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Catholic Heroes… St. Francis De Laval

May 2, 2019 saints No Comments


The Jesuit North American martyrs who left France in the early seventeenth century to convert the native peoples of America were a great inspiration to the next generation of faithful Catholics, who were eager to serve in the work of evangelization. On April 30 the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Marie of the Incarnation, who founded the first convent of the Ursuline Sisters in New France around 1645.
Those Jesuits also motivated St. Francis Xavier de Montmorency Laval to seek his vocation in the New World, becoming the first bishop of Quebec in the late seventeenth century.
Laval was born on April 30, 1623 in Montigny-sur-Avre, around 100 miles west of Paris. Hughes de Laval, the Lord of Montigny, Montbaudry, Alaincourt, and Revercourt, was his father. Michelle de Péricard, descended from the heredity officers of the Crown of Normandy was his mother.
With such a noble lineage, the Laval family, however, was not wealthy. Francis, his five brothers, and two sisters received a fine Catholic upbringing — Henri, Francis’ youngest brother, became the prior of a Benedictine abbey, while his sister, Anne Charlotte, became the superior of the congregation of Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
Michelle Péricard provided a pious model for the children of being generous to those less fortunate. Francis’ parents destined him for a religious vocation, having him take the tonsure when he was only eight years old. Then the Jesuits accepted him into their school from 1631 to 1641.
During this time several things happened to further his ecclesiastical career. Sadly, his father died on September 11, 1936, leaving the family near poverty. Then, in 1637, Bishop Francis de Péricard of Evreux, who was an uncle of Francis, appointed him canon of the cathedral. This appointment provided just enough income to enable Francis to continue his studies for the priesthood.
Thus Francis soon moved to Paris where he studied philosophy and theology at the College of Clermont. He was forced to take leave when his two oldest brothers died in battle. Because he was the next in line as the heir, he returned home to organize the family’s patrimony. Both his mother and the bishop urged Francis to abandon his vocational aspirations, but he refused.
Having transferred all rights of inheritance to his brother, Jean-Louis, Francis returned to Clermont to continue his formation. He was ordained subdeacon in 1646, and on May 1, 1647, he was ordained a priest.
In December 1647 the bishop of Evreux gave Fr. Laval the responsibility of overseeing 155 parishes and four chapels. Enthusiastically he took on this challenge as he brought order to parish administration. He also promoted the corporal works of mercy by caring for the sick, assisting the poor, and establishing other charitable endeavors.
In 1649 Francis earned his licentiate in canon law from the University of Paris, where he learned even more about the Jesuits and their work in New France. The fervor of these Frenchmen stimulated his desire to serve the people of the New World.
Then Alexandre de Rhodes influenced him to go to Rome to prepare for missionary work in Tonkin and Indochina. Although he resigned his position and spent fifteen months preparing for the work, the project was abandoned in 1654.
Fr. Laval then went to Caen where he stayed for three years in prayer, discernment, and charitable works. The bishop of Bayeux, impressed with his work, wrote of Laval: “great piety, prudent, and of unusually great competence in business matters.” His reputation as a man of holiness and ability spread through France and beyond.
There was a good deal of conflict and political maneuvering to find a vicar for Quebec. Difficulties prevailed — did France or Rome have ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Quebec?
Some feared the Jesuits would control the operation of the colony if the right man was not selected. These problems were solved when Rome finally issued the papal bull on June 3, 1658 selecting Francis as the ecclesiastical head of Quebec.
Fr. Laval’s consecration as “bishop in Partibus” took place at the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris on December 8, 1658. On June 19, 1659, Bishop Laval arrived in Quebec; that very day he baptized a Huron youth and administered the last sacraments to a dying man.
The man who had been acting as vicar general in France challenged Laval’s authority, causing unrest in the colony for over two years. For the next fifteen years, Francis also faced struggles with the secular authority, Governor d’Argenson, especially over the practice of selling alcohol to the Native Americans. In August 1662 Laval went to France to consult with King Louis XIV on the problem of selling alcohol with the successor governor, Governor d’Avaugour, who was then recalled.
With increased powers and influence, his nominees for governor and the nomination of Chevalier de Mézy for the new Sovereign Council were approved. However, the same conflict of selling alcohol arose again. When Jean Talon became head of the Sovereign Council upon Mézy’s death, peace returned and Laval focused more on Church matters.
The sale of alcohol continued to be a problem, but was finally settled when a royal decree banning the sale was issued on May 24, 1679.
Francis also had to deal with many other difficulties arising between the state and ecclesiastical authorities. Even within the Church community conflicts of authority and jurisdiction arose. All parties involved did agree that Laval was a man of uncommon holiness and ability. He gave his meager income to the sick and poor. When epidemics spread from the incoming ships to the people of Quebec, Laval ministered to the suffering for long hours, regardless of the risk he was taking.
His clothes were worn out, his food simple, and his housing basic. His heart was overflowing with love for the children of God. To better save the people and increase the supply of priests, he planned to establish the first seminary in New France. On March 26, 1663 the King of France approved the project.
The Quebec Seminary needed funding, to which Laval pledged his livelihood, gathered donations from other people, and finally reached an agreement with the parishes to contribute a certain percentage of their collections to the cause.
This institution was meant to provide much more than classes of formation. It would provide priests to serve the people of New France, a home base from which priests would graduate, and a place to which they were welcome to return when in need of respite, health care, or retirement.
Laval also set up permanent curacies and established parish boundaries. He regularly visited each parish to solidify the Church’s position, but his health began to fail in 1707 with an incurable ulcer. He died on May 6, 1708 and his body was interred at the cathedral.
His feast is celebrated on May 6.
Dear St. Francis de Laval, you helped establish and strengthen the Church in a pagan world with your perseverance and charity. Obtain for us today the grace with which we, too, will persevere in the New Evangelization and the care of our neighbors in need. Amen.

+ + +

(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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