VEYSSIÈRE, LEGER-JEAN-BAPTISTE-NOËL (baptized Leger; named Father Emmanuel), Recollet priest and Church of England clergyman; b. 23 Dec. 1728 at Tulle, France, son of Étienne Veyssières and Françoise Fraysse; m. 17 April 1770 Elizabeth Lawrear (Chase; Brookes), and in 1790 the widow Christiana Gotson (Godson); d. 26 May 1800 at Trois–Rivières, Lower Canada.
Leger-Jean-Baptiste-Noël Veyssière, after completing his theology in 1750 at Cahors, France, arrived at Quebec on 15 August of that year. He took two more years of theology at the Séminaire de Québec before going in 1752 as assistant treasurer to the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice, Montreal, where he also taught humanities for two years. After 14 months as missionary to the Iroquois of La Galette (near Ogdensburg, N.Y.), he was admitted in 1756 to the Recollet order at Quebec, taking the name Father Emmanuel. On 27 Dec. 1758 he became the last priest ordained by Bishop Pontbriand [Dubreil*]. In 1760 he was appointed by Vicar General Jean-Olivier Briand confessor and preacher at Quebec, where in July 1761 he received the abjuration of the Huguenot Antoine-Libéral Dumas*. The following year Briand appointed him priest of Saint-Michel de La Durantaye (Saint-Michel-de-Bellechasse), adding to his charge in February 1765 the parish of Beaumont. In January 1766 he was transferred to Saint-Nicolas.
In October 1762 Veyssière had aroused Briand’s ire by complaining to Governor Murray that the vicar general reserved all the poorest paying parishes for the Recollets. Four years later he scandalized the Roman Catholic Church by converting to Protestantism. The Quebec Gazette affirmed that his conversion was apparently made “from the laudable Motive of Conscience only.” Veyssière’s hopes of becoming a minister at Quebec, however, were thwarted by the Reverend John Brooke, the chaplain there, who refused to administer the oath of abjuration. Brooke acted under pressure from Lieutenant Governor Guy Carleton*, who feared further provocation of the Roman Catholic Church. Veyssière nevertheless enjoyed the support of the Huguenot attorney general, Francis Maseres*, who opposed Carleton’s religious policies. Maseres hoped that if the former Recollet, whom he described as having “a little plain good sense” and “a tolerable knowledge of the points in dispute between papists and protestants,” were treated well, many more priests might follow his lead, and a conversion movement begin.
Rebuffed at Quebec, Veyssière left for London in October 1767 armed with letters of recommendation from Maseres, French and British residents of Quebec, and 36 Catholics of his former parishes. Maseres expected Veyssières to give the British government a “true and exact account of the State of religion in the province,” and especially to emphasize that a mistake had been made in allowing the Canadians to have a bishop in Briand. Veyssière arrived just as the Church of England was looking for French speaking ministers for Trois-Rivières and Quebec, David Chabrand Delisle having already been placed at Montreal. Veyssière sought the Quebec position, but he was passed over in favour of David-François De Montmollin* and appointed instead to Trois-Rivières, with a salary of £200 per annum. He was back in Canada by the summer of 1768 when Carleton strongly protested his engagement in light of “his Levity and Folly both before and after his renouncing the errors of the Church of Rome.” Fearing the three new appointees might cause trouble, Carleton drafted their commissions in such a manner as “to leave the Power to do all the good they can, or chuse to do, without authorizing them to do Mischief.”
At Trois-Rivières Veyssière began ministering in September 1768 in the former Recollet chapel, to a congregation which until after the American revolution was largely composed of soldiers. Throughout his ministry his large parish contained a relatively constant number of Protestants – about 150 to 200; most were probably dissenters, but all decidedly indifferent.
In January 1775 Henry Caldwell*, who was named to the Legislative Council of Quebec the following year, wrote Lord Shelburne, a prominent member of the House of Lords, that the Protestant religion was “absolutely going a begging in this Country” since the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel had sent out the three French-language ministers “who Every Sunday Massacre the poor English Liturgy in the most Barbarous manner.” Caldwell had particular contempt for the former Recollet who, he charged, had converted only to avoid doing penance for “his notorious debaucheries.” It was not, however, the old and generally bilingual English inhabitants like Caldwell but the unilingual loyalists flooding into the colony who complained most effectively. Christian Daniel Claus initiated the attack supported by the Reverend John Doty*. In 1785 a report to the government warned that the Church of England could soon be extirpated in the colony “by the Cunning and perseverence of New England Emissaries [dissenting ministers], that are now creeping into the Province and poisoning the Minds of unsuspecting Inhabitants”; from their desire to get their religion in English, these people also imbibed dissenter principles. In February 1786 Evan Nepean, commissioner of the privy seal, received a memorandum describing as shameful the situation of the church at Trois-Rivières, where “the Clergyman . . . is that kind of Character, that wou’d disgrace the meanest Profession.”
These complaints reached Charles Inglis*, appointed bishop of Nova Scotia in 1787 with jurisdiction over all of British North America, and himself a loyalist. In June 1789, Inglis, already determined to replace the French speaking ministers, reached Quebec to begin a pastoral visit. On 26 June he found the church at Trois-Rivières in ruins and services being held in the minister’s house. “Mr. Veyssière,” he noted, “is a poor little creature – he is not more than 4 feet 10 inches high,” unable to speak English coherently, and capable only of degrading the church. With men like Veyssière it was no wonder, he complained, that converts to Catholicism were 20 times as numerous in the colony as those to Protestantism. In August he sought vainly to persuade Veyssière to accept an English replacement who would take half of his salary.
Veyssière clung to his post, isolated from his congregation and the church, until 1794. During a pastoral visit from the newly appointed bishop of Quebec, Jacob Mountain*, Veyssière reported that the people gave no money to the poor, the church, or the clergyman. Communion had been held three times yearly, “there being sometimes three and four persons, and often none.” Catechism classes for children were advertised, but were never attended. Although ten years later John Lambert*, the author of a travel account, would consider the indifference of the Protestants at Trois-Rivières congenital, the bishop blamed it on Veyssière, who, he charged, “united to an utter incapacity of speaking so as to be understood, Mental imbecility, & notorious irregularity of conduct.” Mountain appointed his brother Jehosaphat* as Veyssières assistant, relieving the latter of all responsibilities but leaving him as nominal rector on full stipend.
Since 1777 Veyssière had lived in a wood house next to the merchant Aaron Hart. He also owned a wooded lot in the seigneury of Cap-de-la-Madeleine, but it was considered almost valueless. Yet his library contained about 180 volumes, mostly religious, and all in French. When they were sold at auction shortly before his death, among the most important buyers were William Grant*; the Harts, Aaron, Ezekiel*, and Benjamin; and several priests including François-Xavier Noiseux*, the vicar general at Trois-Rivières. The size and composition of this library would seem to refute the charges that Veyssière was imbecilic and irreligious.
Insignificant as a minister, Veyssière, by the isolation of his life, throws light on the probable fate of any Roman Catholic priest who might have converted to Protestantism after the conquest. His sufferings at the hands of Protestant and Catholic, the Church of England and the state, may have prevented similar conversions which might have seriously weakened the stature of the Roman Catholic Church at a critical period. More certainly, the Church of England’s experience with Veyssière, and to a lesser degree with his colleagues Chabrand Delisle and De Montmollin, determined it to reverse its post-conquest proselytist policy. Beginning in the 1790s, it would, with a British clergy, concentrate its attentions on the colony’s British Protestants.
AAQ, 12 A, C, 109; 20 A, I, 94; 42 CD, I, 25. AD, Corrège (Tulle), État civil, Saint-Julien, 24 déc. 1728. ANQ-MBF, État civil, Anglicans, Église protestante (Trois-Rivières), 28 mai 1800; Greffe de Joseph Badeaux, 30 janv., 18 févr. 1800. Archives des franciscains (Montreal), Dossier Emmanuel Veyssière. BL, Add.