Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 2, 2005
Defender of the faith revered
Paris-born Jesuit wove Catholicism into the fabric of Quebec
Blessed Francois Laval — Memorial Day May 6
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Quebec City, Que
Prominently displayed on the south choir wall of the ancient abbey church of St-Germain-des-Pres on Paris's left bank is a hand carved, polychrome bas-relief that commemorates an important event in the history of Canada and the Canadian Church.
The scene portrayed is the consecration there of new Bishop Francois de Montmorency-Laval by Rome's Papal Nuncio on Dec. 8, 1658.
Who was this cleric and why is he remembered there rather than in a cathedral?
Since its founding in 1608, the city of Quebec and all of New France (Canada) had been under the ecclesiastical authority of the bishop of the Normandy Diocese of Rouen. Then in mid-century, when a diocese was suggested for the colony, two groups proposed different candidates, Montreal Recollects desiring continued close connections with Rouen, while Quebec Jesuits wished their see to be autonomous.
This rivalry resulted in the surreptitious St-Germain consecration and a direct order from France's Queen Regent to install Francois de Montmorency-Laval, born in Chartres Diocese near Paris and ordained a Jesuit in 1647, as Quebec's first bishop.
Thus, in June 16, 1659, Laval sailed for Quebec to begin an outstanding career as one of the great powers and movers of New France.
His posting to Quebec occasioned a dramatic change in his personality. He suddenly became a stalwart defender of the faith, in almost constant conflict with the civil authorities there.
He built Notre-Dame-des Victoires Church in the lower town, founded a seminary to train clergy to serve the colony's people, fought vigorously in opposition to the state-authorized sale of liquor to native people, and insisted on Church precedence over government in several areas.
On the other hand, he was admired for his piety and charity and his personal austerities, usually appearing in worn vestments. He advocated recitation of the rosary, fasted, slept little and was a vigorous proponent of family values.
Worn out by his labours, Laval retired to little St-Joachim in 1688 and dedicated his remaining 20 years to charitable works. On May 6, 1708 the bishop died there. Initially he was interred in the cathedral that he had consecrated 42 years before as North America's first parish church.
Later, after his remains had been venerated for years in the seminary he founded, a special chapel was constructed in the cathedral to make his tomb more accessible to the public.
Inaugurated in 1993, it contains a reclining bronze figure of Blessed Laval wearing full bishop's vestments, with mitre and crozier. Next to the funeral chapel, the Centre d'animation Francois-de-Laval recreates, with artifacts and illustrations, the life of the good bishop.
The presence of Laval seems to pervade old Quebec City. For example, visitors ascending the Cote de la Montagne from the lower town are greeted at the top by a monumental sculpture of him, arms extended in a benevolent, welcoming pose.
Artist Louis-Philippe Herbert designed the statue in 1908 for the bicentennial of Laval's death. Overlooking Parc Montmorency, he is portrayed as the Good Shepherd, speaking to an allegorical group at his feet representing his educational and evangelical achievements.
Further afield, he is remembered in the name of a city, a university and the impressive Montmorency Falls near Quebec City.
In 1956, the church that he built became a primatial church, seat of the metropolitan archbishop of Quebec, primate of the Canadian Church, currently Cardinal Marc Ouellet. Francois Laval was beatified on June 22, 1980 by Pope John Paul II and the cause for his sainthood is being actively promoted in his Canadian Church.
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