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McDONELL, JOHN, Le Prêtre (1768-1850) – Volume VII (1836-1850)

d. 17 April 1850 in Pointe-Fortune, Upper Canada


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

BRIAND, JEAN-OLIVIER, Bishop of Quebec; b. 23 Jan. 1715 in the parish of Plérin (dept of Côtes-du-Nord), France; d. 25 June 1794 at Quebec.

Jean-Olivier Briand came from a humble peasant family of Saint-Éloi, a village in the parish of Plérin in Brittany. Early in this century Mgr Henri Têtu was able to see the little house, complete with thatched roof, in which he was born. He was the eldest of the five or six children of François Briand and Jeanne Burel; his godfather was an uncle on his father’s side, Olivier Desbois, and his godmother an aunt on his mother’s side, Jacquette Quémar. His father, who was born on 4 May 1688 and baptized the next day at Plérin, died around 1745; his mother, who apparently was born on 18 Jan. 1689, passed away at Plérin on 16 Sept. 1768 “at 80 years of age, less three or four months.”

According to the “family record book” of Bishop Briand’s sister, Catherine-Anne-Marie, who had been born on 20 May 1722 and who from 1779 to 1804 served as superior general of the Filles du Saint-Esprit in Plérin, a secular community she had joined on 27 Oct. 1742, François Briand and Jeanne Burel had “inspired” in their children “good manners . . . and above all the fear of God and the shunning of worldly things.” The future bishop of Quebec was said to have had a kind, gentle, amiable, and patient father, “one of the most honourable men in Plérin”; this father loved and cherished his children, laboured and struggled for them, yet at the same time showed, as his wife did, great charity toward the poor, “especially widows and orphans, whose interests in the parish he had . . . at heart, never refusing [them] any pleasure within his means.” Jean-Olivier never knew his maternal grandparents, Mathurin Burel and Jacquette Quémar, who had died young, but he did witness the devotion of his paternal grandfather, Yves Briand, and his grandmother, Jeanne Desbois, “both of whom virtually wore themselves out working to procure a comfortable situation and an honourable upbringing for their children.”

Two priests from the diocese of Saint-Brieuc (to which Plérin belonged) were to influence Jean-Olivier’s career. The first was his uncle, Jean-Joseph Briand, who was known as “a man of outstanding merit,” and who was to be for many years the parish priest of Plérin, dying there on 20 April 1767 at the age of 80 years and two months. He imparted “the first principles of the sciences” to the young boy and guided him “in the path of virtue and knowledge of the saints.” As he intended to enter the priesthood, young Briand, whose sister said that “he always did well at school,” studied at the Séminaire de Saint-Brieuc; he was ordained priest in March 1739. Returning to his native parish, he became friendly with another priest, Abbé René-Jean Allenou* de Lavillangevin, who had been and perhaps still was the parish priest of Plérin, and with whom the Briand family seems to have had close ties. Abbé Lavillangevin was regarded – though inaccurately – as the founder of the Filles du Saint-Esprit; in fact the community had been established by his uncle, Abbé Jean Leuduger. In the late 1730s Catherine-Anne-Marie Briand was preparing to enter this community, where she would join Marie Allenou de Grandchamp and eventually succeed her as superior general; a Mlle Briand, a relative of the future bishop of Quebec, was to marry Mathurin Gaubert, who was related through his mother to Abbé Leuduger. It was Lavillangevin who “by his good advice and zeal” (notes Catherine-Anne-Marie Briand) “stole” Jean-Olivier Briand from his parents in 1741 “to make a good missionary of him” in Canada.

According to another version, which is not incompatible with the first, it was the appointed bishop of Quebec himself, Henri-Marie Dubreil* de Pontbriand, who made the appeal to Lavillangevin and Briand. In any event the two left Plérin on 11 May 1741 to embark at La Rochelle. Catherine-Anne-Marie Briand’s account relates that Bishop Pontbriand had already appointed Lavillangevin vicar general and Briand a canon. Because, in her words, Briand was willing to go to Canada “only as a missionary priest,” he relinquished his canonry when at La Rochelle, though he had to accept it once he was in Quebec. On 28 May Briand was still in France waiting to sail; he probably left on 8 June, since the Rubis, on which he travelled with the new bishop and the former parish priest of Plérin, cast anchor at Quebec on 30 August, after an 84-day crossing. Because Intendant Hocquart had sent a boat to meet the ship, the bishop landed at Quebec on 29 August. Briand, from whom the bishop was never separated until his death, presumably accompanied him at that time.

On 31 August Briand took possession of his canonry. Thus began a long career in the service of the Canadian church, of which, following his severe test during the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War, he would be proclaimed “the second founder.” In the mean time, while serving as canon, treasurer of the chapter, and confessor of the nuns of the Hôtel-Dieu and the Hôpital Général, and as the person “responsible for the guidance of a host of young seminarists,” Jean-Olivier Briand was also the secretary and confidant of his overburdened bishop. He accompanied Pontbriand on pastoral visits and virtually countersigned all of his pastoral letters, being in fact “his only resource.” “For 17 years,” Abbé de L’Isle-Dieu noted in 1757, Monsieur Briand has “never left” his bishop’s side, and “without being absent from any canonical office, finds the way to be his worthy prelate’s shadow.” In 1752, for example, he went with Bishop Pontbriand as far as the Iroquois mission of La Présentation (Oswegatchie; now Ogdensburg, N.Y.), more than 40 leagues from Montreal; and from May to November 1753 he stayed with him at Trois-Rivières while the Ursuline convent, which the bishop was personally raising from the ashes, was being rebuilt [see Marie-Françoise Guillimin, dite de Saint-Antoine]. On these occasions the chapter was advised that the duties Briand was performing at the bishop’s side excused him from his canonical offices, though he was to be considered present “so that he will not lose any of the benefits of his prebend. ”

Canon Briand was so adept at remaining in his bishop’s shadow that for nearly 20 years he went virtually unnoticed; his timidity was such that he could not even preach; uninterested in intrigue and without personal ambition, he was a hard worker, a pious and devoted priest who was better acquainted with the situation of the Canadian church than anyone else and who had the most detailed knowledge of its administration. First his bishop, and then the diocesan chapter, turned to him when the Canadian church suddenly had to take up the greatest challenge in its history. Once he had entered the lists, this man who was the soul of humility and discretion was to become, in the words of a Quebec nun, “God’s right-hand man. ”

On 1 July 1759, at the beginning of the siege of Quebec, Bishop Pontbriand, who was already ill, withdrew to Charlesbourg. On 13 and 14 July the Ursulines and the nuns of the Hôtel-Dieu took refuge at the Hôpital Général, where Briand, with the help of his colleague Charles-Régis Blaise Des Bergères de Rigauville, was bringing the rites of the church to the wounded, whose number and sufferings increased daily. The day of Montcalm*’s defeat on the Plains of Abraham, 13 September, Pontbriand appointed Briand vicar general of Quebec and then withdrew to Montreal with the French army. He also put him in charge of the three women’s communities in the town, with the title of superior, and urged him to take up permanent residence in the Hôpital Général, where he had already been living for several months. It was from this institution on the banks of the Saint-Charles that throughout the winter Briand administered the section of the diocese fallen into enemy hands; at the same time he lavished attention night and day on the wounded, both French and British, who filled the hospital. In the spring of 1760 he watched with sorrow the first exchanges in the battle of Sainte-Foy, which took place “on a height opposite our house,” as one of the nuns of the Hôpital Général recorded; “at the height of the action,” she added, unable to restrain himself any longer, Briand betook himself to the battlefield, at the risk of his own life: “What made him take this decision, . . . he said, was that there were not enough chaplains to succour the dying. . . .”

While at the Hôpital Général Vicar General Briand also learned in close succession of Bishop Pontbriand’s death in Montreal on 8 June 1760 and of the signing of the surrender of that town and all Canada on 8 September. The Canadian church found itself without a bishop at a moment when the political situation did not allow it to have any communication with France or to have a bishop sent out to Canada. Moreover, beside article 30 of the act of surrender of Montreal, which states that “If, by the treaty of peace, Canada should remain in the power of his British Majesty, his most Christian Majesty shall continue to name the Bishop of the colony, who shall always be of the Roman communion, and under whose authority the people shall exercise the Roman Religion,” Amherst had written: “Refused.” Consequently, in September 1760 a long period of anxious, harrowing waiting began. Would Canada be restored to the king of France? If not, would it be possible to obtain from the British, who were so opposed to “popery,” permission to bring in a bishop or to have one consecrated? Would the Catholic church not soon die in Canada for lack of priests?

According to the dispositions of the Council of Trent, during a vacancy in the episcopal see the administration of the diocese of Quebec fell by right to the chapter. But for some time the canons were prevented from meeting because of the restrictions placed on movements by the British. Since his letters of appointment as vicar general provided him with the necessary administrative powers, it was Briand who exercised ecclesiastical authority in the colony until the chapter was able to meet on 2 July 1760. Appointments were then made of three vicars general for Canada, and three for the distant parts of the colony. In the course of two other assemblies, Abbé de L’Isle-Dieu, who was living in Paris, was appointed vicar general for Louisiana and the Mississippi region (23 Sept. 1760) and Canon Joseph-Marie de La Corne de Chaptes vicar general for the diocese in France (30 Sept. 1760). Canon Briand, to whom was allocated the part of the diocese under the jurisdiction of the Government of Quebec, was also designated, according to Abbé de L’Isle-Dieu, to be “at the head and the first of the vicars general, the see being vacant.” He was clearly going to play the leading role in this church without a bishop and acquire undoubted ascendancy over his colleagues, who consulted him eagerly.

For nearly a year, in administering his part of the diocese Briand as vicar general had had to take into account the presence of a political authority professing a religion still strongly opposed to that of the Canadians. The situation was delicate, as Briand was quite aware. From the beginning he adopted a moderate attitude, conciliatory in secondary matters, firm on what was essential, always respectful towards the new masters. It was an approach that would lead them little by little to serve the church, rather than to harm or simply ignore it. This timid man, in whom a historian of our times has seen only “a dullard,” was on the contrary lively and sociable, and above all knew how to chase away “that fatal melancholy,” as Abbé Joseph-Octave Plessis*, his secretary for ten years, said. In fact this Breton had a Norman’s shrewdness, and towards the end of his life, when informing a correspondent of the consecration of the third coadjutor since the conquest, he would in a way admit it, laughing up his sleeve: “. . . for here I am with four bishops in Canada, where it was not possible, they said, to have any, and a little Daniel from Plérin in Saint-Brieuc overcame all the difficulties.” (It was Daniel, prophet of the race of David, who through his talent for reading and interpreting dreams won the favour of the king of Babylon, without yielding to him in anything. . . .)

Briand’s conduct with regard to the British authorities while he was vicar general and later bishop has been so little understood in our time that it must receive some attention. Right after the surrender of Quebec, Bishop Pontbriand had set forth the theological principles on which the Canadian church should order its conduct: “The Christian religion requires for victorious princes who have conquered a country all the obedience, the respect, that is owed to the others . . .”; “The king of England now being, through conquest, the sovereign of Quebec, all the feelings of which the apostle St Paul speaks are due him [Rom. 13: 1–7].” “One must beware of falling out with the governor, to avoid greater difficulties . . . ,” he wrote to Briand. Pontbriand recommended his vicar general to James Murray, assuring him that he “will share my views.” Moreover, Abbé de L’Isle-Dieu in Paris, and Rome itself, in turn urged upon the Canadians not only respect and submission, but also circumspection and tact: “. . . it will be necessary,” wrote Cardinal Castelli in 1766, “that the ecclesiastics and the bishop of Canada conduct themselves with all possible prudence and discretion, in order not to cause the government any jealousy in state matters”; and, he added, “that they sincerely forget in this respect that they are French.” All of these statements conformed with Catholic theology; from them, Briand was to derive for the Canadian church the greatest – and the most unpredictable – benefits.

Since the king of England was the new sovereign of Canadian Catholics, the church had to recognize and treat him as such. This duty Briand did not hesitate to call to mind, in both his pastoral letters and his correspondence. After some indecision he even decided to have King George’s name mentioned in the prayers in the mass, despite the protestations of certain members of the clergy: “I have not allowed anyone to give me as a reason that it is very hard to pray for one’s enemies. . . . They are our masters, and we owe them what we owed the French when they were our masters. Does the church now forbid his subjects to pray for their prince?” The theological basis was sound, and the reasoning flawless. Briand, who did not lack psychological insight (to the point of maintaining excellent relations with all the governors in his time), understood that to gain the new masters’ goodwill it was necessary to interest them in the life of the church; to this end some unimportant interference had to be tolerated at the beginning, the better to oppose any more serious attempt to bring the church into tutelage. Consequently he let Murray intervene on a few occasions with certain parish priests and gave in for the time being to his demands regarding appointments to parishes; he even consulted him on occasion, and once he went so far as to appeal to the British secular arm. A close consideration of the situation reveals that his conduct could not have been more skilful: soon Murray would make no decisions concerning parish priests and religious matters without first speaking to the vicar general, and would, moreover, interest himself only in questions of discipline, interfering in no way with worship or religious teaching. In 1765 a nun at the Hôpital Général could record that Briand had “been able to maintain his rights and those of his parish priests, without ever encountering obstacles” from the British. Things were on the right track.

Briand was trying to get the British authorities in Canada – and also his clergy and people – to recognize the existence of two distinct jurisdictions: the religious, which came under the ecclesiastical authority, and the civil, which came under the political authority. According to the accepted concepts of his time, the ecclesiastical and the political powers had obligations towards one another, but Briand wanted them exercised on each side without interference. It is in this light that one must read the following extract from a letter he wrote, probably in 1762, to James Abercrombie: “I beg you, Sir, to continue your protection to the church; I would almost dare to tell you that you are obliged to do so, just as the church is obliged to hold you in high esteem. Non enim sine causa gladium portat [“for he beareth not the sword in vain”], St Paul tells us in speaking of the secular power, which must lend itself to the support of religion, as the ecclesiastical power [must lend itself] to making peoples render the respect and obedience that they owe princes and superiors.” In order to counter any attempted encroachment and maintain good relations with the civil authority, Briand applied two “principles,” which are known to us because they were noted down by Bishop Plessis, his former secretary; these were on the one hand “to handle all his affairs with the governor himself, without having any of the subaltern officers intervene in them,” and on the other hand “on every occasion to take the government’s interests very much to heart, to declare very great loyalty towards the king, and to inspire the same loyalty in his clergy.” Consequently it was a bitter experience for him to see priests and some of the faithful occasionally take their religious quarrels to the civil authorities, when the latter, as he observed in 1769, “refer all ecclesiastical matters to me.”

In all these proceedings Briand showed no dull-wittedness, and even less weakness of character. Writing to Guy Carleton* himself in 1784, he noted that some had thought he had acted as he did in certain recent circumstances “through fear of the governor. Oh no! Never in my life have I feared any man.” His meaning was plain: I fear no one, not even you. He immediately added humorously (he was capable of it): “I even blame myself, now when I am at death’s door, for not having feared God and my dread Judge enough.” The man who wrote this was neither easily taken in nor weak. At the time when Murray was venturing to intervene in parish charges, Briand wrote: “I had the honour to say to him that neither I nor the Pope himself could do anything about refusing, delaying, or granting absolution, because penitence was a secret and inner court whose judge had to render accounts to God alone.” In every circumstance he was able to assert the fundamental rights of the church and make them respected, without ever reaching the stage of confrontation. The secret of his strength – and of his success – he revealed in a letter to his sister in 1782: the British “continue to show me marks of real esteem,” he wrote, because they “are aware of my frankness and my sincerity” and know “that my conscience and duty are well above any other consideration.”

It is futile, then, to look for complications and to suggest that Briand’s poverty and timidity explain why he became “the candidate of Murray” – who liked his candour, moderation, and delicacy – when steps were being taken following the colony’s permanent cession to Britain to give the Canadian church a bishop again. Vicar General Étienne Montgolfier, the candidate chosen by the chapter on 15 Sept. 1763, was checkmated by Murray and withdrew on 9 Sept. 1764 in favour of Briand, who observed that he himself had “the approval of the clergy and people and the most obvious protection of the political government.” The canons gathered at the Hôpital Général of Quebec on 11 September and unanimously agreed to elect Briand and put his name forward for the bishopric of Quebec. Although he felt “extreme repugnance” for the “burden” being thrust on him, fearing it “more than death,” Briand understood nevertheless that he must not think of himself, but of the future of the church in Canada. He sailed for England almost immediately in order to “press for his high office” there. He had the recommendations of Murray, who had even exerted himself to get support for him, but the circumstances prevailing in London were scarcely favourable. The apostate Jesuit Pierre-Joseph-Antoine Roubaud had prejudiced people against the Canadian clergy; then the fall of the ministry in 1765 further complicated the situation; finally, even though there was general willingness to give Canada a bishop, no one knew how to do it without violating the laws of Great Britain. Briand was given to understand in ministerial circles that he had only to go to France and have himself consecrated there, and people would shut their eyes provided he contented himself with the title of “superintendent of the Catholic church in Canada.” In December 1765, after a 13-month stay in London, Briand left for France on the official pretext of going to visit his mother in Brittany.

If it is true that in 1741, fearing his courage would fail, Abbé Briand had left Plérin secretly without saying goodbye to his parents and with only his breviary as luggage, the joy of reunion in Saint-Éloi on 19 Dec. 1765 can easily be imagined. Later recalling the scene to her mother, Catherine-Anne-Marie portrayed her brother’s feelings during the few weeks he spent with his family: “I shall never forget the joy, the pleasure, the affection with which you embraced each other and all of us, brothers and sisters. We found him just the same as ever, a good son, a good brother, gentle, meek, . . . humbling himself and recognizing his unworthiness, scorning honours and dignities, without any ambition for wealth; and had he not feared opposing God’s designs, he would have preferred . . . [to] remain hidden and unknown in his little family.” He was, however, obliged to leave: farewells were said at Saint-Brieuc on 23 Jan. 1766, on Abbé Briand’s 51st birthday. Before leaving his mother for ever – she “was ill because of it” – he ordered a large stone house to be built for her at his expense, near the cottage where he had been born; over its door was engraved the inscription: “Jean-Olivier Briand, bishop of Quebec, 1766.”

Meanwhile, on 21 January, “after receiving from various sources . . . firm testimonials to his excellent qualities,” Pope Clement XIII had signed the bull appointing Briand bishop of Quebec. It was on 16 March 1766, the anniversary of his first mass (a fact he drew to the attention of his mother), that he was quietly consecrated. The ceremony was performed, with the permission of the archbishop of Paris, in the private oratory of Mme Meny (born Marie-Madeleine Péan) at Suresnes (dept of Hauts-de-Seine) by the bishop of Blois, Charles-Gilbert Demay de Termont, assisted by the bishops of Rodez and Saintes. Leaving Paris on 21 March, Bishop Briand returned to London, received permission to return to Canada, took the oath of loyalty to the king, and sailed soon after, on 1 May, the day he thanked the bishop of Orléans for a gratuity of 3,000 livres granted him. On his arrival at Quebec on 28 June the new bishop was welcomed with a great display of joy from both Canadians and British. And on 19 July the seventh bishop of Quebec took possession of his see, in the chapel of the Séminaire de Québec.

Although the survival of the priesthood seemed assured in Canada for the time being, the church’s situation nonetheless remained a constant source of worry for the bishop of Quebec. Besides the ever present danger that the civil authority’s attitude to the clergy would harden, Briand had reason to fear that whatever he did the church might continue to grow weaker “imperceptibly . . . day by day,” as he remarked in 1769. The war had left much ruin and distress: the parish church of Quebec, the bishop’s palace, and numerous country churches had been destroyed; the habitants were impoverished, certain women’s religious communities were in desperate straits because of their debts, and the diocese itself was deprived both of the revenues which had previously served mainly for the canons’ upkeep and of the gratuities which the king of France used to pay annually “to the poor parishes.” The number of priests had greatly decreased (180 in 1758, 138 in July 1766); Britain refused to permit the Jesuits and Recollets to recruit new members and would not allow French priests to come to Canada [see Jean-Baptiste-Amable Adhémar]; hence in 1774 the bishop would note that “since I have been back, I have created 25 priests; 32 have died, and two are no longer serving,” and that despite 90 ordinations under his episcopate, 75 parishes, it was said, would find themselves without a priest by 1783.

In addition, since the conquest the populace was no longer quite the same: “People’s hearts have been disturbed during the troubles of the war,” Briand remarked, observing that there was much “to improve” in the Canadians. There had been deplorable scandals throughout the country. Even more frequently, quarrels that sometimes verged on open rebellion against the parish priest or the bishop had erupted over the ministry or the site of a church, the building of a presbytery, or the payment of tithes; some churchwardens carried the spirit of independence to the point of wanting to run everything and were insolent with the bishop: “This is a terrible time where churchwardens are concerned,” groaned Briand. And he complained that “the good Canadians want to organize the church’s affairs themselves; they know more about religion and God’s affairs than do the priests and the bishop.” On the strength of his episcopal authority he warned, begged, threatened, and if pushed to the limit, excommunicated, while being ready to pardon at the slightest sign of repentance. In letters to his priests he occasionally judged too harshly the flock whom, he said, “I thought I knew,” and no longer recognized; “the Catholics reject me”; “a very great number . . . declare their Christianity with their words but . . . contradict it with their behaviour, and have abjured it in mind and heart”; “if they do not change, religion will be lost in the colony.” There was certainly some exaggeration in all of this; but it shows, more than anything, exasperation – which admittedly was not entirely unjustified. “Ah, my goodness! What a terrible pace: I should prefer being parish priest at Baie Saint-Paul or Kamouraska,” he wrote to Vicar General Étienne Marchand in 1767. Seven or eight years later, after two pastoral visits of his diocese (1767–68 and 1771–73), and less harassed by the problems that had tormented his early years, the bishop would take a more serene view of his beloved Canadians: “Doubtless there are some bad Christians, there is licence, there is dissoluteness, but I do not think that there is as much as there was 15 or 20 years ago; and I am not without consolation on that score.”

His priests had also felt the effects of the uncertainties born of war and conquest; particularly before he became bishop, during the military occupation, some of them had caused him many annoyances. This was not true of all of them, but to all he wrote letters that were often admirable and always frank and straightforward. He congratulated some, blamed others, exhorted them all, recalling to mind the “great perfection which . . . is so strongly recommended” to “a true priest,” condemning the “passion for the easy life and all that ensues from it,” and criticizing severely the various sorts of conduct apt “to give the English ideas . . . of an unfavourable nature about the clergy.” He spoke of the need for gentleness, wanting his priests to live in harmony with their parishioners and act with moderation so as not to irritate them. It was necessary, of course, to “thunder” against licence, but “gently”; in sermons it was necessary to avoid “invectives” and to talk more “of virtue than of the ugliness of vice”; sinners were not to be rebuffed, but received with kindness. In many respects Briand seems to have been ahead of his time. “It is not always best to attack vices and abuses head-on,” he wrote to one parish priest, “but it is good to take a roundabout way. It is better for sinners to say to themselves that they are sinners than for us to tell them ourselves or give them occasion to think that we belive they are.” In 1766, discussing the departure of two nuns from their convent, he asserted to his vicar general that “at present we must not be too rigid on certain occasions: formerly that could work. Today things have changed, you know.” And again it was he who decided in 1770 that no one must be forced to contribute to the building of a church, enunciating the lofty principle that “the building of a church is not a corvée; it is a religious act. . . .”

When he had had to reproach his priests, Vicar General Briand liked to call a spade a spade: “If I speak frankly and as I think, I shall tell you some truths that will grieve you. If I dissemble, I shall distress my own sincere and honest nature. Would it be more suitable to say nothing and to reply, as people say, like a Norman [equivocally]? A Breton, and perhaps a Christian, much less still a priest and fellow religious, even less a vicar general . . . must not conceal the truth.” Nevertheless the Breton was sometimes a little harsh. Observing that he had not been aware of the faults of which a parish priest was accused, he told him, “I knew only that you were lazy or a sluggard.” He bluntly called the parish priest of Quebec, Jean-Félix Récher*, an ignoramus. To another whom he removed from the ministry he said: “I love good priests, but those who are disobedient to their superiors, who recognize no chief, . . . who respect no rules, no canons of the church, and who act as they please, will never find favour with me.” The storm past, he concluded his letters in a general manner by saying that, if he was severe, it was the better to bring his correspondent back to his duty, and that in this case he would forget all he had to reproach him for; or again, that he was acting only for the priest’s good and retained every friendly feeling for him. In 1774 Briand told parish priest Pierre-Antoine Porlier, with whom he had a dispute, of his intention to see him become parish priest of Quebec, and even a canon: “Despite all that you have done, written, and said against me, my heart has not changed, and feels the same way towards you as it did 25 years ago.” All of which goes to show that Plessis, who had known him so well, was right in calling Briand “an intelligent man with character.”

Briand perhaps never encountered a greater challenge in his own entourage than at the beginning of his episcopate. The strongest and most sustained opposition, as well as the longest, came from Jean-Félix Récher and his churchwardens and concerned the status of the church of Notre-Dame in Quebec, which had been destroyed during bombardments in 1759. Briand wanted it to be his cathedral, as it had been for his predecessors; the priest and churchwardens were willing to rebuild it, but on condition that it would serve solely for parish worship. Both sides, in seeking to impose their views, based themselves on long-standing rights. Reconstruction began slowly in 1767. Father Récher died in 1768, and the Séminaire de Québec relinquished the parish rights to which it could lay claim. The churchwardens did not relent, however, supported as they were from then on by two members of the seminary, Henri-François Gravé* de La Rive and Joseph-André-Mathurin Jacrau, who even became their lawyer in the matter. The church, which was nearing completion, was opened for worship in 1771. Bishop Briand, having vainly attempted to reach an agreement with the churchwardens, announced that he would not play his opponents’ game by going to court; he would continue to celebrate mass in the chapel of the seminary, choosing it as his cathedral church, and he would abstain from celebrating mass or even from making an appearance in the parish while his rights were unrecognized. Carried on by their momentum, and despite Jacrau’s death, the churchwardens wrote to Rome against their bishop. But resolution of the affair came from Quebec, in 1774, through the mediation of Lieutenant Governor Hector Theophilus Cramahé. Cathedral church or parish church? “Cathedral church and parish church,” it was decided. The compromise was a diplomatic one, and for the bishop’s entry into his cathedral, on the eighth anniversary of his consecration, a “great ceremony” was held.

The pressure he was under in 1767 and 1768 was so great, and his love of peace was so confounded by it, that Bishop Briand thought of resigning as soon as he had chosen a coadjutor, especially since he felt he had little talent for either preaching or administering the diocese. Vicar General Marchand, to whom he had unburdened himself, tried to dissuade him; he commented further that “before being bishop you could not preach, today you easily surmount the timidity that until then you had not overcome, [and] you speak to your people with grace, with vigour, with ardour, and with persuasive eloquence.” In any event, the bishop had to appoint a coadjutor to assist him. At his request Rome had authorized him in 1766 to choose the coadjutor himself, cum futura successione (with right of succession), and to present him to the sovereign pontiff. He asked Carleton’s permission to go ahead; the lieutenant-governor hesitated to take a decision, did not give his consent until 1770, and then proposed Abbé Louis-Philippe Mariauchau d’Esgly, who was five years older than Briand. Briand did not think he should object to this choice since the candidate was “a good priest.” The essential thing was that there should be a second bishop, and a worthy one; it was also important to set a precedent: “It meant a great deal to set the pattern,” Briand himself remarked. The bishop has been accused rather casually of weakness on this occasion. To enter into discussions would have delayed a matter that Carleton had already let drag on for four years and would perhaps have compromised it, since the governor was on the point of sailing for London. Carleton’s fear “that another governor may not be as kind to us,” as Briand noted, and the very imminence of his departure led him to ask the bishop to consecrate Abbé d’Esgly “as soon as he [Carleton] had given his consent,” without waiting for the required bulls. “I had to put up with a bit of a storm,” wrote Briand (relatives of the coadjutor had got involved), “but I held firm, and gave such evident proof of the rightness of my refusal, that now all is quiet.” Having once more saved the essential, the bishop wrote to the apostolic nuncio in Paris to present Abbé d’Esgly to him. The bulls were slow in arriving: it was on 12 July 1772, in the chapel of the seminary, that Bishop Briand consecrated the man who was to be his successor; to make the proclamation and confer the powers of office, he waited for the day of his solemn entry into his cathedral, 16 March 1774.

The year 1774 had been a particularly successful one for Briand. He had ceremonially taken possession of his cathedral and proclaimed his coadjutor; peace had returned to Quebec, and the bishop was not displeased with his flock; vicars general represented him in all parts of his immense diocese; more than 25 new parishes had been created since 1766, and an almost equal number of priests had been ordained. Had it not been for the cathedral chapter, whose authorities were never willing to agree to let him fill vacancies and which was itself to be doomed to extinction, Briand could have considered his work finished and carried out his plans to resign. Because of his coadjutor’s age the bishop was kept from “laying down his charge” and “living in the retirement” to which he had always aspired.

But the American revolution broke out. Soon there was talk of an imminent invasion of Canada, and already rebel agents were urging the Canadians to revolt. Briand, who according to Plessis “had as a maxim that the only true Christians and sincere Catholics are subjects obedient to their lawful sovereign,” urged his faithful to repulse the invaders and issued a pastoral letter supporting Carleton’s proclamation concerning the reestablishment of the militia; he reminded his priests of their duty, founded on the teaching of the Gospel and of St Paul, and against those habitants collaborating with the enemy he had recourse to the punishments of the church, which could no longer recognize them as its children. Constantly and in all things he was faithful to authority and to the oath he had sworn to the king. The Canadians, who still retained painful memories of the war of the conquest, had not all resisted the desire to take vengeance on England; many did not understand the position taken by their bishop and the great majority of the priests. Exhorting, begging, threatening, and acting with severity, Briand suffered greatly from the obstinacy of this part of his flock – a tiny minority, in fact. Calm was slow in returning, and in certain parishes there was no rush to make peace with the church. The bishop was scarred by this. It has even been claimed that he was never afterwards able to bring himself to undertake a new pastoral visit of his diocese. But perhaps the state of his health no longer allowed him to do so.

Before becoming bishop, Briand had twice been sick, in 1750 and again in 1757, the second time rather seriously it seems. In 1770 he wrote his sister that during his pastoral visit he had not realized his strength had diminished; moreover, sciatica was making him suffer, “particularly in the morning.” This malady grew worse as the years went by. In the descriptions of it, gout was also mentioned. When he had an attack, he had trouble with his chest and arms and was completely prevented from engaging in any activity. In 1784 he himself would tell Carleton that for more than eight months he had been unable to do more than write his name. “Three lines without a pause bring me pain that I can hardly bear,” he added. The previous year the doctors had considered his illness “rather serious.” It was also said that he was suffering from “a violent illness that the doctors call spasms”; in addition he had “a stubborn catarrh with all the symptoms of tympanitis,” according to Bishop d’Esgly. Probably these illnesses, from which he was already suffering at the period of the American invasion, rather than bitterness, explain why he did not begin a third visit of his diocese. However that may be, judging himself to be on the verge of death, and seeing that his coadjutor was very old, he resigned on 29 Nov. 1784, to allow d’Esgly to consecrate a younger bishop. In retirement, being “no longer fit for anything but prayer,” he took no part in the administration of the diocese except to give explanations and advice when asked, even though Bishop d’Esgly had appointed him vicar general on 2 Dec. 1784 and continued to accord him episcopal powers. He intervened only once, writing a fatherly rebuke to the impetuous coadjutor, Bishop Jean-François Hubert. Having made his will on 22 March 1791, Briand died at the Séminaire de Québec on 25 June 1794, at the age of 79. Two days later, on 27 June, Plessis pronounced his funeral oration during the ceremonies in the cathedral of Quebec.

Of this truly humble priest, who was bishop against his own wishes and whose portrait has slowly emerged in this biography, we should remember two characteristic traits: his spirit of poverty and his faith in Providence. To his mother, his brothers and sisters, his sister Catherine-Anne-Marie, and his priests, he expressed the scorn that one must have for wealth – and that he himself had in the highest degree. By his own admission “born without wealth and given an honourable office without income,” he lived, as Carleton noted, “in a poor little apartment in the seminary” and ate “at the common table”; he had just one secretary, sometimes employed only part-time, and a footman. Again, he had “neither coach, nor sleigh, nor horse”; he “wore many a cassock turned inside out” and had “not a morsel of bread or a glass of wine to offer a friend.” “I am very fortunate,” he observed, “that I am given my keep at the seminary.” He refused, however, to request the help of the people in his diocese for the “restoration” of the bishop’s palace, which was in ruins, and forbad a collection to be taken for the bishop. In his will he asked that after his death the crozier he had always used be returned to the Séminaire de Montréal, to which it belonged. At the time of his death the Quebec Gazette praised his moral virtues, both Christian and social, recalling “the abundant alms that he distributed among the poor.”

He had told his sister that he feared “neither life, nor death, nor poverty,” and that he had never been afraid of “lacking” anything whatsoever: in everything he put himself in the hands of Providence, “whose conduct is very often all the more merciful in that it agrees less with our desires and flatters our hopes less.” This profound faith probably explains many of his attitudes: “I have always thought,” he once wrote, “that obstacles came from God, and that He would put an end to them Himself.” And in 1768 he told his vicar general, “It is up to the Lord who has put me [at the head of the diocese], unworthy though I am, to settle everything. I want only what He wants, and I hope that He will settle everything. People whisper to me, people push me, but I shall act only as favourable circumstances are presented to me by Providence.”

Bishop Briand, who had a thorough knowledge of the last 20 years of the French régime, indirectly passed judgement on his own career and work when he told his secretary, Plessis, that “under the British government the Catholic clergy and the rural populace enjoyed more liberty than they had been accorded before the conquest.” He would not have been contradicted by the Anglican bishop of Quebec, Jacob Mountain*; having arrived a year before Briand’s death, Mountain complained a few years later that his Catholic counterpart “disposes as he sees fit of all the curacies in the diocese, sets up parishes, grants special permission for marriages as he wishes, and carries out freely all those duties that the king’s instructions refuse him and that the Protestant bishop has never performed.”

André Vachon

The AAQ holds most of the documents concerning Bishop Briand. Two of his letters have been published in BRH, XXI (1915), 122, 128.

PAC, MG 11, [CO 42], Q, 1–47; MG 23, GII, 1. [C.-A.-M. Briand], “Livre de raison de Mlle Briand, sœur de Mgr Briand, premier évêque de Québec sous la puissance anglaise,” ANQ Rapport, 1946–47, 57–79. Doc. relatifs à lhist. constitutionnelle, 1759–91, (Shortt et Doughty; 1921). La Rue, “Lettres et mémoires,” ANQ Rapport, 1935–36; 1936–37; 1937–38. [M.-J. Legardeur de Repentigny, dite de la Visitation], “Relation de ce qui s’est passé au siège de Québec, et de la prise du Canada . . . ,” Le siège de Québec en 1759 par trois témoins, J.-C. Hébert, édit., (Québec, 1972), 11–31. Mandements des évêques de Québec (Têtu et Gagnon), II, 160–63, 166, 168–71, 174–79, 185–309. J.-O. Plessis, “L’oraison funèbre de Mgr Briand,” BRH, XI (1905), 321–38, 353–58. J.-F. Récher, Journal du siège de Québec en 1759 (Québec, 1959). Desrosiers, “Corr. de cinq vicaires généraux,” ANQ Rapport, 1947–48. Henri Têtu, Notices biographiques: les évêques de Québec (Québec, 1889), 259–355. Brunet, Les Canadiens après la Conquête. Burke, Les ursulines de Québec (1863–66). [J.-B.-A.] Ferland, Mgr Joseph-Octave Plessis, évêque de Québec (Québec, 1878). A.-H. Gosselin, LEglise du Canada après la Conquête; LÉglise du Canada jusquà la Conquête, III. Laval Laurent, Québec et lÉglise aux États-Unis sous Mgr Briand et Mgr Plessis (Montréal, 1945). O’Reilly, Mgr de Saint-Vallier et lHôpital Général. Hermann Plante, LÉglise catholique au Canada (1604–1886) (Trois-Rivières, 1970). Marcel Trudel, LÉglise canadienne; Louis XVI, le Congrès américain et le Canada, 1774–1789 (Québec, [1949]). Ivanhoë Caron, “La nomination des évêques catholiques de Québec sous le Régime anglais,” RSC Trans., 3rd ser., XXVI (1932), sect.i, 1–44. Fernand Combaluzier, “Le sacre de Mgr Briand à Suresnes,” BRH, XLVI (1940), 3–9. Lionel Groulx, “Le conflit religieux au lendemain de 1760,” SCHÉC Rapport, 7 (1939–40), 11–26. Arthur Maheux, “Difficultés religieuses après la cession,” SCHÉC Rapport, 14 (1946–47), 11–24; “Notes sur Roubaud et sur sa responsabilité dans la nomination de M. Briand comme évêque de Québec,” SCHÉC Rapport, 6 (1938–39), 45–60. “Mgr Briand et les rebelles de 1775,” BRH, XLV (1939), 286. Fernand Ouellet, “Mgr Plessis et la naissance d’une bourgeoisie canadienne (1797–1810),” SCHÉC Rapport, 23 (1955–56), 83–99. Henri Têtu, “Souvenirs d’un voyage en Bretagne,” BRH, XVII (1911), 130–40, 161–69, 197–202. Marcel Trudel, “Pourquoi Briand fut-il le candidat de Murray?” RHAF, VIII (1954–55), 463–95; “La servitude de l’Église catholique du Canada français sous le Régime anglais,” SCHÉC Rapport, 30 (1963), 11–33.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

André Vachon, “BRIAND, JEAN-OLIVIER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 17, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/briand_jean_olivier_4E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/briand_jean_olivier_4E.html
Author of Article:   André Vachon
Title of Article:   BRIAND, JEAN-OLIVIER
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1979
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   April 17, 2024