Bishop Laval

By Juliana L’Heureux

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Walter Edmonds writes a harsh description of Bishop Laval, in his 1968 historical narrative, "The Musket and the Cross: The Struggle of France and England for North America". Although the prestigious Laval University in Quebec is named after this powerful clergyman, his heavy-handed theories about how to run the church and state are certainly not complimentary. 

In 1674, Bishop Francois Xavier de Laval-Montmorency established the Diocese of Quebec. Actually, everyone knew him simply as "Laval". 

He was chosen for the position of first Bishop after winning a power struggle when the influential French Jesuits chose him to head the colonial diocese. Prior to 1659, Cardinal Richelieu, in distant Paris governed Canada’s church in Quebec. In June of 1659, Laval arrived from France to merely preside over the Quebec church. 

Edmonds describes Laval as a zealous, hardheaded and ambitious man who was "of assertive and arrogant piety". Later, when Laval was appointed the first Bishop of Quebec, he was given an exalted position as the pope's vicar apostolic to Canada, thereby overruling the authority of the King of France and reporting, instead, directly to Rome. 

As a matter of fact, the French Jesuits were delighted with Laval's extraordinary title because it empowered them to remove him if he turned out unworthy to rule the diocese. In other words, the Jesuits wanted to pick and choose their boss in New France. Since they could not easily influence the King of France to remove Laval if he created trouble for them, they surely could influence Rome if need be. 

Edmonds describes Laval as a man driven by ego and power. Most important, he wanted the Catholic Church to rule over the government of Quebec. In this regard, he crated frivolous problems for the people. For example, Laval worried about where the bishop should be seated in relation to Quebec's governor during the celebration of Mass. Laval even ordered the severe whipping of two innocent children when they disobeyed his order directing them to applaud the bishop prior to recognizing the governor in church. Edmonds writes about how young Charles Couillard and Ignace de Repentigny were persuaded by others to applaud for the governor before acknowledging Bishop Laval. "Although these two children did not play a prominent role in the future of Canada, one cannot help feeling that their small smarting backs deserve some sort of memorial because they dared to stand up to this formidable prelate on his own ground," writes Edmonds.

Laval embraced Quebec and he became highly recognizable. One could say, Laval stood out like a movie star. He was familiar in the cities of Montreal and Quebec and equally recognized in tiny villages of Three Rivers as well as the farms scattered along the shores of the St. Lawrence River. 

Although Laval left an indelible impression on the people of Quebec, his successors took decades to unravel the horrible policies he inflicted in the name of religion. In his narrative, Edmonds cannot provide Laval with any redeeming virtues except to describe his religious enthusiasm. 

More on "The Musket and the Sword" in future columns. 

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Published before 1994
Copyright 1999-2000, Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine and Juliana L'Heureux