicoutimi, after a trial of the system in his institution, testified to its positive results. But Ouimet’s government was defeated in the wake of the Tanneries scandal [see Louis Archambeault] in September 1874 and Leroy’s grant was not renewed for 1875. This blow, and the overload of work Leroy had imposed upon himself for the sake of establishing his reputation at Quebec, affected his mental health. He retired from teaching and began a life of writing, controversy, and wandering.

Convinced he had to reform teaching if he were to accomplish his God-given mission, Leroy returned to France at the end of 1875. His object was to interest the superior of the Abbaye d’Aiguebelle in founding in Quebec a college which Leroy himself would run on the model of a monastery; its students would live by the Rule of St Benedict, adapted and somewhat relaxed. Such an environment would permit him to apply his system and would help to spread its use. The students would be admitted without fees, would spend part of their time apprenticing to a trade, and would leave the institution prepared to take the places for which they were predestined.

Unable to find encouragement in France, in 1876 Leroy returned to Quebec, where he experienced the same refusal from Archbishop Elzéar-Alexandre Taschereau*. He then went to Chicoutimi and met Father Charles Arnaud, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, who was apparently sympathetic to his plan. Leroy immediately took various steps to get Arnaud appointed first bishop of the diocese of Chicoutimi. He wrote of receiving miraculous proofs that Arnaud was designated by God to hold this post and to become the agent of Providence for the reform that he proposed. On this theme, he pestered the archbishop of Quebec and the apostolic delegate, Bishop George Conroy*, all the time drafting pamphlets and newspaper articles about the subject. But in spite of these initiatives, Dominique Racine was named head of the diocese of Chicoutimi in 1878.

Leroy lost a great deal of his credibility in Quebec City after his return in 1876. The papers refused to publish what he wrote and he had to start his own, La Volonté, which was distributed without charge and appeared irregularly in 1876 and 1877. An outcast, he wrote that he was now termed a “black sheep,” whom “the good women of Quebec look upon as a real devil,” on a par with a “Protestant minister.” This reputation was not due solely to his extravagant behaviour but also to the fact that from the moment the clergy had refused to support his plan they had become the target of his attacks. As an example, he railed against the absolute power that the church exercised over education.

In 1878 Leroy left Quebec City penniless and on foot. He wound up at Saint-François-du-Lac in Yamaska County, where he was given shelter by a local farmer whose son he undertook to teach. In the spring of 1879 he went to Saint-Hugues and took a post in the primary school, where for a year or so he experienced great satisfaction in trying out his method with young pupils. But there his obsessions still haunted him and he left the institution to rededicate himself to his vocation – the total and radical reform of the educational system.

An unexpected inheritance enabled Leroy to return to France towards the end of 1881. He continued to seek a college where he could institute his reform, and with this in mind he vainly requested the bishop of Nantes to entrust him with the position of superior of the Collège de Couet. He was back in the province of Quebec by the end of 1883 and the following year tried to convince the new apostolic delegate, Mgr Joseph-Gauthier-Henri-Smeulders, of the necessity of replacing Bishop Racine with Father Arnaud as head of the diocese of Chicoutimi. In 1885 he even went to Rome to intercede in favour of Arnaud, claiming that in this Oblate missionary he could recognize the future pope “of whom the prophecies speak.” Failing to win his case, he returned to Quebec late that year. He then became convinced he was being spied on by the police of the French Republic, and in 1886 returned to his native land to live like a fugitive. Accounts of this period in his life suggest that his mind was completely unhinged: revolver in pocket, he made his way along the roads of France and Switzerland, seeking to evade the secret agents who in countless disguises were following him. No doubt he ended his days in a lunatic asylum.

René Hardy

Pierre-Auguste Leroy wrote numerous works dealing with pedagogy and with his mystical visions including: Études de langues; réforme de l’enseignement . . . (Québec, 1874); Thèmes, règles et vie d’Agésilas: nouvelle méthode pour apprendre le latin en peu de temps (Québec, 1874); Pour et contre, réforme de l’enseignement: nouvelle méthode pour apprendre les langues en peu de temps (Québec, 1875) (an account of this work can be found in “Bulletin bibliographique,” JIP, 19 (1875): 46); L’enfant et l’Éducation (Québec, 1877); Ensemble du système (Québec, 1877); Gage de la victoire (s.l., 1878); Lumen in cœlo, le mot de l’énigme: explication de la prophétie de StMalachie (Québec, 1881); Lumen in cœlo, la fin du monde: nous sommes aux derniers jours du monde (Québec, 1885); Lumen in cœlo, le futur pape: laissez passer la justice de Dieu (Nantes, France, 1885); En avant, Œdipe; où est l’étoile? (s.l., [1886]). Leroy also founded a newspaper, La Volonté, at Quebec in 1876; however, it ceased publication at beginning of the following year.

Arch. départementales, Loire-Atlantique (Nantes), État civil, Mauves, 20 févr. 1846. Gédéon Ouimet, “Rapport du ministre de l’Instruction publique de la province de Québec, pour l’année 1872 et en partie pour l’année 1873,” JIP, 19: 36–37. Le Journal de Québec, 28 févr., 13 juin 1876; 1877. Bernard Lippens, Pierre Leroy: son système, sa marotte, ses luttes homériques et ses travaux herculéens (Québec, 1874). J.-C. Drolet, “Monseigneur Dominique Racine fondateur de l’Église saguenéenne,” SCHÉC Rapport, 31 (1964): 55–64. Ægidius Fauteux, “Les carnets d’un curieux: Pierre Leroy ou les navrantes étapes d’une folie,” La Patrie, 2 déc. 1933: 32–33, 35.

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René Hardy, “LEROY, PIERRE-AUGUSTE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 16, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/leroy_pierre_auguste_11E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/leroy_pierre_auguste_11E.html
Author of Article:   René Hardy
Title of Article:   LEROY, PIERRE-AUGUSTE
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   June 16, 2024