Harpswell Writer Henry Gosselin

By Juliana L’Heureux

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Harpswell- Writers and newspaper journalists almost never actually retire. Instead, retirement means a life without grinding deadlines. So, they write books. 

Retired newspaper journalist Henry (Henri) Gosselin, 69, retired fiveyears ago as editor of "Church World", the award winning Roman Catholic Diocesan weekly newspaper headquartered in Brunswick. Unlike some other retirees, Gosselin was lucky enough to already live in his retirement home; a family owned year around cottage located on a picturesque peninsula in Harspwell. He looked forward to immersing himself in two activities he knows a great deal about. First and foremost, he sails his boat, but the other activity is, of course, writing. In retirement, he expected to find plenty of time to research interesting stories about his very large Franco-American family. 

Many Franco-American families typically trace their roots to the early or middle 16th century in Quebec, when the French government encouraged colonial settlements in New France (Canada). The Gosselin family is particularly unique because more than twenty generations of descendents trace their roots to one location in Quebec. Regardless of how the family has grown or dispersed since the 1600’s, its origins are traced to a specific house on Isle d’Orleans. 

Henry instinctively knew he could find a good story somewhere in his long generations of ancestors. As a result, he found a compelling real life history of Clement 

Gosselin, a French-Canadian who fought with the American General George Washington and helped to spy on the British during the American Revolution. 

"George Washington’s French-Canadian Spy" is the true story of Major Clement Gosselin’s seven-year odyssey from La Pocatiere, Quebec to the Battle of Yorktown.

Finding a French-Canadian hero in the family sounds like a news scoop or a well kept secret until the story unfolds to another ironic consequence. Unbelievably, the French-Canadian patriot Clement Gosselin was outcaste by his Roman Catholic Church because he dared to fight with the Americans against the British. In his research, Henry found church documents to validate the December 8, 1775, excommunication of Clement, as read by Father Pierre-Antoine Portier, and the pastor of Sainte-Anne-de-la Pocatiere Church in Quebec, by direction of the Bishop of Quebec.

Excommunication is a severe sanction barring Roman Catholics from receiving the Church sacraments. For Clement, it meant he would go to war without the benefit of receiving penance from a priest in the confessional. Furthermore, if he were mortally wounded, he would not receive the Last Rites and his body would not be buried in sacred ground. These were (and are) horrific punishments to Roman Catholics.

In fact, more than 1,000 French Canadians who eventually served in two Canadian regiments of the American colonial forces during several battles of the War of Independence from 1775 through 1782, were excommunicated, by Quebec’s Bishop Olivier Briand.

Bishop Briand justified his act because, he felt, people should not revolt against legitimate authority. The Church never vindicated many of the soldiers, who were considered "rebels", a label they carry with then, even now, says Gosselin. 

"I feel their story begs to be told, even 275 years after the fact," says Henry. 

"I came to the realization that …it was clearly a case of intrusion by Church 

officials into politics. I wanted to vindicate all the French Canadians who risked excommunication when they chose to support the Americans against the English," says Gosselin, who is proud of his brave ancestor.

Surely, it was hurtful for some family members to uncover such an unusual story about an otherwise notable ancestor, primarily because the Gosselin’s are generally devout Roman Catholics. Some were reluctant to discuss the excommunication issue, finding it difficult to accept such a blemish in the family’s tree.

"At first, my cousin and priest, Father Laurent Gosselin was hesitant to reveal the details of Clement’s excommunication," says Henry. "Although he initially disapproved of Clement's disobedience to the Bishop, being a strong believer that all authority comes from God, he eventually arrived at the conclusion that the excommunication was a grave error on the part of the Bishop."

Going beyond excommunication, Gosselin gives history a fresh face as he describes the sacrifices made by French-Canadians to help Americans win the war. The Battle of Yorktown, in Virginia, finally determined the outcome of the war but few people know how victory was achieved with the help of French and the French Canadians who shed the most blood in that battle. Of the 88 killed at Yorktown, 60 were French or French Canadians. Of the 300 wounded, 193 were French or French Canadians. 

Major Clement Gosselin said, "We gave more than our share!," after being wounded at Yorktown.

Gosselin writes his ancestor’s biography like a war correspondent that details the comings and goings of colonial French, English and American troops during the American Revolution. Additionally, Gosselin gives an interesting account of the Conquest, where the French lost their battle for Quebec on the "Plains of Abraham". 

This highly researched narrative describing troop movements and battles seemed like a déjà vu experience for Gosselin, who is a Korean War veteran. He served as Sergeant Major of the First Battalion of the 5th Regimental Combat Team, which was engaged with the Chinese and North Koreans on the northwest ridge of the Punchbowl in North Korea (1952-53).

After the Korean War, Gosselin became a steadfast pacifist. 

"It was somewhat painful for me to write about the Revolutionary War because I became a pacifist after writing about Korea," admits Gosselin. 

After the Korean War, Gosselin served as the editor of the Lisbon Enterprise and the Maine Sunday News in Lewiston, then purchased a half-interest in the Somerset Reporter in Skowhegan, which he edited for 11 years. After he sold his interest in the weekly paper, he accepted the editorship of the "Church World", Maine's official Catholic weekly, whose publisher was Bishop Peter L. Gerety.

While he was editor, the "Church World" received more than 70 national awards from the Catholic Press Association. 

In 1974, Bishop Gerety was named Archbishop of the Newark, NJ Archdiocese.

Recently, Gerety wrote to Gosselin about "George’ Washington’s Spy". Not surprising, the clergy are intently interested in the excommunication theme. 

"Concerning the excommunication of Clement, we cannot judge the Bishop Briand (by today’s standards), but from my perspective, I cannot see that his excommunication had any validity".

Gosselin wants to spread the word about "George Washington’s Spy" to as many Gosselin relatives as possible. This is a daunting task given the literally thousands of Gosselin who live all around the world. For more information about the book, contact Henry Gosselin, PMB No. 104, P.O. Box 1305, Brunswick, ME 04011, or e-mail at hgosseli@gwi.net

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