PLESSIS, JOSEPH-OCTAVE (baptized Joseph), priest of the Roman Catholic Church, archbishop, politician, and author; b. 3 March 1763 in Montreal, son of Joseph-Amable Plessy, dit Bélair, and Marie-Louise Mennard; d. 4 Dec. 1825 at Quebec.
Joseph-Octave Plessis was born a little more than three weeks after the Treaty of Paris confirmed the British conquest of New France. His paternal ancestors had moved to the colony from Metz, France, at the beginning of the 18th century. In 1713 Jean-Louis Plessy*, dit Bélair, married Marie-Anne Petit Boismorel, and nearly 40 years later, in 1752, their 17th child, Joseph-Amable, married Marie-Louise Mennard. Joseph-Amable was a blacksmith, with a forge near Montreal, and his prosperity was ensured after the conquest by the increased demand for iron products resulting from another British invasion, that of merchants in the fur trade.
The seventh of eighteen children raised in a home both happy and religious, Joseph-Octave acquired confidence in his manifest abilities. At the Sulpician primary school he had little difficulty with the curriculum of reading, writing, arithmetic, and the catechism. After just one year he was sent to a small Latin school operated by Jean-Baptiste Curatteau*, parish priest at Longue-Pointe (Montreal). In the spring of 1773 he was confirmed by Bishop Jean-Olivier Briand*. That year Curatteau’s school was moved into the city and became the Collège Saint-Raphaël. Plessis easily mastered his subjects, winning several prizes, and in 1777 or 1778 he completed his sixth year (Rhetoric) at the college.
In the autumn of 1778, with the aid of a bursary, Plessis entered the Petit Séminaire de Québec. By its rigorism and emphasis on the practice of the priesthood, the program of studies instilled in Plessis a moral austerity and a preference for practical concerns over intellectual discussion. As always, he accomplished his studies with ease. He also demonstrated leadership qualities; received into the Congrégation de la Bienheureuse-Vierge-Marie-Immaculée in October 1778, he was elected prefect, the highest student position in the fraternity, in April 1780.
Plessis completed his classical course around July 1780; the following month he was tonsured by Briand and assigned as a teaching assistant to the Collège Saint-Raphaël. He enjoyed teaching, but in the fall of 1783, on the advice of vicars general Henri-François Gravé* de La Rive and Étienne Montgolfier*, Briand called him back to Quebec to fill the position of secretary, usually reserved for the most promising young priests because it provided an excellent training in diocesan administration. While in this office, which he would occupy for some 15 years, Plessis was first influenced by Briand to the point of adopting not only the bishop’s principles, but also his tastes and manners. On 11 March 1786 he was ordained a priest by Briand’s successor, Louis-Philippe Mariauchau* d’Esgly.
During springs and summers from 1787 to 1792 Plessis accompanied d’Esgly’s coadjutor and successor, Jean-François Hubert*, on the pastoral visit of the diocese. He acquired much experience in hearing confessions and preaching, a feeling for rural parishes and people, and a solid grasp of the problems and workings of parish administration. Hubert succeeded d’Esgly in 1788 and from the new bishop, who was less authoritarian than Briand, Plessis learned a more psychologically oriented approach to the direction of clergy and people.
On 31 May 1792, following the advice of Gravé, Hubert appointed Plessis to the cure of Notre-Dame at Quebec, the most important in the diocese along with Notre-Dame in Montreal, while keeping him as diocesan secretary. The parish embraced the entire town, with its population of 7,200. To obtain the information required to organize realistically the social and spiritual life of Notre-Dame, Plessis conducted a census that year and then repeated the operation in 1795, 1798, and 1805 to keep himself abreast of the town’s evolution. These censuses confirmed the growth of two working-class suburbs, Saint-Roch and Saint-Jean. Plessis devoted pastoral attention particularly to the former, where growth was more rapid and poverty more grinding, eventually building a church, a convent, and a college there.
Quebec was the scene of a proliferation of drunkenness, brawls, robbery, and prostitution, encouraged by the absence of effective law enforcement and stimulated by the presence of soldiers and of sailors and raftsmen released from the isolation of months at sea or in the bush. From his pulpit Plessis denounced the moral state of the town. “His action was animated and his sermon impressive,” noted Elizabeth Posthuma Simcoe [Gwillim*] on one occasion. Although passionate enough, his discourses were nevertheless directed to the head rather than the heart. To foster the spirituality of his congregation, Plessis reinvigorated the Confrérie de la Sainte-Famille and introduced the 40-hours devotion at Pentecost. He ministered to the Irish, hitherto neglected, but laboriously for he never quite mastered English pronunciation. His pastoral work, however, was concentrated on the religious education of the young, particularly in Saint-Roch, and he established new catechism classes and an elementary school. The most intelligent boys were directed to the Petit Séminaire de Québec, in hopes that some would become priests. Plessis also mobilized community support for victims of social disasters. He was unremittingly occupied; his day began around 4:00 a.m. and ended about midnight.
As secretary Plessis acquired a reputation as the power behind Hubert. Some priests began addressing themselves to him for solutions to their problems; others resented his influence. Hubert being ill at ease in society, Plessis played a prominent role as intermediary between him and the politicians. Plessis thus established working relations with such influential men as Chief Justice William Osgoode, Anglican bishop Jacob Mountain, Solicitor General Jonathan Sewell*, Civil Secretary Herman Witsius Ryland*, and the merchant-politicians Thomas Dunn* and William Grant*. These relations were reinforced by his active support of the British government during the French revolution; in 1794, for example, his funeral panegyric upon Briand vaunting the merits of British rule and denouncing the atheism and bloodiness of the revolution left a favourable impression in official circles.
In 1797 Hubert retired in favour of Pierre Denaut*. Plessis was the hierarchy’s choice as Denaut’s coadjutor, and his candidacy was supported by Osgoode and Ryland. Governor Robert Prescott* accepted him and then resisted pressure by Prince Edward* Augustus, who promoted another priest. Disruptions in the Vatican administration caused by the revolution and the death of the pope delayed signature of Plessis’s bulls until 26 April 1800; he was finally consecrated bishop of Canathe on 21 Jan. 1801. Denaut remained in his parish of Longueuil, leaving to Plessis the district of Quebec and relations with government, subject to his approval. It was fortunate the two were good friends because this singular arrangement produced angry moments between them. “Strong-minded” by nature, in the words of Gravé, and experienced in diocesan administration, Plessis at times bore his subordination with impatience. Slow communications occasionally prevented his consulting Denaut adequately on major matters, as in December 1798 and January 1799 after Prescott had ordered a day of thanksgiving to celebrate Admiral Horatio Nelson’s victory in the battle of the Nile. Following an unsatisfactory correspondence with Denaut, Plessis found himself obliged, without further consulting the bishop, to replace a relatively bland pastoral letter by Denaut announcing the event with one of his own drafting better calculated to answer “the enthusiasm at headquarters.”
Fear that French emissaries were stirring up revolution in Lower Canada [see David McLane*] made even French emigré priests suspect to the British. In 1798–99 Plessis had to lobby for acceptance of the émigré Jean-Henry-Auguste Roux as superior of the Sulpicians in Montreal. This necessity to court government in internal matters pointed up the bishop of Quebec’s lack of legal status and the extent to which he was dependent on government goodwill and his force of persuasion rather than on guarantees of law in the management of church affairs. The bishop’s decisions regarding the erection or division of parishes, for example, could be contested either legally or politically. Plessis attempted to regulate this problem in 1797 when Thomas Coffin* introduced into the House of Assembly a bill to erect a parish that Denaut did not want created. Plessis hoped to transform this specific bill into a general law establishing procedures for the erection of parishes such that canonical erection must precede civil recognition. He obtained Ryland’s support but failed to overcome opposition by Sewell and Osgoode.
The major elements determining Plessis’s role as coadjutor – Denaut’s absence from Quebec, British suspicion of everything French, and the bishop’s want of legal status – came together under the lieutenant governorship of Sir Robert Shore Milnes*. Alarmed that the executive had little social – and hence political – influence with the Canadian population, Milnes, drawing on Osgoode, Mountain, Ryland, and Sewell, produced a comprehensive plan to increase it. Among other measures the plan prescribed bringing the Roman Catholic Church under executive control in order to capitalize on its social influence. In return Milnes offered legal recognition. To obtain Denaut’s consent to the proposed restrictions, in April and May 1805 Sewell engaged Plessis in a series of negotiations from which nominations to cures and the erection of parishes emerged as principal points of contention. Plessis was prepared to give ground on both but Denaut was not, and the bishop’s accusations of imprudence on Plessis’s part angered the coadjutor. The church was in a crisis, he insisted; it was losing the external authority needed to support its spiritual mission. He eventually prevailed on Denaut to ask the king for recognition, but the petition Denaut sent in July 1805 was a mere shadow of the one that Plessis had envisaged and had hoped would result in a veritable charter of the church’s rights. It was never answered.
Denaut’s death in January 1806 offered the government an opportunity to obtain the control it wanted in return for continuing the episcopal succession. Plessis upset all calculations, however, when he persuaded the administrator, Thomas Dunn, to accept him as bishop and Bernard-Claude Panet as coadjutor without conditions. Panet was older than Plessis, but in choosing him Plessis had bought time to groom a younger priest, such as André Doucet or Pierre-Flavien Turgeon*, as his ultimate successor.
By 1806 long-term developments within the clergy had given Plessis more authority over it than his predecessors had had. Canadianization, which had accelerated since the conquest, had made the clergy more homogeneous and amenable to a Canadian bishop, and its predominantly urban, middle-class origins corresponded to Plessis’s own. The disappearance of the Jesuits and Recollets [see Jean-Joseph Casot*; Louis Demers*] had reduced the number of priests not under the bishop’s immediate authority. The elimination as forces in the colonial church of the chapter at Quebec [see Charles-Ange Collet*] and of the Séminaire des Missions Étrangères and the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice in Paris [see Henri-François Gravé de La Rive; Jean-Henry-Auguste Roux] had further concentrated authority in the bishop, as had the disruption of the Vatican administration by political and military turbulence in Europe. Although Plessis would have preferred better communications with Rome, his strong position vis-à-vis the clergy suited his authoritative and decisive temperament.
The bishop’s most urgent problem was an acute shortage within that clergy. Pleas for relief by overworked parish priests, he wrote to one, “are breaking my heart.” Through short-term measures he reduced the physical toll on his clergy, even though their workload continued to increase. He attempted to import French priests, but was prevented from doing so by a British ban until 1813 and thereafter by a shortage of clerics in France. At the same time he sought to increase local recruitment, never a priority with his predecessors. Few Canadian boys received a secondary education, however, and most who did opted for a less restrictive life in the professions. To augment the numbers of candidates for orders Plessis virtually froze the parish complement, despite its low level, and put all additions to the clergy into secondary teaching, hoping that from an increased number of students would come an increased number of vocations. He immediately encountered opposition from the Séminaire de Québec. It claimed that, as a branch of the Séminaire des Missions Étrangères in Paris, it enjoyed a certain independence of the bishop, a pretension that Plessis would not tolerate in such a crucial institution. He took up residence in the Séminaire de Québec in 1806 partly to improve relations, but mainly to affirm the episcopal presence. He succeeded on both these counts; however, in a third objective, to improve substantially the quality of theological training given to his clergy, until then largely dispensed in the Grand Séminaire, he considered himself unsuccessful.
To remedy this state of affairs, in 1811 Plessis offered to make Saint-Sulpice in Montreal, whose program of theological education he admired, a diocesan seminary. As coadjutor he had established excellent relations with its superior, Roux, but several disagreements arose between them after Plessis became bishop. A branch of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, the Montreal community was determined to maintain its long-standing independence of Quebec, preserve its French character at the expense of recruitment of Canadians, and protect its dominance over Montreal’s religious life by minimizing episcopal influence in it. In 1807 an attempt by Plessis to settle Panet in the area had been thwarted by Roux. Four years later Plessis’s offer to make Saint-Sulpice a diocesan seminary was seen as a Trojan horse and politely declined.
Saint-Sulpice also opposed Plessis’s development of a seminary at Nicolet. The stagnation of recruitment in Montreal and Quebec had determined him to tap the area between them; a seminary at Nicolet would do so and would preserve students from the temptations of city life. He bought the property from Denaut’s heir [see Pierre-Michel Cressé*], persuaded a reluctant Jean Raimbault* to become superior, obtained through bequests part of the library of Pierre-Joseph Compain* and the whole of that of François Cherrier* for the college, financed building expansions, purchased land endowments, and offered prize volumes. In return he exacted episcopal control of administration and teaching.
About 1817 Plessis began endorsing rural classical colleges elsewhere as well. That year he drafted the rules for the Collège de Saint-Hyacinthe, established by Antoine Girouard, and thereafter he found directors and sought letters patent for it. He also gave encouragement to Pierre-Marie Mignault* at Chambly and Charles-Joseph Ducharme* at Sainte-Thérèse-de-Blainville (Sainte-Thérèse). He attempted to recruit from the working class at Quebec by founding a college in the faubourg Saint-Roch in 1818. However, staffing the new colleges with young ecclesiastics drew criticism from parish priests deprived of assistants and from Roux, who argued that it dispersed meagre teaching personnel and hindered the raising of standards in theological education. Plessis also encouraged institutions founded to finance theological studies and personally sponsored needy students. However, the results of all these labours only became evident in the 1830s when recruitment began to match population growth.
Plessis exercised considerable influence on the formation of his recruits through surveillance of their studies and through ecclesiastical lectures at Quebec and Nicolet. He instilled in most strong faith, rigorous morality, discipline, and humility, underlining that the last quality was judicious in a period of democratic effervescence. He demanded individual self-abnegation but vaunted the clergy as “this elected race . . . this royal priesthood, this holy nation.”
With his priests Plessis sought to establish a personal association. Alexander McDonell*, in Upper Canada, looked on him in 1820 as “my mainstay, my guide and support, for you have always behaved towards me since I have had the happiness of living under your jurisdiction, rather like a father and a friend than a superior.” Naturally gregarious, Plessis regaled clerical gatherings with expertly told stories drawn from wide reading and from an endless stream of humorous incidents experienced during pastoral visits and a voyage to Europe in 1819–20. He scrutinized the moral and psychological make-up of each priest and tailored his counsel and orders in consequence. He addressed the problems that most worried them. Isolation was one; all were exhorted to write to him frequently. From far-off Prince Edward Island Angus Bernard MacEachern noted, “Your grace who has more to do than any other person in Canada, is the only one who writes to me.” When unjustly attacked by parishioners, his clergy could depend on his support; he remained faithful to a reassurance given in 1800 while coadjutor to one beleaguered priest: “You have a conscience and principles. That is all you need with me.” Drawing on a vast knowledge of his diocese, Plessis was able to provide practical advice for the handling of difficult situations, an assistance invaluable to young priests in their first charge. To older clergy who feared exhaustion, he could offer only solicitude and a little humour: “There are enough priests dying prematurely left and right without your getting involved,” he wrote to one.
In Plessis’s efforts to promote clerical esprit de corps, the Société Ecclésiastique Saint-Michel, a clerical mutual aid association that he had helped launch in 1799, played a significant role, even though possibly one-half of the clergy remained outside it. The society enabled Plessis to provide pensions to incapacitated members. Having been named president for life in 1801, he shrewdly managed the board of directors to obtain from the society’s funds capital to finance projects that he wished to forward, such as clerical education; however, his control and use of the society were contested by a few priests, particularly Charles-François Painchaud*.
In handling his clergy Plessis was flexible, in response to his times. “Let us order only in those cases where it is entirely indispensable,” he advised his auxiliary Jean-Jacques Lartigue* in 1824. “Everywhere else let us avoid any expression that smacks of domination. We belong to an age of pride in which the command is odious.” No task of clerical management was more difficult than moving priests around in order to maximize their usefulness. Graduate seminarians, imbued with Plessis’s ideals of self-abnegation and obedience, were prime candidates for the thankless Maritime missions. With the established clergy, who generally resisted any move not considered a promotion, he employed reason, flattery, appeals to sense of duty or personal advantage, even moral bribery as the case required; only as a last resort did he order. The placing of clergy was for Plessis the most important element in the administration of his diocese, and he gave close consideration to matching priests with parishes and clerical neighbours. His determination to keep a free hand as well as a constant preoccupation with maintaining episcopal authority rendered him nearly impervious to demands by parishes and priests for changes in his plans. The colonial government rarely intervened in nominations to parishes despite endless projects and threats to take them over.
It was most often in matters of discipline that Plessis was prepared to use authority, for he believed that the clergy’s influence depended on its assiduity and moral credibility. He insisted that priests not visit outside their parishes except with good reason and preferably only with permission. To combat the resulting isolation, he attempted to organize spiritual retreats, but the clergy had little time to attend them. On their own, often witnesses to depressing human situations, their authority increasingly contested by liberal professional members of their congregations, some priests sought comfort in the bottle or a sympathetic woman. In such cases, and they were not common, Plessis demonstrated a combination of toughness and understanding. If exhortation to reform failed of effect, he would suspend the priest and send him as an assistant to a reliable colleague; rarely was a priest defrocked.
In directing his clergy and governing his diocese Plessis was a careful as well as decisive administrator. The diocesan secretariat expanded to such an extent during his episcopacy that in 1820 a three-storey building had to be erected to house it. Lacking a chapter, the bishop frequently consulted his vicars general, who had limited powers within fairly large districts, before making major decisions. He also consulted the archpriests, who had minor powers over a small number of parishes, and in special cases the ordinary clergy whose work would be affected by a given decision. According to Painchaud, he particularly consulted younger priests because, trained under his eye, they shared his views. But it was Plessis still who decided, and in most cases he personally executed the decision; in 1809 a reluctant Charles-Joseph Brassard Deschenaux accepted appointment as vicar general, consoled only by his knowledge that, “with a bishop like you, a vicar general has practically nothing to do.”
Plessis’s disinclination to delegate authority (at least prior to the division of his diocese in 1820) was criticized by a few priests, such as Painchaud. In part, it sprang from a desire to facilitate standardization of practices over his vast jurisdiction. He counted on his young priests to promote this uniformity; in 1813 he announced a common fee schedule for services throughout the diocese, but to avoid clashing with entrenched clerical interests where opposition to it arose, he generally introduced it on the accession of a young priest to the cure.
Despite his efforts to establish bonds with his clergy, Plessis’s position as bishop inevitably separated him to some extent from them. The geographical perspective of most Canadians in the early 19th century was restricted to the St Lawrence valley and their social concerns centred on preserving their culture. The lower clergy shared this outlook. As bishop of a diocese that extended from the Atlantic to beyond the Red River, and with responsibility for Catholics of all nationalities, Plessis had broader perspectives. He was criticized in Lower Canada for his pastoral visits outside the colony and for expenses incurred in educating missionaries to work there. Seminarians resented his insistence on their learning English. While he sought an entente cordiale with the British, some Lower Canadian clergy cautiously approved the nationalist Canadian party. However, by his prestige, experience, and character, Plessis forged in the clergy of Lower Canada an esprit de corps and sense of purpose it had previously lacked.
Since the early 1700s the clergy had seen its moral and social influence in the colony diminish. After the conquest its authority was no longer founded on civil law. Its influence was further weakened by commercial and military expansion at Quebec and Montreal and by secular and democratic tendencies issuing from the Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions. Enlightenment philosophy appealed particularly to the seigneurial class and the emerging bourgeoisie. The legal fraternity was further alienated from the church by professional functions involving the taking of interest – preparation by notaries of legal obligations, lending of money by tutors and administrators of estates, decisions by judges condemning debtors – which could entail refusal of the sacraments to its members. Aware that the taking of interest was a vital activity in the Lower Canadian economy but unable to find an acceptable theological justification for it, Plessis on the one hand instructed priests not to preach on the subject, inquire about it at the confessional, or demand restitution, but on the other ordered them to apply the required penalties when the taking of interest was brought to their attention. He suggested unobjectionable means of making money from money, such as purchasing life annuities; however, he also accepted the issue of interest-bearing army bills during the War of 1812.
With the Canadian bourgeoisie Plessis also faced the question of the leadership of the Canadians. Through the Canadian party the nationalist bourgeoisie proclaimed itself the sole defender of the rights of the Canadians against British oppression. Plessis’s analysis of the social and political problems facing the Canadians did not differ substantially from that, for example, of Louis-Joseph Papineau*, a leader of the Canadian party, but his proposed remedies did. Whereas Papineau became increasingly democratic and belligerent, Plessis sought to influence British policy from within. Yet, despite his disagreements with the bourgeoisie, Plessis employed his talent for social relations to maintain a personal bridge to the leadership of the Canadian party, and principally to Papineau, whose wife, Julie Bruneau, was an unconditional admirer of the bishop. In any case his church remained influential in the life of the bourgeoisie. The Canadian party considered it a traditional Canadian institution, and Papineau could write of Plessis: “While reproaching him for his political errors, we appreciate what he has accomplished for the ecclesiastical institution over which he presides.” In literature, explicitly anticlerical Voltairism declined, while religious works were a leading category of books produced. Newspaper editors, including Henry-Antoine Mézière*, so outspoken in the 1790s, were rarely disrespectful. Canadian theatre, dependent on middleclass support, experienced a hazardous existence owing in part to clerical opposition. Even in politics the church commanded respect. After Thomas Lee pronounced a vigorously anticlerical speech in the assembly in 1814, another leader of the Canadian party, Pierre-Stanislas Bédard, considered that he had “acted very thoughtlessly, and ought to make every effort to undo his error”; Lee was defeated in 1816. If the professional bourgeoisie was largely recalcitrant in spiritual matters, Plessis noted in 1807 that respect for the faith characterized the country merchants, and in 1821 Jean-Jacques Lartigue informed him that in Montreal, “as everywhere else, the people of the middle class are the most submissive and the most attached to religion and to their ecclesiastical superiors.” Lartigue’s middle class was probably composed of artisans and shopkeepers.
That Plessis was personally respected by the rural inhabitants seems beyond question, and the working class of Saint-Roch venerated him. His direct contact with the habitants was generally limited to his pastoral visits; he was, consequently, assiduous in performing them. They were veritable missions, with Plessis stopping in each parish for several days to preach, examine parish accounts, observe the conduct of priest and parishioners, and note the existence of religious fraternities and the presence of Protestants. His sermons were often successfully improvised on the spot to address the specific problems of the locality.
The attitude of the habitants and the workers towards the church and the clergy generally, while largely respectful, was not one of docile submission. In April 1808, for example, an act had to be passed (subsequently renewed annually) “to provide for the maintenance of good order on Sundays and Holidays.” In December 1810, noting that the feast days of parish patrons had become “days of blasphemies and battles,” Plessis ordered that a single Sunday would thenceforth be set aside as the feast day of all parishes. Such problems may have been created by roisterous minorities and rowdies. But parishioners did often divide into opposing camps over the manner of distributing pews, the projected location of a church building, the creation of new parishes, and even certain temporal powers of the priest in parish administration. These conflicts nevertheless reveal the importance of institutional religious life to the Canadians; they would fight passionately over forms and methods but rarely over fundamentals of faith. Nor did apparent recalcitrance necessarily indicate defection. “The church [of Saint-Esprit] is not finished, the grounds are not completely paid for, there is no presbytery, and of more than 200 inhabitants, only 53 have paid the tithe of 1808,” Plessis noted that year. “Yet [the parishioners] ask for a parish priest.” The habitants’ religion might be superficial, conformist, and superstitious; but it was firmly anchored in their national and social life.
The morality of his people was a matter of concern to Plessis. In the towns of Montreal, Quebec, and Trois-Rivières moral standards possibly declined as prosperity and population increased. But in the rural parishes, according to John Lambert*, the inhabitants were “universally modest in their behaviour: the women from natural causes, the men from custom.” At Quebec the workers of Saint-Roch were a consolation to Plessis. Shortly after becoming bishop he acknowledged that there was “a pretty good foundation of faith and religion” in the colony, particularly in comparison with Europe. At the same time he addressed himself to what he saw as a growing moral problem, though publicly he might exaggerate the extent of immorality and religious indifference to dramatize a real need for reform. His perception of the problem reflected in part a hardening of his own views over time. In 1800 he denounced “a literal adhesion to moral principles, which always have a certain latitude and which ought to bend according to circumstances of time and place.” By 1823, however, he was writing: “Immorality follows so closely the negligence of certain precautions that there would be great imprudence in accusing of rigidity the laws prescribing them, and . . . these laws, like morality of which they are the shield, ought never . . . to be considered variable according to the circumstances of time and place.” This increasing moral conservatism gave rise to a discreet but determined crusade. Paintings in churches were made more decorous. Reasons were required for granting marriage dispensations where there had been pre-marital sex, a requirement that had been abandoned by Plessis’s predecessors. War was waged on drunkenness and alcoholism. The clergy were exhorted to denounce party-going, dancing, and improper dress with greater insistence. But Plessis was a realist and armed himself with patience; in the end probably nothing was more modest than the extent of his success.
To stimulate spiritual life in the parishes, Plessis encouraged the establishment of religious associations, as he had done at Quebec. Ultimately, however, he depended on the clergy to make the church’s influence felt, and in a lecture to seminarians he offered his vision of relations between laity and clergy: “Consider the world divided into two sorts of people, one needing teaching, the other charged with providing it; one famished, the other charged with feeding them; one searching for the way to salvation, the other charged with leading them to it; one afflicted, the other charged with consoling them; one filled with doubts and fears, the other charged with enlightening and reassuring them; one sick, the other charged with treating and healing them.” Such a view left ample room for clerical despotism, but Plessis, in the interest of preserving respect for the clergy, endeavoured to prevent its development. Unlike some of his clergy, he saw the priests’ financial dependence on their parishioners not as a nuisance but as a check on abuse of authority, and he defended the parishioners’ right to protest even in court. Insensitive expenditures on grandiose projects of construction or decoration in times of crop failure incensed him; in 1806 he warned one priest to abandon plans for a new presbytery or have his church interdicted. He advised use of sanctions against fractious parishioners only when persuasion had failed. The church’s uncertain legal status persuaded him to take parishioners to court only when victory was almost certain. On the other hand Plessis might threaten with interdiction or removal of their priest parishes that did not respect their pastor. Given the prevailing shortage of clerics, this threat was effective in achieving limited objectives, but it was less so in changing attitudes.
Plessis was aware nevertheless that long-term tenure of a parish enabled a priest to establish his authority and a bond of trust with his parishioners, and during his episcopacy 65 to 80 per cent of the clergy, depending on the period, remained in the same parish for more than ten years and 45 to 53 per cent for more than 20 years. He insisted that his clergy attend energetically to the social welfare of their parishioners. In times of agricultural distress the habitants looked to their priest for prayers and assistance, the latter being organized on a parish, district, or diocesan level according to the extent of the crisis. Only when the church’s resources were overwhelmed was the state called on to contribute, and even then Plessis and the clergy directed operations. For Plessis this social agency demonstrated to the people the clergy’s concern and ability to meet their needs.
With Protestants Plessis’s relations were in some respects less arduous than those with his flock. Although the Enlightenment ideal of toleration had few adherents in Lower Canada – and Plessis was not among them – religious conflicts rarely scarred the period of his episcopacy. Plessis applied the conciliatory policy initiated by Briand, which consisted principally of religious separation. He refused government proposals to share churches with the Anglicans and stiffened rejection of mixed marriages. The marriage of two Catholics before a Protestant minister was considered null, and Plessis negotiated agreements with Mountain, with Presbyterian minister Alexander Spark*, and with Governor Sir George Prevost* (regarding marriage licences) that eliminated most avenues within the colony for such marriages. Enough remained, however, to compromise his efforts to restrain the granting of marriage dispensations, too freely accorded by his predecessors, he believed; disappointed couples threatened to go to a willing Protestant minister or to the United States.
Plessis was guarded in promoting proselytism. “My system is simply to not harass Protestants to bring them to true faith,” he observed in 1809, “but if it only requires saying a few appropriate words to them to get them on the right road . . . that is an easy matter, which, without compromising a priest, can contribute in the highest degree to the glory of God and the honour of his church.” He opposed proselytism by nuns in the hospitals; however, especially after the War of 1812, he cautiously encouraged production of indigenous controversialist literature by Jean-Baptiste Boucher*, Jackson John Richard*, and Stephen Burroughs. More commonly he imported English works, considered less likely to offend government susceptibilities.
At the same time Plessis took measures to counter Protestant proselytism, of which the most fervent practitioners were Methodists. Rural clergy harassed itinerant ministers and colporteurs and pressured, spiritually and socially, curious parishioners. Priests bought up tracts and Bibles or seized them from recipients and burned them. By 1816, however, Plessis had become convinced that he must produce his own edition of the New Testament to oppose that, of the Methodists “and to shut the mouths of Protestants who complain unceasingly that we are concealing knowledge of the Scriptures from the faithful.” After overcoming opposition from the Sulpicians and indifference on the part of Lartigue, enlisted to work on the manuscript, Plessis had his project defeated in 1825 by Rome’s refusal to authorize publication. Protestant proselytism was in any case an unqualified failure. Most Canadians associated Protestantism with the conqueror; as Lartigue observed, they preferred impiety or even atheism. But in the discomfiture of Protestant proselytism the vigilance of the clergy and their ability to circumscribe all efforts by proselytizers cannot be discounted. The attempts of Jacob Mountain to attract Canadians to the Church of England by diminishing the prestige of the Roman Catholic bishop while raising that of the Anglican were equally unsuccessful. Before the War of 1812 Britain dared not alienate the vast majority of the colony’s population by yielding to Mountain’s importunities, and after the war it was obliged to recognize its debt to Plessis, whose loyalty had been ostentatious.
Although Protestantism made no gains, Plessis noted that “the inevitable relations of Catholics with the Protestants occasion a rapprochement of opinion that significantly alters the purity of the faith and causes some concern for the future.” Catholic discipline regarding fasting, for example, had to be relaxed where Protestants were numerous. Progeny of mixed marriages, even when supposedly Catholics, formed “a species of bastard Christians who fall into disbelief.” On the other hand Plessis used the Protestant threat to justify his insistence on renewed vigour in clerical education and pastoral work.
A focus for Plessis’s concerns about growing secularism and the Protestant presence was primary education. It was universally acknowledged to be in a lamentable state, but there was no agreement over the type of person it should form: a good Catholic, a good Protestant, a good nationalist, or a good loyalist. An act adopted in 1801 to establish a public education system under the aegis of the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning [see Joseph Langley Mills] soon proved unacceptable to the Canadian party and to Plessis. The bishop instituted a boycott of Royal Institution schools which the Canadians’ indifference toward formal education made impressively effective. When in 1816 and again in 1818 he was offered a seat on the board of trustees of the Royal Institution, under Mountain’s presidency, he refused. He was determined to have Catholic children educated in a system under the control of the Catholic bishop. Thus he strongly promoted Catholic primary education, in part to refute charges that his boycott of the Royal Institution was intended to maintain obscurantism among the Canadians, in part to provide students for the increasing number of colleges, but mainly because he still believed, as he had when parish priest of Notre-Dame, that the future of the church depended on educating children in the faith. He personally founded more schools in Saint-Roch and prodded his priests to establish them in their parishes. Those trained under his influence, such as Painchaud, Mignault, Ducharme, Turgeon, Thomas Maguire*, Jean-Baptiste Kelly*, Pierre-Antoine Tabeau, Narcisse-Charles Fortier*, and Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Ferland*, caught his sense of urgency, but most others did not. In 1815 Plessis revised the shorter catechism to better adapt it for rural children, who, he asserted, had perhaps “less disposition than [those] anywhere else in the world to seize things intellectual.”
From 1814 Plessis supported a drive by the Canadian party to obtain a new education act. Progress was hindered by the determination of Lord Bathurst, colonial secretary, to use the issue as a lever with which to pry concessions from the Canadian party over the control of government finances [see Sir Francis Nathaniel Burton]. In 1824, the fabrique law, which permitted the financing of schools from the funds of the parish fabriques, was finally carried. Last-minute revisions to it obtained by Plessis ensured that the clergy, not its rival for control of the education of Canadians, the liberal bourgeoisie, would dominate the system. But Plessis’s efforts to obtain government financing through the establishment of a Roman Catholic royal institution were unsuccessful. As well, since most clergy preferred to expend funds from the fabriques on construction or decoration of churches or presbyteries, the fabrique law ultimately was a failure and was replaced in 1829. In obtaining it, however, Plessis had demonstrated his strength.
Indeed the close relations of Plessis and his clergy with the Canadian lower class, the failure of Protestant proselytism, and the effectiveness of Plessis’s boycott of the Royal Institution all reinforced a Protestant impression of the bishop and his priests as powerful forces in Canadian society. Protestants saw in the Canadians’ love of the externals of religion – such as the numerous large churches and the elaborate, colourful processions of the host – an indication of profound devotion to the church. In auricular confession and the Canadians’ ignorance of the principles of the Reformation they discerned powerful factors favouring clerical domination. Their perception of priestly power was further strengthened by the Canadians’ tenacious attachment to their language and customs and by the stereotypes of them held by the British as a result of the religious, social, and geographic segregation of the two groups. Mountain wrote that such was the ignorance of the Canadians and the influence of the bishop that Plessis might be called “the Pope of Canada.”
It was not unreasonable in the early 19th century to assume that religious power conferred social and political influence. Most of the British did, and then sought means to deal with the implications. Mountain wanted to sap the Catholic clergy’s influence; Sewell advised harnessing it to the service of the state; John Lambert argued that government had to conciliate the clergy by granting the widest possible toleration. Plessis’s policies were framed to promote the third view. Whatever the reality of clerical influence, the perception of it by government officials was of great concern to him. When addressing them he repeatedly invoked the vision of a clergy cherished by the faithful and prepared to use its influence in favour of government if left free to do so and supported by the authorities.
After having initially encouraged Milnes to obtain a favourable reply to Denaut’s petition of 1805 for civil recognition of the bishop, Plessis, by the summer of 1806, was sharing fully his predecessor’s fears that government might impose controls in return. He quietly abandoned the petition. At the same time efforts by Milnes, Mountain, and Ryland to have the home government adopt various restrictions all failed. Perhaps the most serious threats to Plessis’s position were Sewell’s affirmations that the church had no legal status in the colony. However, Sewell’s victories in court on that ground [see Joseph-Laurent Bertrand*], when not reversed later, produced equivocal results politically. “The impression that these assertions make on the minds of Catholics is not at all disadvantageous to their religion,” Plessis noted. “They are, on the contrary, irritated and encouraged to maintain it.” The nationalists rushed to the defence of the church; colonial administrators and officials in Britain feared to exploit the gains. In February 1810, after more than two years under the administration of a governor strongly suspicious of the clergy, Sir James Henry Craig*, Plessis could reassure one of his priests that, “notwithstanding all the inconveniences that the holy ministry experiences here, we are . . . in a country . . . where there is more faith, and where the ecclesiastical offices are exposed to fewer difficulties” than anywhere in the world.
Plessis viewed with apprehension, however, intensification of the conflict between Craig and the assembly, the latter backed by the newspaper Le Canadien. He feared most the consequences for his church of a crisis that pitted the faithful against the established authorities, whom he felt duty-bound to support. He was obliged by law to have his priests read a proclamation by Craig justifying the governor’s seizure of Le Canadien and imprisonment of its founders and printer in March 1810, but he was not cowed by Craig. A little more than a year later, maintaining that the British government would “consider that nineteen-twentieths of the inhabitants of the country are Catholics” and would not risk “setting the province on fire,” he resisted both tempting offers and threats made by Craig in a series of heated discussions the object of which was to induce him either to resign his office or to give up some of his powers. The failure of a mission to England by Ryland to achieve Craig’s objective of emasculating the bishop’s authority proved Plessis right; the British government feared the creation in Lower Canada of a situation similar to that in Ireland.
Under Craig’s successor, Sir George Prevost, Plessis was able to abandon the policy followed by preceding bishops of passive resistance to government encroachment on episcopal powers and go on the offensive in seeking legal sanction for episcopal authority. Needing Canadian support for prosecution of an imminent war with the United States, Prevost looked to the two most influential Canadian leaders, Papineau and Plessis. The bishop was asked to indicate what he felt would be necessary to place his office on a respectable footing. Plessis brushed aside warnings to caution by a suspicious Roux. The times invited audacity: “The governor is good. . . . The decided protection that the Catholics of Ireland receive from all Protestants of the realm, the dispositions recently manifested by lords Castlereagh, Grey, and Grenville, . . . the alarm that the success of French arms gives Great Britain, the desire to preserve Canada for England at a time when the United States seems to want to invade it; all this combines to inspire some hope from an attempt that we might later regret not having made.” In May 1812 he petitioned, among other things, for civil recognition of the bishop and coadjutor. During the War of 1812 he was indefatigable in manifesting his loyalty and that of the clergy. For several reasons Canadian support of the British was assured from the outset; Plessis’s loyalty was thus approved not only by the authorities but also by the people. In 1813 the government expressed its satisfaction by increasing the bishop’s salary to £1,000.
Prevost was recalled before Plessis’s petition of 1812 could be answered. In Prevost’s successor, Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, Plessis found another ally, and indeed a personal friend. Sherbrooke saw in the bishop a man of immense knowledge of the land and its people and a potential adviser. More important, in July 1816 he had received formal instructions from Bathurst to conciliate Plessis. Roman Catholics, Bathurst told Sherbrooke, “form a great majority of the Population and their influence in the House of Assembly must be predominant. . . . Our great object must be not to let the demagogues make the Roman Catholics the instruments of mischief . . . and for this purpose you will I hope be able to establish a good understanding with the Roman Catholic Bishop. The power which he has over the clergy is very great, and must therefore be very great also through the Clergy over the people . . . and there is no so effectual (I believe no effectual) way of conciliating the Roman Catholic laity, as by the clergy. There will be no indisposition here to attend to their Interests and wishes even tho’ this should be unfavourable to the Protestants.” Bathurst’s dispatch marked the triumph of a decade of diplomacy by Plessis. In 1817 he was named to the Legislative Council; the mandamus of appointment constituted legal recognition of himself as bishop of Quebec. Admitted to the council in February 1818, he found himself at the head of a phantom contingent of Catholics, since his coreligionists rarely attended. He himself was present at about 60 per cent of council meetings, where he was generally discreet but became active when discussions embraced religious, educational, or social matters.
Meanwhile, Plessis had become increasingly preoccupied with another major problem: the ungovernable size of his diocese. His concern for Catholics outside Lower Canada cannot be questioned. He sent them missionaries whenever possible, and, lacking priests of his own, opened the doors of the Séminaire de Québec to their sons who aspired to the priesthood, often helping to finance their studies [see Ronald Macdonald*]. He was generous and intelligent in his counsel to missionaries and was no less sparing of his energies and time; in 1811, 1812, and 1815 he had visited the Catholics of the Maritimes, assessing the religious situation there, preaching, and organizing religious life. In a journal he took notes on the region’s geography, history, demography, and economic activities. He remarked, with a perspicacious, often critical, if not entirely unbiased eye (he was clearly a metropolitan visitor to the hinterland), the social and moral life of the Acadian, Scottish, and Indian Catholics. At Paspébiac, headquarters of the Gaspé fishing operations of Charles Robin, he observed that “the inhabitants . . . are kinds of serfs, entirely dependent” on the Robins because kept hopelessly indebted to them. On Prince Edward Island he found “the most perfect harmony” reigning between the 3,750 Acadians and 250 Scots; but no intermarriage occurred, each group seeking to “hold on to the customs and manners of its nation.” He was struck by the apathy of the Micmacs of New Brunswick, “for they see the English establish themselves among them, pillage their lands, steal their hay, take over their salmon fishing, without making any effort to obtain justice.” Conditions during these voyages were often difficult. Aboard ship he was invariably seasick; on land the poverty of most Catholics often made meals and accommodation repulsive. At Sydney Mines, on Cape Breton Island, he reluctantly celebrated mass in a stable loft in intense heat that raised a nauseating odour from the horse stalls below. His reactions to these inconveniences were humorous or compassionate but never disdainful. A pastoral visit to Upper Canada in 1816 was altogether less trying; his most disagreeable experience was getting caught in a horde of American tourists at Niagara Falls.
Such visits, however, could not compensate for the absence of regular and immediate episcopal direction. Although Plessis accorded great latitude to his vicars general, Alexander McDonell in Upper Canada, Edmund Burke* in Nova Scotia, and Angus Bernard MacEachern on Prince Edward Island, geographical distance and the growth of the Catholic population, largely the result of Irish and Scottish immigration, required subdivision of the diocese to provide organized, constant, and effective ecclesiastical administration. In addition, although by 1818 he had barely initiated missionary activity in the northwest [see Joseph-Norbert Provencher*], he believed that the region’s isolation would call for a bishop there immediately.
After he had become bishop in 1806, Plessis had made several unsuccessful attempts to obtain subdivision of his diocese. Then in 1817 London and Rome agreed to the creation of vicariates apostolic for Nova Scotia, Upper Canada, and Prince Edward Island; that for Nova Scotia was established immediately with Burke at its head. The formation of small, isolated vicariates apostolic, each dependent directly on Rome, offended Plessis’s sense of organization and his appreciation of institutional power; in his view the British government would divide and rule. He preferred an ecclesiastical province, with an archbishop at Quebec and suffragan bishops in the Red River colony, Upper Canada, Montreal, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, in order to facilitate planning and concerted action. Influenced by Plessis’s views, Rome abandoned the remainder of the agreement with London. On 12 Jan. 1819, without having consulted the bishop further, Rome elevated him to archbishop of Quebec, but, rather than ordinary suffragan bishops, it created suffragan and auxiliary episcopal vicars general for Upper Canada and Prince Edward Island, appointing McDonell to the former post and MacEachern to the latter. Rome’s arrangement, moreover, did not include Montreal and Red River, which Plessis intended for Jean-Jacques Lartigue and Joseph-Norbert Provencher respectively. Furthermore, it had not been discussed with the imperial authorities. Before word of the new plan reached Quebec, Plessis had left for London to promote his own scheme; he heard word of his elevation only after his arrival in England in early August 1819. Offended by Rome’s unilateral action, Bathurst, with whom Plessis had anticipated difficult negotiations in any case, was even less disposed to consider the archbishop’s proposal for a regular ecclesiastical province. Only Plessis’s persuasiveness obtained from the colonial secretary a vague acquiescence in his using McDonell, MacEachern, Lartigue, and Provencher as assistants with whatever powers the archbishop chose to confer on them.
Plessis also negotiated with Bathurst the disposition of the Sulpician estates, threatened with government expropriation, even though responsibility for protecting them belonged to the Sulpicians’ representative, Lartigue, who accompanied him. Ryland noted that the Sulpicians were “aware of the advantage they will derive from the presence of this Personage [Plessis] in England, where he will possess the means of making a splendid appearance, and they flatter themselves, with reason, that his subtlety and Talents, and sanctimonious Professions of Loyalty which have already contributed so much to their advantage on this side . . . cannot fail on the other.” An imminent seizure of the estates was averted largely through Plessis’s intervention with Bathurst, but their ultimate disposition was not settled.
From London Plessis proceeded through France and Italy towards Rome. Wherever he stopped he sought out the archbishop, bishop, or parish priest to enquire about the state of religion locally while touring the church or cathedral. He observed the physical and human landscape, customs, and economic activities. Ever pragmatic, in the Papal States he criticized past popes and cardinals for their inattention to public utilities, even reproaching them for lavishing money on works of art and on monuments (be they to Catholicism) at the expense of agriculture, commerce, and public health. He was often scandalized by nudity in European painting and sculpture, the more so in works on religious themes used in church decoration. Yet he was sensitive to the power of religious architecture and art for edification: the grandeur and beauty of Lower Canadian churches were sources of pride to him, and he struggled to improve the quality of religious painting in his diocese. Thus, from 1817 he had vigorously urged religious communities and parish priests to purchase items from a magnificent collection of European works sent to Lower Canada from France by Philippe-Jean-Louis Desjardins.
Rome awed Plessis with its centuries of Catholic history, but his voyage was one of business, not a pilgrimage. He was not a spiritual ultramontane. As a seminarian he had been bathed in gallican influences, and these had later been reinforced in the 1790s by his particularly close relations with the French émigré priests whom Hubert had brought to the colony and who still looked on Plessis as their patron. Only circumstances dictated his adoption of views later characterized as ultramontane. Living under a Protestant government obliged him to emphasize the church’s autonomy from the state. The presence of Protestantism evoked the argument that the pope, guided by tradition, was the standard authority for interpretation of the Scriptures; the Protestants, it was argued, had no standard. His penchant for a unified, hierarchical administration made attractive to him the vision of a powerful pope at the head of the church.
Plessis’s primary objectives in Rome were to obtain agreement to the concession he had extracted from Bathurst and to prod the Vatican into negotiating with London the establishment of a regular ecclesiastical province. According to his agent in Rome, Robert Gradwell, this “clever sensible man . . . went a good John Bull way to work, which forced several to bestir themselves, who were well enough inclined to take their own time.” Plessis dismissed Cardinal Francesco Fontana, prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda, as “an old woman, and no man of business.” On the other hand he admired and imitated Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, the master diplomat of the Congress of Vienna; despite Plessis’s aggressiveness, Gradwell remarked, “there is not in Rome one bishop who stands higher in general estimation.” Although even Plessis could not overcome Vatican inertia on most matters, he did obtain bulls for Lartigue and Provencher as episcopal vicars general, like McDonell and MacEachern, and indulgences and other religious privileges with which to stimulate the spiritual ardour of the Canadians. He had been granted three audiences with Pope Pius VII and had received appointments as count and assistant to the pontifical throne.
In February 1820 Plessis left for London. In Paris he had an interview with Louis XVIII that left him pessimistic about a restoration of religion in France. In London by May, he obtained authorization to bring 4 French priests to Lower Canada; he had requested 12. To Bathurst he complained, among other things, of the prejudice against Canadians in appointments to colonial offices. He personally presented papal greetings to George IV. In June he left for New York where, at Pius’s request, he inquired into dissensions in the American church. On 7 August he was in Montreal, and, after a triumphal descent down the St Lawrence, he arrived at Quebec on the 14th to a tumultuous welcome.
Plessis found that since his departure confrontation between the Canadian party and the colonial administration had been renewed under the Duke of Richmond [Lennox*] and his successor as governor, Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay*]. In the Legislative Council he adopted an independent course between Dalhousie and the Canadian party while seeking to consolidate his recent gains. But political polarization made independent conduct suspect to Dalhousie, who came to consider the bishop a hidden source of opposition. Moreover, in the eyes of both Richmond and Dalhousie, the end of the war had freed government from the need to maintain Plessis’s support, and they transmitted the feeling to Bathurst. “The horizon is darkening,” Plessis wrote to one priest. “Those who come after me will have more difficulties than I. . . . Never mind, they will get out of them if they know how to tack. If determined to confront authority they will gain nothing. I adopt more and more every day this system, and frankly, it has not served me badly.” He tacked toward the Canadian party. In March 1821 he voted in council against a resolution requiring approval of the civil list in its entirety for the life of the king, a measure long rejected by the Canadian party. In 1822–24 he joined with that group in opposing a bill to unite Lower and Upper Canada, one clause of which required government assent to clerical appointments. The clergy’s opposition was a primary factor in scuttling the bill.
The backing of the leaders of the Canadian party was useful to Plessis when, after 1821, the elevation of Lartigue to the rank of Plessis’s suffragan at Montreal was contested by the Sulpicians. They correctly surmised that Lartigue would challenge their spiritual hegemony in the city and region. Plessis requested Rome’s support and then sought to keep the conflict under control until his position was confirmed. Discreetly, he built up support for Lartigue; Papineau and Denis-Benjamin Viger* were persuaded that a bishop at Montreal must be seen as an honour for the Canadian people. Lartigue’s connections to prominent Montreal families ensured material support for construction of his church of Saint-Jacques, while Plessis cunningly delayed a rival Sulpician project to enlarge the church of Notre-Dame. Merely keeping the nervous, authoritarian Lartigue from either resigning in discouragement or, by his aggressiveness, escalating the struggle to a major conflict was an achievement. Plessis controlled matters until August 1823 when Augustin Chaboillez, parish priest at Longueuil, published a diatribe on Lartigue’s appointment. Rapid sales induced the bishop to authorize a reply by Lartigue, who, however, was so biting that he merely hardened opposition. Plessis took a firm hand in drafting a more moderate response by Louis-Marie Cadieux*, parish priest at Trois-Rivières, but vetoed publication of a proposed response by Painchaud because it did not support Lartigue and episcopal authority sufficiently. When an unrepentent Chaboillez came back with an even more incendiary pamphlet, Plessis ordered a halt to the war of words. Meanwhile, Propaganda had been neutralized by a deluge of memoranda from the Sulpicians and their allies.
Plessis got little support from the government, which might have refuted one of Chaboillez’s major arguments, namely that the Montreal arrangement had not been authorized by the Colonial Office. The bishop’s pursuit of an independent line in the council continued to embitter Dalhousie. In 1824 Plessis allied himself with the Canadian party to obtain passage of the fabrique law; however, without legal recognition many parishes could not benefit from it, and all Plessis’s efforts to obtain such recognition failed while Dalhousie was in the colony. When Dalhousie went to England on leave that year, Plessis exploited the more favourable attitude of Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Nathaniel Burton to have the parish of Sainte-Claire erected by letters patent capable of serving as a model. In return Plessis ensured support in council for a compromise on government finances worked out by Burton with the Canadian party. Dalhousie, who denounced Burton’s move as a sell-out of the colonial executive’s financial independence, never forgave Plessis for his role in it. By then, however, the governor’s goal of eventually bringing the bishop under state direction had become virtually unattainable. When in July 1824 he proposed making another attempt to obtain control of clerical nominations, Bathurst responded that “it is now too late to rescue that authority which has been permitted to slide from us. At least the endeavour to rescue it would be attended with a struggle that might counteract for a very long period any good effect to be obtained by its resumption.” Plessis’s flirtations with the Canadian party were, nevertheless, merely opportunistic. Each saw the other as an enemy ideologically and as a social rival. In council Plessis’s votes on other points of government finances angered the nationalists. Polarization left no tenable ground between Dalhousie and Papineau; Plessis came under fire from both camps.
By the early 1820s, however, the bishop had more pressing concerns. Overwork and asceticism had undermined a robust constitution. As early as January 1810 he had had a combined office and hospital room built at the Hôpital Général for his exclusive use. From 1816 fevers and rheumatism or phlebitis in his legs and feet drove him to it with increasing frequency. Force of character overcame the pain when necessary – “I have decided,” he wrote to Jean Raimbault in 1817, “to consider my sickness henceforth as a mere indisposition; that makes me more mobile and gives me greater freedom” – but in the spring and summer of 1825 his health deteriorated alarmingly, and fear grew that Dalhousie or the Sulpicians would be able to impose on Panet, who would succeed Plessis, a coadjutor of their choice. Efforts by Plessis to have Lartigue replace Panet as coadjutor were blocked by Dalhousie. However, from his hospital bed in late November 1825 Plessis persuaded Dalhousie to accept as candidates for coadjutor to Panet Pierre-Flavien Turgeon and Jérôme Demers*; Plessis did not like the latter but proposed him as a favourite with the clergy. His succession apparently ensured, a few days later he chatted easily with his physician, Thomas Fargues*, when suddenly Fargues observed that, “without a sigh or convulsive motion whatever, his eyes closed, his arm dropped on his chair, his head sunk on his breast and he silently ceased to breath.”
Plessis was displayed at the Hôpital Général, after which he was taken by 40 pallbearers, led by clergy and an honour guard of the 79th Foot, through thronged streets to the Hôtel-Dieu. On 7 December shops closed at 9:30 before Plessis was taken for burial in the cathedral of Notre-Dame; as he had requested, his heart was placed in the church of Saint-Roch. Had he died more than ten miles from the cathedral, he had specified in his will, his body was to have been buried in the nearest parish church. Attending the burial ceremony, Dalhousie coolly observed the consternation of the population and the “very deep . . . distress evinced by many of the Priests both young and old.”
Among those who mourned the bishop’s death was a student at the Petit Séminaire de Québec, and later biographer of Plessis, Louis-Édouard Bois*. Plessis, he wrote, was “a little below the average height, but very corpulent. He had a wide forehead and a large head, and all facial features in good proportion. . . . He had a little beard and black hair, but always powdered white.” It was found that Plessis’s personal effects were inextricably mixed in with church property that he held in trust; in any case all his bequests were to religious institutions or to priests. His intimate friends, among them Antoine Girouard, Jean Raimbault, Philippe-Jean-Louis Desjardins, Pierre-Flavien Turgeon, and Thomas Maguire, were all priests.
French-Canadian historiography has portrayed Plessis and his clergy in light of the prevailing ideology. For most 19th- and early 20th-century writers, such as Bois, products of a clerically dominated society, Plessis was the first ultramontane bishop of Quebec. Recent historians, writing in a secular era, have seen him as struggling with a society under the influence of liberalism, nationalism, and secularism, forces which dominate their own times. In fact Plessis was not an ultramontane, and the great mass of Canadians remained strongly attached to their church, clergy, and religion, although the last was a popular version rather than authorized Catholicism. But the American and French revolutions had challenged the church’s concept of a divinely ordered society. Plessis’s predecessors had offered passive resistance to the forces contesting the church’s place in the life of the colony: the colonial government, Protestantism, and liberal-democratic ideas. Plessis planned and carried out a counter-attack. It consisted, on the one hand, of ensuring the church’s structural soundness – increasing the number of clergy, obtaining legal recognition, and seeking creation of an ecclesiastical province – and, on the other, of concentrating pastoral efforts on education and moral reform. He had the strength of character to sustain a long struggle and the adaptability to exploit favourable circumstances and wait out unfavourable ones – to tack – in order to advance his cause. His victories were, it is true, often semi-defeats: civil recognition was limited to him personally, the division of his diocese was far from the ecclesiastical province that he had envisaged, increase in clerical recruitment was frustratingly slow, the fabrique schools law was revoked after his death, and, although the shorter catechism was revised, the mooted adoption and revision of a greater catechism had been abandoned. Yet these were but laborious beginnings typical of major movements. This little, round, affable ascetic with an iron will and a big heart inspired in the younger clergy by force of example a sense of direction and dedication that their elders had lacked. He gave them a mighty push, which would carry them through the troubled 1830s and install them at the head of their society after leaders of the movement for secularism, liberalism, and nationalism, refusing to tack, took their forces to destruction on the rocks of rebellion in 1837–38.
[Two of Joseph-Octave Plessis’s sermons were published during his lifetime: Discours à l’occasion de la victoire remportée par les forces navales de sa majesté britannique dans la Mediterranée le 1 et 2 août 1798, sur la flotte françoise prononcé dans l’église cathédrale de Québec le 10 janvier 1799 . . . (Québec, 1799) and Sermon prêché par l’évêque catholique de Québec dans sa cathédrale le IVe dimanche du Carême, 1er avril 1810 . . . (Québec, 1810). Two others appeared in the 20th century: “L’oraison funèbre de Mgr Briand,” BRH, 11 (1905): 321–38, 353–58, and “Sermon prêché à la cathédrale de Québec . . . à l’occasion de la paix américaine . . . le jeudi, 6 avril 1815,” BRH, 35 (1929): 161–72. The Quebec censuses Plessis compiled as a parish priest are in ANQ Rapport, 1948–49: 1–250, as “Les dénombrements de Québec.” The journals of the trips he took outside Lower Canada were also published after his death. Those for 1811 and 1812 appear as “Journal de deux voyages apostoliques dans le golfe Saint-Laurent et les provinces d’en bas, en 1811 et 1812 . . .” in Le Foyer canadien (Québec), 3 (1865): 73–280. The journal of the 1811 trip was reprinted under the same title in Rev. d’hist. de la Gaspésie (Gaspé, Qué.), 6 (1968): 23–43, 91–115. The journals of three visits to the Maritimes appear in Soc. hist. acadienne, Cahiers (Moncton, N.-B.), 11 (1980), as “Le journal des visites pastorales en Acadie de Mgr Joseph-Octave Plessis, 1811, 1812, 1815,” with an introduction and notes by Anselme Chiasson. The journal of his 1815 trip, along with that of his visit to Upper Canada in 1816, was brought out by Henri Têtu as Journal des visites pastorales de 1815 et 1816, par Monseigneur Joseph-Octave Plessis, évêque de Québec (Québec, 1903). In 1903 Têtu also published Journal d’un voyage en Europe par Mgr Joseph-Octave Plessis, évêque de Québec, 1819–1820 (Québec).
Plessis’s pastoral letters were published in volume 3 of Mandements, lettres pastorales et circulaires des évêques de Québec, Henri Têtu et C.-O. Gagnon, édit. (18v. parus, Québec, 1887– ). For an inventory of Plessis’s correspondence, see Ivanhoë Caron, “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Plessis,” ANQ Rapport, 1927–28: 215–315; 1928–29: 89–208; 1932–33: 1–244. His correspondence with American bishops, edited by L. St G. Lindsay, appears in American Catholic Hist. Soc. of Philadelphia, Records (Philadelphia), 18 (1907): 8–43, 182–89, 282–305, 435–67; 22 (1911): 268–85. Plessis should be considered the real author of Le petit catéchisme du diocèse de Québec, approuvé et autorisé (Québec, 1815; nouv. éd. 1816, 1819), and the co-author of Observations sur un écrit intitulé “Questions sur le gouvernement ecclésiastique du district de Montréal” (Trois-Rivières, Qué., 1823), the first draft of which was done by Louis-Marie Cadieux, to whom the work is generally attributed.
No collection of Plessis papers has survived except for a small one at AAQ, 31-11 A. However, numerous archival collections concern him specifically and the most important are listed below. AAQ, 20 A, I–VII; 210 A, II–XII; 22 A, V–VI; 1 CB, I–X; CD, Diocèse de Québec, I–VIII; 69 CD, VI–VIII; 515 CD, I–II; A–B; 6 CE, I; 7 CM, I–VI; 10 CM, III; 90 CM, I–II, IV; 60 CN, I–VII; A; 310 CN, I; 311 CN, I–II; 312 CN, I–VII; 320 CN, I, III–VII; Séries TC, TF. ACAM, 901.013; 901.036; RCD, XXXVIII; RLL, I–IV. AP, Notre-Dame de Québec, sér.1, ms 71–76. Arch. du séminaire de Nicolet (Nicolet, Qué.), AO, Séminaire III, nos.37, 58; Lettres de Mgr J.-O. Plessis à M. Raimbault. Arch. of the Archbishop’s House (London), IC, 56–57; ID, A-55; Gradwell papers, B-3, B-30, E-7, E-8; Poynter papers, VI B1, B2. Archivio della Propaganda Fide (Rome), Scritture riferite nei Congressi, America Settentrionale, 2 (1792–1830); Lettere della Sacra Congregazione e Biglietti di Monsignore Segretario, 297–307 (mfm. at PAC). ASQ, mss, 205, 218–19, 257; mss-m, 102, 978; Polygraphie, XI, 19; Séminaire, 253. ASSH, Sect. A, sér.A, 1.1, 4–1. ASSM, 21, cartons 45–46. PAC, MG 24, J4. PRO, CO 42/108–211 (mfm. at PAC).
There are a fair number of studies dealing with the Roman Catholic Church and the religious situation in the colony during the period 1790–1825. The most significant are: Noël Baillargeon, Le séminaire de Québec de 1760 à 1800 (Québec, 1981); Raymond Brodeur, “Identité culturelle et identité religieuse, étude d’un cas: ‘Le petit catéchisme du diocèse de Québec, approuvé et autorisé par Mgr J. O. Plessis, Québec, le 1er avril 1815’” (2v., thèse de phd, univ. de Paris-Sorbonne, 1982); Richard Chabot, Le curé de campagne et la contestation locale au Québec (de 1791 aux troubles de 1837–38): la querelle des écoles, l’affaire des fabriques et le problème des insurrections de 1837–38 (Montréal, 1975); Chaussé, Jean-Jacques Lartigue; Maurice Fleurent, “L’éducation morale au petit séminaire de Québec, 1668–1857” (thèse de phd, univ. Laval, Québec, 1977); Serge Gagnon and Louise Lebel-Gagnon, “Le milieu d’origine du clergé québécois, 1775–1840: mythes et réalités,” RHAF, 37 (1983–84): 373–97; Claude Galarneau, Les collèges classiques au Canada français (1620–1970) (Montréal, 1978); L.-E. Hamelin, “Evolution numérique séculaire du clergé catholique dans le Québec,” Recherches sociographiques (Québec), 2 (1961): 189–241; Laval Laurent, Québec et l’Église aux Etats-Unis sous Mgr Briand et Mgr Plessis (Montréal, 1945); Lemieux, L’établissement de la première prov. eccl.; J. S. Moir, The church in the British era: from the British conquest to confederation (Toronto, 1972); Fernard Ouellet, “L’enseignement primaire: responsabilité des Églises ou de l’État (1801–1836),” Recherches sociographiques, 2: 171–87, and “Mgr Plessis et la naissance d’une bourgeoisie canadienne,” CCHA Rapport, 23 (1955–56): 83–99; Fernand Porter, L’ institution catéchistique au Canada; deux siècles de formation religieuse, 1633–1833 (Montréal, 1949); Louis Rousseau, La prédication à Montréal de 1800 à 1830: approche religiologique (Montréal, 1976); Marcel Trudel, “La servitude de l’Église catholique du Canada français sous le Régime anglais,” CCHA Rapport, 30 (1963): 11–33; and the following by J.-P. Wallot: “L’Église canadienne et les laïcs au début du XIXe siècle,” Le laïc dans l’Église canadienne-française de 1830 à nos jours (Montréal, 1972): 87–91; “The Lower-Canadian clergy and the reign of terror (1810),” CCHA Study Sessions, 40 (1973): 53–60; “Pluralisme au Québec au début du XIXe siècle” in Le pluralisme: symposium interdisciplinaire, Irenée Beaubien et al., édit. (Montréal, 1974), 57–65; and Un Québec qui bougeait, 183–224.
Funeral sermons constitute the earliest biographical accounts of Plessis. The most significant of these was Jean Raimbault’s, published as “Oraison funèbre de Monseigneur J. O. Plessis, évêque de Québec, mort le 4 décembre 1825” in L’Écho du cabinet de lecture paroissial (Montréal), 2 (1860): 6–11. A biographical sketch, “Notice sur la vie de feu Monseigneur J. O. Plessis, évêque de Québec,” La Bibliothèque canadienne (Montréal), 5 (1827): 89–96, was followed by “Notice biographique sur Mgr. J. O. Plessis,” which appears in Mélanges religieux (Montréal), 2 (1841): 363–66, 381–84, 396–98. In 1863 Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Ferland, once a protégé of Plessis and then his secretary, published in Le Foyer canadien (Québec), 1: 70–318, under the title “Notice biographique sur Monseigneur Joseph Octave Plessis, évêque de Québec,” a biographical account that is still useful and interesting. A translated version by T. B. French came out at Quebec the following year as Biographical notice of Joseph-Octave Plessis, bishop of Quebec; the account was published once more in French in 1878 as Mgr Joseph-Octave Plessis, évêque de Québec (Quebec). In the mean time, Louis-Édouard Bois wrote in 1872 a biography that is of interest mainly because it portrays Plessis as an ultramontane; it has not been published and is at ASN, AP-G, L.-É. Bois, Succession, XVII, nos.19–30. Between 1872 and 1883 Laurent-Olivier David* published three biographical sketches of Plessis that are of historiographic interest; the first is infused with liberal ideology, but the series demonstrates an interesting evolution in interpretation. Like Bois and David, Henri Têtu is heavily indebted to Ferland for his presentation of Plessis’s career and character in Notices biographiques; les évêques de Québec (Québec, 1889; réimpr. en 4v., Québec et Tours, France, 1930), 436–525. Indeed, it was only with Ivanhoë Caron* that the study of Plessis’s life went beyond Ferland’s work and was undertaken in scholarly fashion. At his death in 1941 Caron left a massive, unfinished manuscript biography (AAQ, Sér.T, papiers Ivanhoë Caron, 3). The first five chapters of this work were published as “Mgr Joseph-Octave Plessis” in Le Canada français (Québec), 2e sér., 27 (1939–40): 193–214, 309–20, 826–41; 28 (1940–41): 71–96, 180–95, 274–92, 784–96, 1029–36. Caron also published four well-researched articles in RSC Trans.: “La nomination de Mgr Joseph-Octave Plessis, évêque de Québec, au Conseil législatif de Québec,” 3rd ser., 27 (1933), sect.i: 1–32; “Monseigneur Joseph-Octave Plessis, archevêque de Québec, et les premiers évêques catholiques des États-Unis,” 3rd ser., 28 (1934), sect.i: 119–38; “Monseigneur Joseph-Octave Plessis: sa famille,” 3rd ser., 31 (1937), sect.i: 97–117; and “Monseigneur Joseph-Octave Plessis, curé de Notre-Dame de Québec (1792–1805),” 3rd ser., 32 (1938), sect.i: 21–40. No further biographical study of Plessis appeared until the completion of the author’s thesis “Joseph-Octave Plessis,” which includes a full bibliography up to 1979.
The 27 known portraits of Plessis were studied by Lucille Rouleau Ross in her 1983 ma thesis for Concordia Univ. (Montreal), “Les versions connues du portrait de Monseigneur Joseph-Octave Plessis (1763–1825) et la conjoncture des attributions pictorales au début du XIXe siècle.” j.h.l.]
© 1987–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
James H. Lambert, “PLESSIS, JOSEPH-OCTAVE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 23, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/plessis_joseph_octave_6E.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:||James H. Lambert|
|Title of Article:||PLESSIS, JOSEPH-OCTAVE|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1987|
|Year of revision:||1987|
|Access Date:||March 23, 2023|