VIAU, PIERRE, Roman Catholic priest, educator, vicar general, and school administrator; b. 24 July 1784 in Saint-Constant, Que., and baptized at Saint-Philippe-de-Laprairie, Que., son of Pierre Viau, a farmer, and Marie-Josephte Barrette; d. 13 June 1849 in Montreal.
Pierre Viau received his classical education at the Collège Saint-Raphaël in Montreal from 1799 to 1806. When he decided to enter the priesthood in the autumn of 1806, he remained at the Petit Séminaire de Montréal, as the college was then called, and served as a regent. The following year he pursued his theological studies at the Séminaire de Nicolet, at the same time teaching the first-year class (Latin Elements) there; the director, Jean-Charles Bédard, considered him an excellent teacher for those beginning the classical program. Like most Catholic clergy in the colony at this time Viau completed his training for the priesthood at the Grand Séminaire de Québec. When he was admitted as a subdeacon, none of his relatives was in a position to secure for him the landed property required to become a priest; he gratefully turned to Claude Marotte, a farmer from Côte Sainte-Catherine at La Prairie. It was not uncommon for a benefactor to commit himself to mortgaging a lot or part of his farm in order to guarantee a future priest an annual allowance of 150 livres if need arose or until he was provided with an adequate benefice that would be equivalent. Such a title to property gave the bishop the assurance that “the cleric in holy orders would all his life have the resources necessary for a decent standard of living.” Viau was ordained priest at Quebec on 3 Dec. 1809.
Having immediately been named assistant priest for the parish of Saint-Michel at Vaudreuil, and then in the autumn of 1810 for the cathedral of Notre-Dame at Quebec, Viau found himself with priests who gave him further pastoral training. After serving briefly in the parish of Sainte-Geneviève-de-Batiscan, near Trois-Rivières, in the spring of 1812 he was appointed priest of Saint-Ignace at Cap-Saint-Ignace, which included the Saint-Antoine mission on Île aux Grues. In the correspondence he carried on with the bishop of Quebec, Joseph-Octave Plessis*, Viau soon emerged as the epitome of the curé always anxious to delve into the imperatives of Catholic doctrine, especially in regard to ethics and canon law. His approach was rather casuistic, but his concern was intellectual.
All the same Viau was inclined to be strict in dealing with some matters: observance of Lent, pardon for fornicators, the wearing of cassock and surplice by those in the choir, swearing and uttering curses, participation in dances, embracing by fiancés. On the other hand Plessis, using his knowledge and his experience as a parish priest, found nuances and in certain cases weighed things in context while bringing out basic principles of Christian morality. His replies to Viau serve as illustration: children should obey their parents, rather than respect Lent against their parents’ wishes; swearing was not a serious fault unless done in real anger; “twenty mortal sins of different sorts committed in a year are less embarrassing for a confessor than three or four relapses into the same mortal sin, because the second case shows a habit and the first does not”; but, taking into account numerous references to four of St Paul’s epistles, all sexual relations outside lawful marriage were forbidden.
The concern for orthodoxy shown by Viau and the attention paid by Plessis to answering him carefully reveal an aspect of the pastoral duties of parish priest and bishop that is often unrecognized. Periodically – three or four times a year in Viau’s case, though less frequently for some other curés – the bishop tried to further his priests’ theological education and to help them acquire sound judgement for their ministry.
The training of Canadian priests at the beginning of the 19th century was indeed very limited. The first two years of study were often done in a classical college where they also served as the assigned teachers of a group of pupils. During the entire three-year program they had to master six volumes (3,600 pages) of the Compendiosœ, institutiones theologicœ, published in Poitiers, France, in 1778. Anchored in faith from the start, the student learned to know God as the Trinity, in the Incarnation, and as a supernatural source of help, before he came to study human beings. They were perceived as sinners, able to renew contact with God through prayer and the sacraments. The two sources of revelation – Scripture and tradition – were treated in the final volume. It goes without saying that theological studies were quite hidebound. They provided precise knowledge about all religious matters, in a stereotyped pastoral perspective.
In Europe, as in Lower Canada, the training of ordinands was undertaken within a framework according prime importance to their spiritual and moral life. Viau was mindful of this emphasis when Bishop Plessis asked him in 1818 to become the director of the Grand Séminaire de Québec. “I sense that there is much to be gained in a seminary with respect to the ecclesiastical virtues. The example of the colleagues with whom one resides, the examples and lives of many young men, among whom are some full of ardour, are conducive in no small measure to virtue.” Viau added a second reason for accepting this unexpected appointment: God’s will was being revealed through that of his superiors.
Viau was probably not too disappointed with the two years he spent directing and teaching at the Grand Séminaire; for, having subsequently filled the parish charges of Saint-Nicolas, near Quebec, from 1820 to 1822, Sainte-Anne at Yamamiche from 1822 to 1825, and Saint-Pierre-du-Sud at Saint-Pierre-de-la-Rivière-du-Sud, which included the Saint-François mission (at Saint-François-Montmagny), in 1825 and 1826, he agreed to render a similar service in Bishop Jean-Jacques Lartigue’s newly opened Séminaire Saint-Jacques in Montreal. But his assent to Lartigue came after some hesitation, reflection before God, and consultation with “respectable and sensible persons.” Yet he added, “I do not much like the ministry, and since, nevertheless, I like to make myself useful, I accept gladly.” He stated that his health did not allow him to fast at any time, and he recognized that “people have always reproached me with being too sedentary.” In fact, this experience of seminary life did not last as long as the previous one. Lartigue quickly realized that Viau was having difficulty adapting to his work, and, moreover, that he displayed no particular talent. The charge of Notre-Dame-de-Liesse, at Rivière-Ouelle, had just come open with the departure of its curé, Bernard-Claude Panet*, to become archbishop of Quebec, following Plessis’s recent death. Since Panet had sufficient confidence in Viau not only to name him to this charge but also to make him vicar general with responsibility for the entire lower St Lawrence region, Lartigue let him go after five months in office at the seminary.
Bishop Lartigue and Viau had still had time to appreciate each other, as their correspondence in the following decade unquestionably demonstrates. Viau sought Lartigue’s opinion in certain areas where as vicar general he now exercised the ecclesiastical authority delegated by the bishop (permission to marry, reservation of sins, exemption from vows, interest rates on loans), and Lartigue made known to him his views on such matters as the bill concerning the fabriques [see Louis Bourdages*], his differences with the Sulpicians, the publication of an ecclesiastical newspaper, and of course, ultramontanism.
Viau at first endeavoured to moderate Lartigue’s excessive enthusiasm for ultramontanism. In his view Alfonso Muzzarelli was “something of an advocate” for papal authority, Hugues-Félicité-Robert de La Mennais was unsatisfactory on the doctrine of the church in the early centuries, and Roberto Bellarmino lacked critical sense (on this matter he cited Nicolas Bergier and François-Xavier de Feller). He had further noted that Muzzarelli and La Mennais did not give the same account of the sixth canon of the Council of Nicaea and that Bellarmino, Muzzarelli, Charles-René Billuart, and Alfonso Maria de’ Liguori held different views on the jurisdiction of bishops.
Lartigue was too firmly convinced of the value of ultramontanism to budge in the face of such questioning or shades of interpretation. “It would be a serious error,” he stated, “to believe that the pope does not by divine right have pastoral jurisdiction over all the bishops in the world, and consequently that he cannot place them, move them, reinstate them, restrict or extend the limits of their jurisdiction.” If few proofs could be found in the first three centuries of the church that the pope had nominated or confirmed bishops in their respective sees, it was because documents of the period had disappeared as a result of the persecutions, Lartigue went on. For his part he considered that the foundations on which La Mennais and Muzzarelli took their stand, even for the early centuries of the church, were solid. Moreover, Lartigue gave little credence to theologian Mathias Chardon’s authority, especially because of his opinion on the supposedly priestly ordinations in the Church of England. Feller’s opinion seemed risky to him, and Bergier’s article on the bishops’ jurisdiction insignificant. As for Muzzarelli, he sounded more like an Italian than an advocate. Viau acknowledged defeat: “I am willing to believe that I was wrong. Your range of knowledge is much broader than mine.”
Nevertheless, Charles-François Baillargeon*, priest of the cathedral and later archbishop of Quebec, considered himself much less well informed than Viau, who as his curé at Cap-Saint-Ignace had shown him the way to the priesthood. Although, Baillargeon wrote to Viau, he had not gone through the theological writings as Viau had, analysed and collated their contents, or gone back to the sources, he shared his opinion about theologians: “I am completely convinced, as you are, that all their scholarship needs to be re-examined, that their way of dealing with the knowledge of God is generally imperfect, that by introducing bad philosophy into this sublime science or rather by wishing to base this divine science on a meagre philosophy [and] on a lot of subtleties, they have rendered religion very poor service; I say that they have destroyed the foundations of religion, forgetting that it is founded basically upon authority and substituting their own reasoning, their petty arguments.” A gradual shift in the way of thinking of certain influential figures in the church of Lower Canada can be detected here. With the word “religion” being regularly used at the time for “church,” the criterion of authority was coming to the fore in the church. The papacy and the ecclesiastical hierarchy were ipso facto being given enhanced importance.
The links between Viau and Baillargeon were close, especially after Baillargeon was able to rely on Viau to place six Irish children recently orphaned by cholera with families at Rivière-Ouelle. But by contrast they were strained between Viau and Panet’s successor in the see of Quebec, Joseph Signay. Signay encouraged his curé to study the Scriptures thoroughly and to develop refutations of bad books, but he could not see how all this work if put in print would really render service. Moreover, Signay considered him a complainer; since three-quarters of the priests suffered from rheumatism, how could physical disabilities be singled out in his case more than in that of the others? And what were the grounds for Viau’s frequent demands to change his assistant priests? Where could the bishop find someone more perfect than the previous ones?
In this situation it is not surprising that Viau left the Quebec region in 1835 and went to Montreal to be closer to Lartigue. He took a rest at the Résidence Saint-Jacques, and then became the bishop’s vicar general when the diocese of Montreal was established in 1836. That year there was no lack of work at the bishopric. Having been, in 1831, the first to advise Lartigue to appoint a coadjutor bishop, Viau now encouraged him to find a successor as soon as possible to his auxiliary, Pierre-Antoine Tabeau*, who had died the previous year without ever being consecrated bishop. It was in these circumstances that Ignace Bourget* was suggested as the best candidate, and Pope Gregory XVI gave his assent to the proposal.
In 1836 the act dealing with schools run by trustees, passed in 1829, was not renewed by the Legislative Council. Viau had long been aware of the government’s legislative measures in the field of elementary education. Like many other parish priests, he had declined in 1822 the post of visitor for a school run by the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning which the government had offered him. The fabrique schools law which had been passed in 1824 had certainly been more consonant with his views. The year 1836 marked the end of competition between the schools run by trustees and those run by fabriques.
Viau took part, furthermore, in a meeting on 12 April 1836 called by mayor Jacques Viger* to consider the establishment in Montreal of the normal school provided for by a law passed on 21 March. At this meeting he was even elected on the first round of voting to the board of the École Normale de Montréal; he found himself working side by side with Louis-Joseph Papineau*, Viger, and Presbyterian clergyman Henry Esson*. Teaching began in the fall of 1837, and although rebellion broke out in November, the school was more or less successful. At this point Viau was named priest of the parish of Saint-Sulpice, near Montreal.
In light of all these developments, it is not surprising that in 1841 Viau gathered a group of priests in the presbytery at Repentigny to protest against the new school bill that had been introduced on 20 July and brought forward for second reading on 3 August. At the heart of the discussions was the place to be accorded in children’s education to the various religious denominations. The Catholic clergy, for whom Viau was a spokesman, emphasized that the bishops had “by divine right the privilege of inspecting schools.” After minor changes the bill, which sought to make broader provision for the establishment and upkeep of public schools, was enacted on 18 Sept. 1841 and went into force on 1 Jan. 1842. A system of elementary public schools was at last set up for the whole of the United Province of Canada. The principle of denominational schools was guaranteed within it, thanks in particular to the intervention of the Canadian Catholic clergy.
Three years later, at barely 60 years of age, Viau retired to the Hospice Saint-Joseph in Montreal. He died there on 13 June 1849 and was buried a few days later in the cathedral of Saint-Jacques. He had distributed his magnificent collection of books to various educational institutions during his lifetime.
Pierre Viau’s personality was not necessarily an engaging one, at least on first meeting. His intellectual curiosity and the solitude he craved fostered his bent for research and his concern for truth and at the same time demonstrated them. His more or less frail state of health may have been an indication of great sensitivity, which might explain his difficulty in adapting to the practical side of pastoral ministry. In short, one may well ask whether he was not one of those perfectionists of exceptional intelligence who cannot be at ease in the world in which they live. Their aspirations greatly exceed what they can achieve.
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