French Catholicism - by Kevin Sweeney


The Catholic Church in New France was the heir of medieval traditions of western Christianity and an embodiment of the piety and fervor of the Counter Reformation. It was part of an institution that saw itself as the only legitimate, universal expression of the Christian faith and a close ally of the French state. It was both a missionary church that sought to convert Native peoples to Christianity and a parochial church that labored to preserve the Catholic faith among French colonists. Protestant New Englanders who were captured and taken to Canada encountered the Church in all of these forms.

The Catholic Faith

In 1500 the Catholic Church was the sole embodiment of institutionalized Christianity in Western Europe. At its head was the Pope in Rome, who was considered to be the successor to the apostle Peter and Christ’s representative on earth. He was the spiritual leader of the Church and the chief teacher in matters of doctrine. He also presided over a vast, hierarchical institution divided into dioceses presided over by bishops appointed by the Pope, and local parishes ministered to by priests. In addition there were religious communities of men and women, such as nuns and monks, who lived together under sets of rules. Laity – ordinary men and women – joined with the clergy in worship and prayer to bear witness to their faith and their love of God.

Teachings by Church leaders -- the Pope and the bishops – and ceremonies performed by parish priests played critical roles in the religious lives of lay men and women. Catholics believed that the word of God was the source of all religious truth and that the Bible and Church traditions were witnesses of God’s word. By expounding and upholding its doctrines and laws the Church sought to help people become holy and live lives faithful to God’s teachings. Ceremonies performed by priests provided conduits of God’s grace by which sins are forgiven and salvation obtained. There are seven of these ceremonies known as sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance (or Confession), Holy Orders, Marriage and Extreme Unction, the anointing of the sick. The most frequently performed was the Eucharist or Mass that is a celebration of the Lord’s Supper during which the priest changes bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood, presenting again Christ’s sacrifice for the faithful. Priests and ordinary men and women also sought God’s forgiveness and blessings by praying to holy persons related to God such as Mary the mother of Jesus and to saints, deceased men and women recognized by the Church for their devotion and piety.

The Protestant Reformation

The institutional monopoly of the Catholic Church in Western Europe was challenged and eventually shattered during the 1500s. New approaches to studying the New Testament in its original Greek, renewed emphasis on the doctrines of God’s sovereignty and grace, and what can only be characterized as power grabs by secular rulers led to challenges of the Church’s teachings and authority. Some Protestant clerics claimed that the Bible alone was the source of religious truth for Christians. Others placed emphasis on faith alone supplied by Gods’ free gift of grace, and they questioned rituals and practices of the Church which claimed to be conduits of grace. Rulers saw the secular power and wealth of the Church as threats and tempting targets. Beginning with the teachings of Martin Luther in Germany in the 1520s, challenges to the authority of the Pope as well as the teachings of the Church and its secular power spread to Switzerland, the Low Countries, France and eventually England and Scotland. By the mid 1500s, Protestantism had won the adherence of perhaps a million French men and women and 40% of the country’s nobility.

The Counter Reformation

The Counter Reformation is the name given to the Catholic Church’s response to the Protestant Reformation. The period of greatest activity stretched from the mid-1500s to the mid-1600s, but it drew upon a number of reformist impulses in the Church that began in the earlier 1500s, and its influence remained strong in the later 1600s and early 1700s. In addition to correcting institutional abuses, the reformation within the Church saw the clarification of matters of doctrine and discipline through the decrees of the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Clerical leaders as well as devout lay man and women sought to revitalize the Church though missionary and charitable work and by leading pious lives. At the same time, leaders of the resurgent Church and Catholic rulers sought to win back, by force if necessary, people and lands who had embraced Protestantism.

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King Louis XIV's revocation of the Edit of Nantes drove thousands of Protestants out of France and prohibited them from settling in French colonies.
Courtesy of the Canadian National Archives

The Catholic Church in France became an important center, perhaps the most outstanding expression, of the Counter Reformation. By the mid-1500s the gains by French Protestants, known as Hugeunots, were met by equally militant and determined Catholic leaders. This confrontation plunged the country into decades of civil war that led initially to a toleration of Protestants with the issue of the Edict of Nantes in 1598. But over time the reassertion of power by a strengthened Catholic monarchy eroded the freedoms of the Hugeunot community, a process that culminated in Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Expressions of Catholic piety led to the founding of new communities of priests and nuns which, unlike earlier religious orders, emphasized pastoral work among the laity instead of contemplative withdrawal from the world. Several of these religious orders such as the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) founded in 1534 and the Society of Priests of Saint Sulpice (the Sulpicians) founded in 1642, played prominent roles in the settlement of New France. They were joined in Canada by Nuns of Saint Ursala (the Ursulines), which had been established in 1535 and a new order of nuns, the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame, which was founded in Montreal in 1658 by Marguerite Bourgeoys.

French Missionaries

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This ornate, 17th-century ostensor, was used to hold the Host during Catholic Mass and is from the St. Francis Xavier Catholic church in the Kanienkehaka village of Kahnawake.
Courtesy Kahnawake Cultural Center, Kahnawake, Québec, Canada

In its beginning the Catholic Church in New France was a missionary Church. Missionaries preceded colonists who came to settle, accompanying the first explorers and fur traders. After initial efforts by Récollet missionaries, the Jesuits took the lead in establishing missions among the Wôbanakiak, Wendats (Hurons), and even the usually hostile Five Nations of the Iroquois League.

They were joined in the 1660s by the Sulpicians who became the landlords of the Island of Montreal and the missionaries to several villages of Natives living on the Island. Eventually, the Jesuits established missions among the Wôbanakiak at Odanak, the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) at Kahnawake, and the Wendats at Lorette while the Sulpicians ministered to Iroquois people living on the Island of Montreal at La Montagne and Sault-au-Récollet. These villages came to play a critical role in the defense of the geographically expansive but sparsely populated French colony. By the early 1700s there were approximately 2000 to 2500 Natives living in these villages along the Saint Lawrence.

Church and State in New France

The Catholic Church in New France served as an adjunct of the state. The official assumption was that all inhabitants of the colony were members of the Catholic Church, and faithful Catholics were assumed to be loyal subjects. Huguenots were forbidden to settle in New France, even though a few did. The government fixed the tithe and approved the establishment of new parishes. Government subsidies provided 30% to 40% of the Church’s revenues in New France. The head of the colony’s church, the bishop in Quebec, was appointed with the approval of the French government. He sat on the Sovereign Council that advised the governor-general and served as the colony’s highest court.

The Church provided many basic social services as well as spiritual guidance. Ideally, parish priests welcomed colonists into the world by baptizing them, performed their marriages and buried them when they died, though many rural parishes lacked resident priests during the late 1600s and early 1700s. Nuns, most notably the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame, the Ursulines, and Sisters of the Hospital of Saint Joseph taught children or ministered to the sick as did male members of some religious orders. Economically the church was also a formidable presence: it owned a quarter of the land in New France and was landlord to about a third of the colonists. Priests, nuns and other clerics constituted about 2% of the colony’s population; in Massachusetts clergymen were less than 0.2% of the population.

Popular Piety

People in New France, like those in France and New England, lived in a world shaped in fundamental ways by religious beliefs and practices. They saw the hand of Providence in blessings and disasters, and they looked to established religious rituals, private devotions, and practices that blended orthodox Catholicism with folk beliefs to protect and preserve themselves in an often dangerous and mysterious universe. They attended mass each Sunday and observed an additional 37 days of Holy Obligation when they were also expected to attend Mass and refrain from work. On the more important holy days, they joined religious processions. Priests also organized religious processions to bring needed rain and drive away insects. And during the 1690 siege of Quebec, the town’s residents invoked divine protection by attaching to their cathedral’s spire a large painting of the Holy Family, which became an irresistible target for Puritan New England gunners who wasted much powder and many cannon balls in a futile effort to destroy the Catholic image.

Personal religious devotions included daily prayers, special appeals to patron saints, votive offerings and pilgrimages. Men and women believed that prayers in Latin, a language most did not understand, had an inherent, almost magical power to protect and assist even in secular matters. Often prayers called for the mediation of the Virgin Mary or a particular saint with whom an individual or a parish had a special relationship to secure God’s assistance. In some instances, vows made during such prayers of supplication were marked by making votive offerings or commissioning votive paintings. There were also occasions where an individual would make a pilgrimage to a particular church to secure the assistance of the Virgin Mary or a saint. Not long after the construction of the first chapel of Saint Anne at Beaupré, in 1658, this shrine to the mariners’ patron, Mary’s mother, became the scene of miraculous cures and a destination for pilgrims. Observing all of this, one mid-eighteenth-century visitor to North America, the Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm, concluded that “The French, in their colonies, spend much more time in prayer and external worship; than the English, and Dutch settlers in the British colonies.” (1)

Further Reading

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