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François de Laval

François de Laval

Saint Francis-Xavier de Montmorency-Laval, commonly referred to as François de Laval (30 April 1623 – 6 May 1708), was the first Roman Catholic bishop of Quebec, appointed when he was 36 years old by Pope Alexander VII.

Laval was a member of the Montmorency family and was one of the most influential men of his day. He was a candidate for canonization by the Catholic Church after his death and was beatified in 1980 by Pope John Paul II. On 3 April 2014, Pope Francis made him a saint by "equipollent canonization".[1]

Saint François de Laval
Bishop of Québec
ArchdioceseHoly See
Appointed1 October 1674
Term ended24 January 1688
SuccessorJean-Baptiste de La Croix de Chevrières de Saint-Vallier
Ordination1 May 1647
Consecration8 December 1658
by Celio Piccolomini
Personal details
Born(1623-04-30)30 April 1623
Montigny-sur-Avre, Perche, Kingdom of France
Died6 May 1708(1708-05-06)(aged 85)
Quebec, Viceroyalty of New France, French colonial empire
DenominationRoman Catholic
ParentsHugues de Laval & Michelle de Péricard
Previous post
  • Vicar Apostolic of New France (1658–1674)
  • Titular Bishop of Petra in Palaestina (1658–1674)
SignatureSaint François de Laval's signature
Coat of armsSaint François de Laval's coat of arms
Feast day6 May
Venerated inRoman Catholic Church
Title as SaintBishop
Beatified22 June 1980
Vatican City,
by Pope John Paul II
Canonized3 April 2014
by Pope Francis
ShrinesNotre-Dame de Québec Cathedral, Quebec City, Quebec, Canada
Ordination history of
François de Laval
Priestly ordination
Date1 May 1647
Episcopal consecration
Principal consecratorCelio Piccolomini
Co-consecratorsHardouin de Péréfixe de Beaumont,
André du Saussay
Date8 December 1658

Early life

Laval was born on 30 April 1623 in Montigny-Sur-Avre in the ancient Province of Perche, now the Department of Eure-et-Loir.[2] His father, Hugues de Laval, a member of the House of Laval, was the Seigneur of Montigny, Montbaudry, Alaincourt and Revercourt.[3] His mother, Michelle de Péricard was from a family of hereditary officers of the Crown in Normandy.[3] Despite his noble descent, his parents were not considered to be wealthy. Montigny was considered equivalent to a good-sized market-town.[4] Laval had five other brothers and two sisters; two of these siblings would also pursue religious paths in life. His youngest brother, Henri, entered the Benedictine Order and his sister, Anne Charlotte, entered the Congregation of Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.[4]

Throughout his life, Laval's mother continuously served as an example of piety and encouraged him to be charitable to those who were less fortunate.[3] Often described as destined for an ecclesiastical lifestyle, Laval was quickly recognized as a clear-sighted and intelligent boy. As a result, he was admitted into the "privileged ranks of those who comprised the Congregation of the Holy Virgin."[5] This was a society founded by the Jesuits, who aimed to inspire young people to adopt religious lifestyles, and encouraged regular prayer and spiritual practices. At the age of eight, Laval received the tonsure and took minor orders, which then allowed him to enter the College of La Flèche in 1631.[4] This institution was attended by the sons of the elite families in France; hence, Laval was guaranteed a good education. Moreover, it was during this period that Laval came into contact with reports of the Jesuit missions amongst the Huron in Canada, which influenced his desire to become a missionary, like his patron saint, Francis Xavier.[4] In 1637, Laval was appointed a canon of the Cathedral of Évreux by the Bishop of Évreux.[5]

This position proved to be of key importance after the death of Laval's father in September 1636, which left his family in a precarious financial situation.[6] It allowed him to receive revenue from the prebend attached to the position, without which he would have been unable to continue his education.[6] Once he completed his classical education at the age of nineteen, Laval left La Flèche to further pursue his education in philosophy and theology at the College de Clermont in Paris.[4]

Laval's plans were put on hold due to the death of his two eldest brothers; one having fallen at Freiburg and the other at Nordlingen, which effectively made him the head of the family[7] At this point, Laval was faced with the decision of abandoning his ecclesiastical career to take over his father's estate: "bringing him [...] together with a great name, a brilliant future."[7] In fact, his mother, the Bishop of Évreux, and his cousin all attempted to convince him to leave Paris and return home.[7] Nonetheless, Laval would not succumb to his family's pressure. Laval helped his mother set the family's affairs in order and arranged for a full renunciation of his rights of primogeniture, which would then be transferred to his brother Jean-Louis.[8]

Once this was complete, Laval returned to Paris where he delved into his studies and began the process of preparing himself to receive holy orders. On 1 May 1647, at the age of twenty four, Laval was ordained a priest.[9] Soon after this, the Bishop of Évreux began to feel remorse for his previous attempt to convince Laval to abandon his ecclesial path; hence, he decided to appoint him as the archdeacon of his diocese in December 1647.[4] This post required Laval to oversee the affairs of 155 parishes and four chapels. Laval was said to approach this task with fervour and enthusiasm.[4] In the following years, he devoted himself to establishing order in the parishes, providing relief for the poor, caring for the sick and engaging in different kinds of charitable activities. This same behaviour would be seen later on in his life, on a completely different continent.

Laval had dreamt of becoming a missionary to travel and preach the Gospel. When he was presented with the possibility of serving as a missionary in Asia, he resigned from his post as archdeacon in 1654.[10] Indeed, the noted Jesuit missionary, Alexandre de Rhodes, was looking for the Pope's permission to appoint candidates as Vicars Apostolic in Tonkin and Indochina.[4] He was sent to Rome where he remained for fifteen months.[10] Opposition by the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, which oversaw the missionary work of the Catholic Church, and that of the Portuguese royal court jeopardized the mission which led to the project being discarded in 1654.[4]

Laval was now freed from all responsibility, and thus made the decision to prepare himself "by prayer, for the designs which God might have for him."[10] He traveled to Caen to stay at a spiritual retreat known as the Hermitage, operated by Jean de Bernières de Louvigny, who, though a layman, was a leader in the reform of the Catholic Church in France.[11] He also made the acquaintance of the founder's nephew, Henri de Bernières, who would later be an invaluable assistant in his work.

Laval remained there for three years, devoting himself to prayer and charitable activity. It is also during this time that he took on the responsibility of reforming a monastery whose morals were thought to be too lax, as well as becoming the administrator of two monasteries of nuns.[4] His dedication to these projects earned him commendation from François de Servien, the Bishop of Bayeux, who described him as a priest of great piety, prudent and of unusually great competence in business matters, [who had set] fine examples of virtue.[4] Laval was now well known in the religious community and ready to take the next step in his life.

Father of the Canadian Church

François de Laval

François de Laval

Laval's nomination as a bishop for New France was the result of increasing tensions regarding the ecclesiastical state of the colony. New France had been left without a bishop for the first 50 years of its settlement. During this time, spiritual matters were often left up to the colony religious officials to regulate, with authority moving from the Recollects to the Jesuits. Only in 1646, due to pressures from Rome, did the Archbishop of Rouen become officially recognized as the immediate authority over the Church in New France.[12] Even with this recognition, the archbishop's authority continued to extend only so far as granting faculties to clergy traveling to the colony.[12] By this time it had already become clear that New France was in need of a more immediate ecclesiastical presence.[13]

Appointing a bishop proved difficult; it was a contentious issue, particularly between the Jesuits and the newly arrived Sulpicians.[13] The Jesuits, who by this time were quite accustomed to working independently, feared being controlled by a Sulpician bishop.[14] Their uneasiness stemmed from beliefs that a Sulpician bishop would undermine their control, and eventually lead to the subordination of the Church to the Crown.[13] While the Sulpicians were busy proposing one of their own, Gabriel Thubières de Levy de Queylus, as bishop, the Jesuits turned their support to Laval. With the assistance of the Queen Mother, Anne of Austria, obtaining royal approval provided little challenge.[15]

What remained an obstacle for the Jesuits and Laval was procuring a papal confirmation.[16] The Holy See remained reserved regarding Laval's nomination. Much of Rome's delay in coming to a decision involved the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.[4] They agreed with the Jesuits that a bishop was needed, however, they feared that Laval as bishop would enable the Jesuits to once again hold a monopoly over the colony. In a compromise between the Jesuits and the Holy See, Laval would be appointed the Apostolic Vicar of New France.[17] Making New France into an apostolic vicariate, rather than a diocese, guaranteed that the head, in this case Laval, answered to the pope rather than the leaders of the Church in France, giving the pope some jurisdiction in the colony.[18] Along with being made vicar apostolic, Laval would be ordained a bishop in partibus, giving him the power he needed to build the Church in Canada.[18]

On 3 June 1658 in Rome, the papal bulls appointing Laval as vicar apostolic were signed. Laval became the Bishop of Petraea in partibus infidelium ("in the lands of the unbelievers").[16] On 8 December 1658, in the church of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, Laval was consecrated the Vicar Apostolic of Quebec by the papal nuncio, Cardinal Celio Piccolomini.[19] Laval took an oath of loyalty to the king and sailed from La Rochelle for New France on 13 April 1659.[4] On 16 June of that year he arrived at Quebec.[4] Immediately upon his arrival Laval began his work; on the same day his ship docked, he baptized a young Huron and gave a dying man his last sacraments.

While small in size, the colony still provided a number of challenges to Laval.[4] He found himself having to make concessions where he never thought to before to a population that, while scarce, was spread out, and was less inclined to continue under strict church discipline.[20] Additionally, he had to deal with the Sulpician Abbé de Queylus, who had already been operating in the colony as Vicar General, under the authority of the Archbishop of Rouen, who continued to claim complete ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the colony. Queylus continued to assert his own authority for nearly two years, during which time Laval repeatedly had to appeal both to the king and to the Holy See for support. In 1674, fifteen years after his arrival to New France, Laval asked that the territory be made into a fully independent diocese. His request was granted, and he was appointed the first Bishop of Quebec.[21]

Laval and state relations

Laval struggled a great deal throughout his career to defend the church's power against state intrusion. Upon his arrival, Laval was adamant in asserting his primacy over the governor.[21] He was immediately in opposition with Governor d’Argenson, particularly regarding ceremony and protocol.[21] Also, the issue of selling alcohol to the natives furthered fueled their feud. Laval believed that intoxicated natives were an embarrassment to the colony and endangered the lives of those around them.[22] He quickly imposed the threat of excommunication on those who continued to deal in this trade. Governor D’Argenson abhorred this action, deeming it an intrusion of church into state affairs.[22] D’Argenson soon resigned and was replaced by d’Avaugour, who, in order to avoid any conflict with Laval, decreed harsh penalties against anyone caught selling alcohol to the natives.[22] Again, Laval was displeased, believing that excommunication was a far more humane consequence. When alcohol was again being sold freely to natives, in a moment of despair over the state of New France, Laval departed for France in August 1662 to consult with Louis XIV on the matter.[22] Laval succeeded in bringing about d’Avaugour's recall the following year.[23]

When Laval returned to New France he had increased powers. King Louis XIV had assured Laval that he would have a future appointment as bishop, requested that he establish a Sovereign Council in Quebec, and even asked Laval to choose New France's next governor.[24] For governor, Laval chose Chevalier de Mézy, a friend from his time at the Hermitage of Caen.[24] In the developing Sovereign Council, which held its first session 18 September 1663, Mézy represented the first figure of authority, followed by Laval, and Gaudais-Dupon, commissioner.[25] Laval appointed Mézy hoping to have an ally among high-ranking state official. In the trade of alcohol to the natives he did find in Mézy an ally; together the two forbade the trading of alcohol.[25] However, constituting the Sovereign Council revealed that the two represented conflicting interests in matters of church and state. Soon, another conflict between Laval and governor ensued, leading Laval to take to the streets with drums to tell his version of the feud.[26] Upon Mézy's death, the Sovereign council was reorganized. Intendant Jean Talon was added, and immediately assumed the functions previously exercised by Laval.[26] With this change in the council Laval began to attend the council's meetings less frequently; from then on Laval retreated somewhat from state affairs and focused purely on ecclesiastical matters.[26]

The one issue Laval never relented with, however, was the trade of alcohol to the natives. Once he was appointed bishop, he revisited his original cause. In 1675, Laval, despite Governor Frontenac's resistance on the matter, proceeded to excommunicate all who sold alcohol to the natives.[27] On 24 May 1679 Laval succeeded in obtaining a royal decree banning the trade.[4]

The Séminaire de Québec

As bishop, Laval was arguably one of the ultimate sources of authority in New France. However, his dream was not only to expand the Catholic Church in New France, but also to train and teach its future leaders.[28] On 26 March 1663, the Grand Séminaire was opened in Quebec, and thus the Séminaire de Quebec was born. Its main goal was to train missionary priests and it was affiliated with Laval's own institution, the Séminaire des Missions Étrangères, in Paris.[29] A few years later, in October 1668, Laval also attached a petit séminaire to this institution. It was meant to train boys, amongst whom would be chosen those with vocations to priesthood[28] and natives were welcome.[29] When it opened, only eight French students and six Huron were present, due to a lack of teachers. However, shortly after its opening, a considerable number of French missionaries arrived in the colony, especially Sulpicians, whose commitment was to providing this education.[30] Laval wanted these teachers to spread the word that his institution was to establish a sense of charity and love for religion in the colony and not another source of law or authority.[31]

Laval's view of the Grand Séminaire was greater than a mere teaching academy. He hoped that it would become a home for all parochial priests. Laval encouraged them to see it as their true home and as a place to which they may turn to in sickness or old age.[28] Furthermore, he wanted the seminary to become a paymaster for all priests and parishes, which meant that it had to be well funded. In order to accomplish this feat, Laval donated most of his own fortune to the seminary since it had now become his home as well.[32] He also convinced the king, Louis XIV, to give him the income of three different abbeys in France. Moreover, since his institution was expected to pay off all priests, Laval thought it would be normal to receive the incomes levied by their parishes. This idea was however met with a lot of resistance from the population, which was not accustomed to contributing to the upkeep of religious institutions. His original goal of demanding a tax worth one-thirteenth of the produce of farms was met with violent resistance, which forced him to reduce it to one-twenty-sixth.[33]

After firmly establishing his seminary, Laval did share a large part of his administrative work with other religious figures, thus slowly developing the church. He appointed his young companion from France, Henri de Bernières, the pastor of Quebec, at the head of the seminary, thus closely linking it with the Parish of Quebec. Furthermore, he also appointed five other directors who would form the bishop's advisory body.[33] In 1668 he appointed the previously troublesome de Queylus as the first Superior of a new seminary in Ville-Marie.

Laval also took interest in practical education for craftsmen and farmers, founding a school of arts and crafts at Saint-Joachim.[33]

Late years

Since his arrival in the colony of New France, Laval insisted on establishing and organizing a parochial system, on top of training priests in the colony itself. In 1678, he had obtained an edict from the king stating that permanent curacies will be set up in the colony. A few years later, in 1681, Laval drew up the boundaries of parishes in an attempt to permanently solidify the Church's position. Often visiting each parish, Laval eventually realised that his health was declining and that he could no longer run his large diocese, which extended from Acadia to Lake Michigan. As a result, in 1688, he passed on his responsibilities as a bishop to Jean-Baptiste de La Croix de Chevrières de Saint-Vallier.[34]

Laval continued to collaborate with the colony's high religious authorities, until his very last days. He helped the poor with his presence and his gifts of charity. He never missed a Mass or a day of fasting, despite his ever declining health. By 1707, he had developed an ulcer which eventually took his life on 6 May 1708.[35] His body was placed in a coffin in the cathedral; however his heart was kept in the chapel of the seminary to which he had dedicated most of his life and fortune.[36]


Laval's remains have been entombed in a shrine for public veneration in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Quebec, which he had founded. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980. He was granted "equipollent canonization" on 3 April 2014 by Pope Francis.

Laval University, founded 1852, was named in his honor. The city of Laval, Quebec, north of Montreal, is also named after him.[37]


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