Brother André’s Catholic Church helped build today’s Quebec

Frère André (1845-1937)

The canonization this week of Quebec’s Brother André (Bessette) reopened a window on Quebec’s largely forgotten, yet recent, past.
In the times before the Quiet Revolution, French Quebec relied for its survival on clerical personnel to operate the schools and hospitals, and on a very high birthrate to sustain its demographic proportion of Canada. There was almost no capital formation in French Quebec, and the people advanced from generation to generation by recourse to prodigies of faith and self-help. The Caisses Populaires Desjardins developed, attached to almost every Roman Catholic parish in Quebec, as a chain of co-operative credit unions, enabling each parochial unit of society to pool resources to assist worthwhile local enterprises.
There was great emphasis on co-operation: a social animation technique in which energy and élan were substituted for traditional capital. It is customary to denigrate all this now, as clericalized, superstitious hokum, the antiquated mores of a primitive society.
Brother André was one of 10 surviving children born in a little rural house about 20 miles east of Montreal in 1845. The children were parceled out to relatives after their parents had both died by the time André was 12. He was brought up by an aunt, and emigrated to New England to work in a textile mill making uniforms for the Union Army in the Civil War. He returned when Canadian Confederation was established and became a brother of the Holy Cross order. Despite frail health and imperfect literacy, he became the porter at Notre Dame College in Côte-des-Neiges, Montreal, starting in 1874, and continuing in that function for over 40 years. The most famous of the students that he tended in this capacity would be Maurice Duplessis, Quebec’s leading political personality for a whole generation starting in the early 1930s, and the province’s only five-term premier.
Brother André, though indifferently educated, became steadily more famous for his amiable religious fervour, helpfulness, diligence and the frequent medically inexplicable recovery to good health of sick parishioners of the college church whom he visited and comforted. He denied with great vehemence that he possessed any healing powers, but his canonization results from his having, after exhaustive scientific research, been judged the responsible intermediary for authentic miracles.
His fame spread, and in 1904, he used his ever growing renown to sponsor a chapel to St. Joseph on Mount Royal in Montreal. The first chapel was little more than a hillside wooden shed, but it was succeeded by more substantial structures until the immense basilica oratory that crowns Montreal now arose from the contributions of the faithful. The exterior was largely complete when Brother André died in January 1937, aged 91. One million mourners, led by the recently installed premier Duplessis, participated in the obsequies — about a quarter of the whole French population of Quebec. Duplessis personally paid for André’s marble sarcophagus, and at the ceremony that began the canonization process in 1955, Duplessis spoke to a huge audience on the slope of Mount Royal from the doors of the oratory and concluded his remarks by turning to Montreal’s formidable archbishop, Paul-Émile Cardinal Leger, and said: “Brother André endured me as a student for 10 years, and please advise His Holiness the Pope that for that, he deserves, alone and at least, to be crowned a saint at the side of his friend, St. Joseph.”
It need hardly be emphasized how far into memory the ethos of that time has receded in Quebec, and certainly, modernization was required. I have discussed in this space before the excesses of the Quiet Revolution mythology, and have made the point that Duplessis’ long regime was not the Great Darkness that has been claimed and believed. It built 3,000 schools, most of Quebec’s universities and hospitals, roads and autoroutes, brought electricity to rural areas, and vastly improved social services, precisely because the government could pay very modest wages and salaries to un-unionized, un-avaricious, clerical personnel, fiercely dedicated like Brother André, avoiding debt and stimulating prosperity and economic activity with low taxes. It was a unique blend of traditional Quebec faith-based spiritually inspired self-help, with what would 30 years later be called supply-side industrialization.
It worked well in its time, and produced the greatest economic growth and political stability in Quebec’s history, but it could not long survive the death in office of its architect. And Duplessis’ Quebec certainly was priest-ridden and lubricated by an official patronage system that was incompatible with contemporary Western political science by the 1960s, though it was less heavy-handedly capricious than the 39-year Liberal regime that had preceded it.
Among the reasons for Duplessis’ unprecedented political and economic success was that he was the first Quebec leader to force the federal government to respect the British North America Act’s attribution of a concurrent federal-provincial jurisdiction over direct taxes, to enforce absolutely the provincial prerogative over property, civil rights and social programs, and to exalt the provincial government over the Roman Catholic Church in the organization of Quebec society. One of his more famous lines was “The bishops eat from my hand,” not a reflection that any of his predecessors could have said, both because it was not, in their cases, accurate, and because it would have been political suicide. The Quiet Revolution was made possible because Maurice Duplessis created, retrieved, and preserved the provincial secular authority to enact it.
This is not the place for a reprise of the balance sheet of the ancien regime in Quebec, but I remind readers that, apart from preserving the language and almost all social services in French Quebec for 350 years from the times of Champlain to the Quiet Revolution, the Church in Quebec rendered great service to the unity of Canada. Cardinal Leger’s predecessor as leader of the Quebec Church, J.-M. Rodrigue Cardinal Villeneuve, advised prime minister Mackenzie King to recruit Louis S. St. Laurent to replace the dying Ernest Lapointe as Quebec federal Liberal leader in 1941, and suppressed anti-war clergy, stating with his full and imposing authority in 1942, inter alia: “Damned be war, but let us thank God for the opportunity and sacred duty to sacrifice all, including our blood, to the salvation of civilization from the enemies of God and man.” (His successor as archbishop of Quebec, Maurice Cardinal Roy, was on active duty, achieving the rank of general, and was chaplain general of the Canadian armed forces.)
The trajectory of Quebec history these last 50 years was highlighted by these four utterances last week, while Quebec observed the elevation of Brother André:
First, the egregious charlatan Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Québécois, told a handful of Washington think-tank luncheoners that the independence of Quebec, what Duplessis called “the scandalous profanation of separatism,” was imminent. It isn’t.
Second, federal Conservative MP and former cabinet minister Maxime Bernier told the Albany Club in Toronto that Canada should go back to the middle constitutional way embodied by Duplessis (without naming the man). That means provincial control of its allotted jurisdictions within Confederation: education, and social programs, with the taxing power to execute them, within a renewed Confederation rescued from the bipolarity of separatism and over-centralization. It should.
Third, Montreal financier De Wolfe Shaw wrote in the Montreal Gazette that if the Quebec nationalists had not frightened hundreds of thousands of people out of Quebec since 1960, Quebec would have no deficit. This is true.
And fourth, former Quebec finance minister Raymond Garneau, at the observation of the 40th anniversary of the murder of Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte in the October Crisis of 1970, stated that to “see the assassin Paul Rose interviewed on the CBC French network, one could believe that murderers were victims and victims murderers.”
The Great Darkness was not dark, and the Quiet Revolution was not quiet. Napoleon famously said: “History is lies agreed upon.” Henry Ford, of all people, said: “History is bunk.” In Quebec today, they would both be correct, and this is an unhealthy thing in any society.
National Post

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