POUGET, JEAN-BAPTISTE-NOËL, Roman Catholic priest; b. 25 Dec. 1745 in Montreal (Que.), son of Paul Pouget and Marie-Joseph Payet; d. 17 May 1818 in Berthier-en-Haut (Berthierville), Lower Canada.
Jean-Baptiste-Noël Pouget studied at the Latin school run by the Sulpicians in Montreal, where one of his classmates was Pierre Denaut, the future bishop of Quebec. From 1769 Pouget was responsible for teaching the Latin and rhetoric classes, while continuing his studies. On 19 Sept. 1772 Bishop Briand* ordained him priest, along with Joseph-Mathurin Bourg*, in the chapel of the Hôtel-Dieu in Montreal. Pouget then became curate of Notre-Dame at Quebec; he remained there until the middle of 1773, when he was put in charge of Saint-Cuthbert, a parish in the seigneury of Berthier.
This new task was a delicate one for a young cleric. Two years earlier his predecessor, Saint-Cuthbert’s first parish priest, had spent some months in prison for debt. Further, the man who had taken care of his parishioners during his incarceration had roused the wrath of the seigneur, James Cuthbert*, because he omitted “the customary prayers for the king.” Lastly, the habitants of Saint-Cuthbert were certainly not the most docile in the diocese, as Pouget would soon learn. During the American invasion in 1775 his flock at first chose to remain neutral. But when on 10 October a detachment of 67 militiamen under Charles-Louis Tarieu de Lanaudière and Louis-Joseph Godefroy* de Tonnancour left Trois-Rivières for Montreal, the habitants of Saint-Cuthbert, under the direction of a man named Merlet, laid an ambush for them. They took the two commanders prisoner and only released them at Pouget’s request. The parishioners of Saint-Cuthbert, like those of the neighbouring parish of Sainte-Geneviève-de-Berthier (at Berthierville), persisted in refusing to join the militia, and the vicar general of Montreal, Étienne Montgolfier*, recalled the two priests. Pouget was appointed to La Visitation-de-la-Bienheureuse-Vierge-Marie, at Sault-au-Récollet (Montreal North), late in 1775. He served there for somewhat less than two years and in 1777 was given charge of Sainte-Geneviève-de-Berthier.
Two years later the priest of Saint-Cuthbert, who was at odds with the seigneur, Cuthbert, as well as with a group of his parishioners, tried to expand his parish at the expense of Pouget’s. But Bishop Briand, who was displeased with the conduct and the “out and out blunders” of Saint-Cuthbert’s cleric, pronounced in favour of keeping Sainte-Geneviève-de-Berthier as it was and urged Pouget to remind his colleague in the neighbouring parish of the duties attached to his ecclesiastical state.
In 1780 the habitants of Berthier-en-Haut found a new bone of contention in the matter of a road and a bridge. To avoid giving any offence Pouget refrained from expressing an opinion in public, but on 25 June he privately intimated to Governor Haldimand which side he should support in the affair. Pouget was so successful in preserving general harmony that in the summer of 1781 his parishioners decided with one accord to undertake the construction of a new church. Cuthbert even promised to do all in his power to facilitate the purchase of the necessary materials. The new church was begun in 1782 and consecrated in August 1787.
In the same year some habitants of Berthier-en-Haut began to dispute Cuthbert’s right to collect seigneurial dues, on the pretext that he had granted them farms which in fact were crown lands. Rightly or wrongly, Cuthbert soon convinced himself that it was Pouget who was inciting the recalcitrant censitaires to stand up to him. The situation worsened in the autumn of 1789, when two of Cuthbert’s three sons asked Pouget to grant them permission to become Catholics; having obtained authorization from the bishop of Quebec, Jean-François Hubert*, Pouget agreed to receive their renunciation of Protestantism. This time the seigneur of Berthier lost his temper – there were complaints to the bishop of Quebec, threats of legal action (and even death threats) against Pouget, attempts to intimidate his censitaires, and open letters in the Quebec Gazette denouncing the parish priest’s meddling in his seigneurial and family matters. Hubert gave Cuthbert a laconic reply, saying that Pouget’s conduct seemed irreproachable to him; at the same time he exhorted Pouget to do nothing that might make matters worse. A good many censitaires of the seigneury of Berthier made sworn statements before a notary denouncing their seigneur’s intransigence and exonerating their priest. On 2 March 1790 Alexander Cuthbert, the seigneur’s son, even signed a note in which he declared that his conversion to Catholicism was in line with the freedom to choose his religion which his father had given him some years earlier. Pouget kept quiet and the quarrel finally petered out.
But Father Pouget was not yet out of range of dispute. In November 1791 Bishop Hubert entrusted him with investigating the many complaints levelled against the parish priest of Saint-Antoine, at Lavaltrie, by the habitants and the seigneur, Pierre-Paul Margane de Lavaltrie. The following month Hubert even asked Pouget to visit Lavaltrie occasionally to ensure that the parish priest “did not do too many silly things” before he was removed from the parish the following spring.
Peace had only just been restored to Lavaltrie when a new conflict involving Pouget erupted at Berthier-en-Haut. Since 1789 Louis Labadie* had been teaching school there in a house belonging to the fabrique. On 10 May 1792, at the churchwardens’ request and for reasons that remain unclear, Pouget expelled Labadie from his school. Labadie responded by suing Pouget in the Montreal Court of Common Pleas. This quarrel was brought to public notice in July, when Labadie published an article in the Quebec Gazette stigmatizing the supposedly tyrannical conduct of the parish priest of Sainte-Geneviève-de-Berthier. A few weeks later the same paper carried a denunciation of Labadie’s ungrateful and haughty attitude by about 50 residents of Berthier-en-Haut and also a testimony to his good conduct by 30 others. It may have been weariness that in the autumn led Pouget to consider for a moment leaving the parish and becoming a member of the community of the Collège Saint-Raphaël. In any event, Labadie does not seem to have won his case before the courts, and on 24 June 1793 he expressed his regrets to the bishop of Quebec “for having said all that he had, even though it was the truth”; at the same time, having been refused the sacraments from the beginning of the lawsuit, he asked Hubert to allow a priest to give him absolution. He continued to run his own school at Berthier-en-Haut for a year, and then in May 1794 left to establish himself in Verchères.
Pouget was undoubtedly expert at settling differences, for in October 1794 Bishop Hubert put him in charge of another investigation into complaints against the new priest of Saint-Antoine, at Lavaltrie. In November 1795 the bishop again thought of him for the task of putting an end to dissension among the Recollets of Montreal; in the end he changed his mind and entrusted the problem to his coadjutor.
Pouget did not, however, distinguish himself solely through the role he played in various disputes. He was gifted with a talent for oratory that was uncommon for the period, and people did not hesitate to call on his services for great occasions. Hubert and Denaut often took him with them on their pastoral visits, and in addition he was asked to take part in the consecration of Bishop Plessis*. But from 1801 Pouget limited himself exclusively to his parish ministry. The task must have been sufficient to take up all his time, because by 1807 Sainte-Geneviève-de-Berthier had become the most densely populated parish on the north shore of the St Lawrence between Quebec and Montreal, with several hundred more communicants than even the parish of Immaculée-Conception in Trois-Rivières. This development probably explains why Pouget was in a position at the end of his life to bequeath 4,000 livres apiece to the Hôtel-Dieu of Montreal, the Congregation of Notre-Dame, the Hôpital Général of Montreal, and the Ursulines of Trois-Rivières, as well as 1,000 livres to the poor of Berthier-en-Haut.
Historians have often emphasized the small numbers of Catholic clergy in the years following the conquest, as well as the weak position of the ecclesiastical authority in its dealings with the new rulers. Pouget’s career as a priest further illustrates the precarious situation of the Catholic Church in this period, showing how much less influence the clergy had on the people than one might think and dispelling some of the mystery surrounding the difficulties that the bishop of Quebec encountered as he endeavoured to maintain discipline among his clergy.
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