Laval was first Catholic bishop of Quebec
Wednesday, February 1, 2017
Posted by: Elise Freed-Brown
The article below was reprinted from The Catholic Journalist. Michael Swan tells the story of St. Francis de Laval, who established Laval University.
To learn more about Laval University or the 2017 Catholic Media Conference, click here.
Laval was first Catholic bishop of Quebec
BY MICHAEL SWAN
President, Canadian Church Press
Laval University looks modern, secular and quite ordinary. But that surface of 1960s poured concrete and open spaces is deceiving.
St. Francis de Laval established Laval University in 1663 as the Grande Séminaire de Québec. In 1668 Laval attached a “small seminary” Petite Séminaire to his big seminary, which aimed to train the children of French settlers and Native Canadians side by side. Nearly half the students at the little seminary (a kind of high school to prepare students for seminary studies) were Huron.
An icon depicting St. Francois de Laval is displayed at The Oratory of St. Joseph in Quebec City in this 2008 photo. (CNS photo/Bob Mullen)
That little detail – a Catholic school for boys with eight French and six Huron students – is the key to the secret, Catholic history of North America. As bishop of New France with a direct line to King Louis XIV and the ear of Pope Alexander VII, Laval was the perfect agent for a Catholic Counter-Reformation dream in the New World.
Extreme Protestants landed on Plymouth Rock with dreams of a new beginning for a tired, confused and corrupt Europe. The Puritans wanted a conquest that would press the reset button on Christian civilization. They wanted to invent a new society for this empty new place.
But the Counter-Reformation dream had less to do with conquest. Before Laval, the Jesuits had tried to establish a Christian Huron kingdom on the shores of Georgian Bay, Lake Huron. New France wasn’t something to be invented or imposed. Rather it was a dream that had to be negotiated, proposed and nurtured.
This vision perfectly captured the imagination of a young Laval as he worked organizing parishes in Normandy, northern France. The titled, young priest hoped he might one day become a missionary. Chosen to be the first bishop of New France at the age of 36, Laval owed a lot of his vocation to Jesuit inspiration.
For Laval and the Jesuits who dominated the Church in New France, what was new about America wasn’t something Frenchmen would create or dictate. The newness and the opportunity of America was already here, open and waiting for a Christian spirit of encounter and discovery.
Those high ideals, of course, struggled against fallen human nature. Laval fought with governors of New France over the trade in alcohol, which he saw corrupting and destroying indigenous culture. At one point Laval even got on a boat back to France so he could complain directly to the king. Laval’s complaints resulted in the king sacking his governor.
The 17th century dreams of New France eventually succumbed to the political and military realities of the 18th century – from the treaty of Utrecht to British conquest of 1760. In the end, our majority culture conquered, imposed, dictated and invented the North America we now share. Native cultures suffered and millions died. French culture was marginalized and Catholics reduced their own Counter-Reformation ideals to catechism formulas.
Laval University evolved to become a modern and admirable public university. The Grand Seminaire became its own separate institution in Montreal. Laval’s remains lie in Quebec’s Cathedral de Notre Dame and both church and state bow to the wisdom of maintaining their proper separation. No one talks about Christian kingdoms anymore.
But when Pope Francis cut through the process to declare Laval a saint by “equipollent canonization” in 2014, he reminded us that dreams do not die. Laval’s America – a New France of possibilities, encounters and co-operation – can still be dreamed.
Catholic New France once stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to a frozen Hudson’s Bay; from Lake Superior to Nova Scotia. Laval established the first parishes north of New Spain. This history – both its dreams and its failures – belongs to all of us. Quebec is the mother diocese to a huge swath of both Canada and the United States.
So, welcome home.