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d. 18 May 1884 at Garden Island, Ont.


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NAU, LOUIS, Roman Catholic priest; b. 15 Sept. 1799 in Lanoraie, Lower Canada, and baptized the next day in the parish of Sainte-Geneviève-de-Berthier (at Berthierville), son of Charles Nau, a farmer, and Louise Pagé; d. in or after 1843.

The Naus, who were in humble circumstances but not poor, lived in the southernmost part of the seigneury of La Noraye, which in 1802 was annexed to the new parish of Sainte-Elisabeth, in the diocese of Joliette. They were held to be deeply religious; introducing their children early to prayer and to regular participation in confession and the Eucharist, they hoped to have a priest in the familoung Louis was probably the son who showed the greatest inclination, but as there was no school in the parish before 1810, he was unable to complete elementary studies until he was 18. Thus it was only in 1817 that his parents, with the blessing of their curé, Joseph-Benjamin Keller, could send him to the Petit Séminaire de Montréal.

Nau’s stay in the institution left its mark on him. In this milieu of Sulpician priests he no doubt was nurtured on monarchist and gallican traditions. In 1821, moreover, he witnessed the struggles of his teachers against Jean-Jacques Lartigue, the auxiliary bishop in Montreal. They not only refused to recognize the bishop’s authority, but also maintained that the proposed establishment of a new diocese in Montreal was contrary to canon law. The mood of independence prevailing at the time in the Petit Séminaire de Montréal certainly fostered in Nau a tendency to be disputatious.

Upon completing classical studies in 1825 Nau chose to enter the priesthood, and in the autumn he went to the Grand Séminaire de Montréal. No sooner had he settled in than he was entrusted with teaching at the Séminaire de Saint-Hyacinthe. On 26 Feb. 1826 Lartigue tonsured him there. The following year Nau began theological studies at the Grand Séminaire de Québec, and on 25 March 1829 he was ordained priest by Bernard-Claude Panet*, archbishop of Quebec.

When he left the Grand Séminaire, Nau was considered a reliable man wholly respectful of the rules of his calling. The first known observation about him, made at the time of his ordination, is unequivocal: he was said to be pious, zealous, obedient to his superiors, and ready to serve the cause of religion, to which he was deeply attached. Panet also considered him a likely candidate, devoted to doing good and endowed with deep faith. At that time his superiors were unaware of the other side of his personality. Nau also turned out to be stubborn and self-willed, devoid of tact or moderation and barely able to endure contradiction.

Nau was named assistant priest at Saint-Jacques-de-l’Achigan (Saint-Jacques) in September 1829. He turned the local curé, Jean-Romuald Paré, against him in less than three months. Judging the two men temperamentally incompatible, Panet moved Nau to another parish, making him assistant priest at Maskinongé early in 1830. Once again the local curé, Louis Marcoux, was soon complaining of his behaviour. Informed of this new problem in January 1831, Lartigue showed that he nevertheless had confidence in Nau by finding him a post as assistant priest at Saint-Benoit (Mirabel). In October he made him assistant priest at Saint-Hyacinthe; however, the bishop left him there just a few months, because he had long wanted to make him a rural curé.

On 27 Feb. 1832 Nau officially became curé of the parish of Sainte-Madeleine (at Rigaud). Only a month after he had taken up his charge the churchwardens were accusing him of being arrogant and of seeking to manage on his own the assets belonging to the fabrique. The dispute became acrimonious and spread through the parish when Nau threatened in 1833 to take legal action against those parishioners who did not pay the fees for the rites of the church. At the end of the year petitions demanding his immediate recall were sent to the bishop in Montreal. In addition, some of Nau’s flock subjected him to a charivari and hanged him in effigy outside his presbytery. Anxious to avoid the worst, Lartigue called upon Nau to leave. In January 1834, after repeated entreaties from Joseph Signay, the archbishop of Quebec, he sent Nau to Saint-Jean-Baptiste-de-Rouville. Headstrong and unbending, Nau paid no attention to the bishop’s orders and did not move to his new parish until five months later. This initial act of defiance set Lartigue against Nau, whom he considered a perpetual nuisance. Nor would the priest make any gesture of submission to his bishop.

But it was the conflict he was to experience at Saint-Jean-Baptiste-de-Rouville that would launch Nau into an unprecedented struggle against Lartigue and make him an outcast as a priest. He was no sooner installed in his parish than his authority was contested by his churchwardens. During the first two years of his ministry he was accused, among other things, of insulting the local seigneur, Jean-Baptiste-René Hertel* de Rouville, and of attacking several people in the parish from the pulpit. His quarrel with the seigneur even brought him a severe warning from the bishop. In such an atmosphere relations with his flock could only deteriorate quickly. Once more petitions were sent to the bishop of Montreal, in 1836 in particular, and once more Nau was hanged in effigy. Angry and tired of these quarrels, Lartigue reacted swiftly. In August he ordered Nau to Saint-Valentin, where he had just appointed him parish priest. But Nau was determined not to leave his charge, and he took formal possession of it in the presence of a notary; at the end of September Lartigue therefore appointed Pierre Lafrance as curé of Saint-Jean-Baptiste-de-Rouville, without bothering to find out if Nau had left. These incidents made Nau feel persecuted, but convinced the bishop that he was dealing with a rebellious spirit. From then on both men refused to make any concessions whatsoever.

In the parish events happened quickly. On 24 October Lafrance ordered Nau to leave the presbytery, where he had barricaded himself, but to no avail. Ten days later, at the bishop’s palace in Montreal, Nau appeared before an ecclesiastical court which confirmed Lartigue’s decision to suspend him from priestly office. Despite this condemnation he reinstalled himself in the presbytery, more determined than ever to carry on with his duties and to hand nothing over to Lafrance. Saint-Jean-Baptiste-de-Rouville witnessed an unprecedented confrontation as two sides formed to defend their conflicting interests. The affair got into the newspapers and soon was creating a stir in clergy and lay circles. Early in 1837 some supporters of Lartigue and Lafrance decided to take the presbytery by storm. Armed with stakes and sticks, they succeeded in evicting Nau, who managed somehow to hide in the home of one of his friends in the parish.

In these circumstances Nau saw but one way to fight Lartigue and Lafrance: recourse to the civil courts. By lending his written support to the Patriote cause, he succeeded in winning the favour of lawyers Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine* and Amable Berthelot, who agreed to take up his cause. In February 1837 they brought two actions in the Court of King’s Bench, one for £2,000 against Bishop Lartigue for having suspended Nau from priestly office, the other, for £600, against Pierre Lafrance for having usurped the duties of parish priest at Saint-Jean-Baptiste-de-Rouville. Several months later La Fontaine brought new support to the rebellious curé by publishing in Montreal the pamphlet Notes sur linamovibilité des curés dans le Bas-Canada. When informed of this development, Lartigue promptly wrote and published, also in 1837, Mémoire sur lamovibilité des curés en Canada. The legal case then became increasingly a pretext for confrontations between the Patriote party and the ecclesiastical authorities.

A year later the three judges, James Reid, George Pyke*, and Jean-Roch Rolland*, delivered their judgement. Considering Nau to have neither title to nor possession of the parish charge, they rejected his demands and ordered him to pay court costs. Despite this stinging set-back Nau was not one to feel disheartened: in 1839 he declared himself ready to continue the fight and appeal the judgement. But, ruined financially, he had to renounce the idea of any new recourse to justice, not least because he had been abandoned by the Patriote leaders, possibly as a result of the affidavits he had given against certain parishioners in 1838 and 1839.

From that time the struggle continued in the religious sphere. Early in 1842 one of Nau’s friends, notary Charles Têtu of Saint-Jean-Baptiste-de-Rouville, published Analyse et observations sur les droits relatifs aux évêques de Québec et de Montréal, et au clergé du Canada. Imbued with gallican ideas, Têtu maintained that bishops had no right of control over parish charges and ecclesiastical benefices. Although not officially the author, Nau had clearly had a hand in writing the text. In February and March of the same year he wrote articles in the newspapers, reflecting on traditional gallican doctrines and openly supporting Têtu’s pamphlet. He thought that in this way he could provoke a useful debate among his ecclesiastical colleagues on the question of the irremovability of parish priests and the exercise of authority within the church. He probably was also hoping to intensify the discontent that for two decades had been stirring up the lower clergy against certain forms of episcopal authority that were too absolute. This hope, however, proved vain. Isolated, dishonoured, forever a marked man, Nau had no choice but to submit or go into exile. It is not known if he then thought of abandoning the priesthood. It is questionable, however, whether such a step could have been taken or even contemplated at the time. Social pressure, accepted ways of thought, and legal structures combined to prevent a priest from moving in this direction. It seems, however, that an understanding was reached during the summer of 1842 between Ignace Bourget*, the new bishop of Montreal, and the restive priest. After the two had a discussion, Nau reputedly agreed to put his submission to his superiors down on paper, and in return the bishop of Montreal supposedly offered him a large parish charge. But the agreement was short-lived. In 1843 Nau decided to go into exile in the United States, and no one heard of him again.

A sad destiny, Nau’s. He was a secondary figure rejected by most of his fellows, and his life in a way illustrates the fate awaiting those who refused to submit to ecclesiastical authority. Nevertheless, he had hastened his own ruin by spurning compromise with his superiors.

Richard Chabot

[The note-book recording the deliberations of the fabrique of Saint-Jean-Baptiste-de-Rouville parish for 1798–1840, which is in the possession of that parish, includes a scathing attack dated 3 July 1834 by Abbé Louis Nau on his churchwardens, in particular for the way they were administering the fabriques property.  r.c.]

AAQ, 210 A, XIV: 324, 328; XVI: 236. ACAM, 420.095; RLL, VI: 19, 107, 236. ANQ-M, CE5–1, 16 sept. 1799; CN6-4, 27 oct. 1836. ANQ-Q, E17/45, nos. 1676, 3601, 3603a. Arch. de la chancellerie de l’évêché de Saint-Hyacinthe (Saint-Hyacinthe, Qué.), XVII.C.41, 17 nov. 1837–17 nov. 1839. [The file for Saint-Jean-Baptiste-de-Rouville for 1836 and part of 1837 has inexplicably disappeared and could not be consulted.  r.c.] Arch. de la chancellerie de l’évêché de Valleyfield (Valleyfield, Qué.), Sainte-Madeleine (Rigaud), corr., 20 mai 1832, 4 janv. 1834. Arch. de l’évêché de Joliette (Joliette, Qué.), Cartable Saint-Roch-de-l’Achigan, 3 nov. 1829, 18 févr. 1830. ASSH, A, Fg-41, 2.1.30–32, 35–36. L.-H. La Fontaine, Notes sur linamovibilité des curés dans le Bas-Canada (Montréal, 1837). [J.-J. Lartigue], Mémoire sur lamovibilité des curés en Canada (Montréal, 1837). Charles Têtu, Analyse et observations sur les droits relatifs aux évêques de Québec et de Montréal, et au clergé du Canada (Montréal, 1842). LAurore des Canadas, 11 févr., 4 mars 1842. Le Canadian, 18, 21 nov. 1836. La Minerve, 24 nov. 1836. J.-J. Lefebvre, “Le curé Louis Nau (8.1799–1843),” CCHA Rapport, 24 (1956–57): 65–90. Honorius Provost, “Le régime des cures au Canada français: l’inamovibilité,” CCHA Rapport, 22 (1954–55): 85–103.

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Cite This Article

Richard Chabot, “NAU, LOUIS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 18, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/nau_louis_7E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/nau_louis_7E.html
Author of Article:   Richard Chabot
Title of Article:   NAU, LOUIS
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   May 18, 2024