ROBINAU DE PORTNEUF, PHILIPPE-RENÉ (better known under the name René Portneuf), parish priest; baptized 13 Aug. 1707 in Montreal, son of René Robinau* de Portneuf and Marguerite Daneau de Muy; killed by the British at Saint-Joachim, near Quebec, on 23 Aug. 1759, with a group of his parishioners.
If it were not for his part in the war of the conquest, Abbé Philippe-René Robinau de Portneuf would probably have escaped notice. He was ordained a priest in Quebec on 21 Oct. 1731, and the following year he was appointed parish priest of Saint-Jean, in Île d’Orléans. This charge he held until 1735. Except for the routine acts of his ministry, the parish registers reveal nothing concerning him except an occasion, which was to say the least piquant, when he declared on 12 April 1734 that he “had designated himself as godfather after having refused Simon Campagna because of his crass and obvious ignorance” when he had “questioned him on the shorter catechism.” In the course of the next 24 years he was parish priest at Saint-Joachim, a few leagues downstream from Quebec on the north shore of the St Lawrence opposite the northeast corner of the Île d’Orléans. This spot was well situated to observe the movements of the British ships at the beginning of the final campaign which was to decide the fate of Quebec.
In the spring of 1759 the British sailed up the St Lawrence with the firm intention of taking possession of Quebec. They easily made themselves masters of the river up to the outskirts of the town, destroying on their way a good number of farms and some churches. On the latter point, however, orders were strict: they were to respect churches if the French did not make use of them for defensive operations. On the French side, as far as the population is concerned a distinction must be made between the attitude of the civil and military authorities and that of the religious authorities. For the former this war was developing into a movement of general resistance in which the whole population was invited to take part. Cooperation with the military forces, wherever it came from, was well received and even encouraged, and this despite the laws of war which forbad civilians to have a hand in military operations. Wolfe was well aware of this situation, and he did not fail to remind the habitants of the risk they were taking in being captured under arms; from threats he proceeded to reprisals on several occasions when his warnings had been flouted. As for the religious authorities, they confined themselves to a position of prudent reserve, contenting themselves with giving directives to the pastors that reminded them of the interdiction against carrying arms on pain of excommunication and of their duty to watch over the spiritual interests of their flocks. “If by chance the enemy come into a parish,” wrote Bishop Pontbriand [Dubreil] in a pastoral letter dated 5 June 1759, “the parish priest will greet them as courteously as possible, asking them to spare human lives and the churches.” It can be said that a great majority of the clergy kept to that line of conduct. Of the 194 priests who comprised the Canadian church at that time, the historian Marcel Trudel has been able to count only about 15 who were “more or less engaged in the conflict,” leaving aside, of course, the military chaplains. Of these 15, only two became victims of their ill-timed ardour: the ecclesiastic Joseph Couillard, who served under Bougainville*’s orders and was killed in a skirmish while returning home after the defeat on the Plains of Abraham, and Abbé Portneuf.
Certainly Abbé Portneuf did not take part in military operations before August 1759, which was only a few weeks before his death. In that month he sent three letters to Governor Vaudreuil [Rigaud*] with information about the movements of the British fleet. On 20 August the governor replied, instructing the parish priest to act in such a way that “the habitants be united, that they be constantly on the watch and able to put up the most vigorous resistance to the British.” At this time the British were engaging in devastating raids on the Beaupré shore and elsewhere in the vicinity of Quebec as reprisals and a means of dissuading the habitants from harassing their troops or aiding the French forces.
It is difficult to determine exactly the circumstances of Father Portneuf’s death, since the English as well as the French accounts are contradictory or strewn with improbable details. On the English side there is a tendency to exaggerate the importance of the parish priest’s participation in the military operations: the number of partisans fluctuates between 20 and 150. These associates are described to us as being entrenched in an imposing house, defying the British troops; they even disguise themselves as Indians. In the French accounts the figures are much smaller. The number of participants does not exceed some 50, and the victims a score. But no words are too strong to describe the inhumanity of the English towards the “poor” parish priest and his habitants. After having overcome the priest and his parishioners, these “cruel enemies” in cold blood had “his throat cut . . . in his own church.” Another account speaks of the priest “whose head was split wide open and completely scalped,” without explaining how these two operations could be combined. In still another, the priest, after being killed, is blamed by the British “for having abandoned his priestly role and roused some habitants to insult them.” By way of adding some spice, one author specifies that the priest and his parishioners were “on their knees crying for quarter. . . .” It was then only a short step to making a martyr of Father Portneuf. Abbé Auguste-Honoré Gosselin* took it easily when he wrote that “having withdrawn into the woods with some parishioners, in accordance with the bishop’s instructions . . . to administer to them in case of need the succour of his ministry,” the priest was surrounded and murdered.
There is good reason to be puzzled by this accumulation of accounts, all of them, let us note, based on hearsay. Only one document can help clear up the matter. This is the burial certificate, in which it is stated that the parish priest was “massacred by the British on the 23rd, being at the head of his parish to defend it against the incursions and hostilities which the enemy was carrying on against it.” Then come the names of seven parishioners killed at the same time. This document, drawn up by Jean-Louis-Laurent Parent, priest of the parish of Sainte-Anne-du-Petit-Cap (Sainte-Anne de Beaupré), three days after the incident, brings the affair back to more reasonable proportions. The priest had well and truly taken part in resisting with a group of parishioners, thus justifying the action of the British. Was he shot, or did he die “hacked to pieces by sabres”? Either is equally possible. As for the place, the incident seems to have happened not far from the church and the presbytery of Saint-Joachim, since the two buildings were destroyed on the same occasion – the reason, moreover, that the bodies were buried in the neighbouring parish.
The affair of Abbé Portneuf was, in summary, a minor incident of the sort that happens in every war, but one that struck the imagination, probably because it was unusual at the period to see a parish priest die while participating in a military operation. Although it was doomed to failure in advance, Father Portneuf’s gesture may possibly be considered as a courageous attempt to put up a dignified resistance against the invader before final defeat.
Archives paroissiales de Sainte-Anne (Beaupré, Qué.), Registres des baptêmes, mariages et sépultures, 26 août 1759. Gosselin, L’Église du Canada jusqu’à la conquête, III, 511. Trudel, L’Église canadienne, II, 1–65 [Trudel gives a full bibliography for a study of the life of Robinau de Portneuf. j.-p.a.].