BABEL, LOUIS (named at birth Louis-François), priest, Oblate of Mary Immaculate, missionary, linguist, geographer, and explorer; b. 23 June 1826 in Veyrier, Switzerland, son of Joseph Babel, a postilion, and Françoise Jovet; d. 1 March 1912 in Pointe-Bleue, Que.
After attending school in Fribourg and Mélan, Switzerland, Louis Babel entered the noviciate of Notre-Dame-de-l’Osier in France on 4 May 1847. He made his final vows on 8 May 1848 and then undertook theological studies, first in Marseilles, and from 1849 to 1851 in Maryvale, near Birmingham, England. He was sent to Canada in 1851 and was ordained to the priesthood in Bytown (Ottawa) by Bishop Joseph-Bruno Guigues* on 27 July 1851.
At Father Babel’s request, his superiors assigned him to the mission among the Montagnais. Stationed initially at Grande-Baie in the Saguenay region of Lower Canada, he was sent in 1853 to Les Escoumins. There he met Father Charles Arnaud, who was to be his companion in evangelism for almost 60 years. Because of his robust health, zeal, and facility with languages, Babel was ideally suited for the arduous work awaiting him in these regions. Every year the two missionaries would cover more than 1,560 miles on foot or by canoe to reach their flock, which included both whites and Indians scattered along the north shore of the St Lawrence from the mouth of the Saguenay to Tête-à-la-Baleine. In the opinion of Abbé Roger Boily, who replaced them in 1862, Babel and Arnaud had done a remarkable job. “On arriving in Les Escoumins, I found a population well disposed to continue putting into practice the good lessons taught by the reverend Oblate fathers . . . ,” he noted. “How, indeed, could one not become attached to such worthy missionaries? Their virtues, their piety, and especially their zeal could not fail to draw even the most rebellious hearts.”
It was a hard blow for Babel when in the summer of 1862 his superiors sent him from Les Escoumins to Notre-Dame-du-Désert (Maniwaki), rather than to Betsiamites, the new centre of the Montagnais mission. The transfer was made because of his administrative talents. Although he no longer had to brave the perils of the sea, he had to learn a new native language, Algonkin, and become familiar with all the trades, including those of bursar, builder, and farmer.
Babel stayed among the Algonkin only four years, however. In 1866 he rejoined Arnaud at Betsiamites, where he remained until 1911. In addition to working among the Montagnais, he played a major role in the Oblates’ missionary efforts. For many years Bishop Charles-François Baillargeon* of Quebec and the Oblates had dreamed of reaching the Naskapi in the interior of Labrador, and, if possible, the Inuit. Arnaud had already made several attempts, but without success. In 1866 Babel was assigned the task of setting up a mission among the Naskapi at Baie des Esquimaux (Hamilton Inlet), some 1,250 miles from Quebec. This arm of the sea extends inland about 50 miles, and the Hudson’s Bay Company had a post in the interior at Rigolet. Babel left Quebec on 30 April 1866 for Mingan, where he was to board the company’s steamship. However, the ship did not show up and on 18 July he set out for the bay with two men by an overland route. They encountered many obstacles. “There is nothing but mountains, swamps, and lakes jumbled together,” he wrote, and the travellers were constantly attacked by swarms of mosquitoes. They finally reached Winokapau, an HBC post more than 500 miles from Mingan, where they planned to replenish their supplies. But the post was deserted and Babel’s two companions refused to go on. He had no choice but to return to Mingan. Arriving on 29 August he gave this account: “The journey that I have just finished was made under the most unfavourable conditions; 1. I had only one capable man, the other was a scrofulous youth of 16 or 17 . . . ; 2. Neither of them knowing the way, and having only a hastily drawn Indian map to go by, we lost considerable time around a number of lakes, in order to find the entrance to the portages; 3. My tent and many of my effects, as well as my canoe, were too heavy; 4. . . . in 43 days of walking, we had 27 rainy days; 5. The total want of supplies for half of the return journey.”
In spite of these difficulties, Babel was not discouraged. Strengthened by his experience, he undertook to go to Baie des Esquimaux the following year. On 9 July 1867 he left Mingan, this time aboard the HBC steamship. When he got to Rigolet he met some Inuit, but found that they were all Protestants full of prejudice against Roman Catholic priests. He pushed farther inland to North West River, about 90 miles from Rigolet. Here, after two weeks, he baptized 15 adults and 7 children. He then headed west towards Lac Petitsikapau, where there were many Naskapi. He spent three days there, baptized a few children, and set out once more, along with two men, in the direction of Mingan. He covered more than 500 miles in 33 days of dreadful weather, with companions who were on the verge of leaving him at any moment, long portages (sometimes in more than a foot of snow), and insufficient supplies. He got back on 19 October.
In 1868 Babel went to Baie des Esquimaux for what would be the last time. On his next two journeys, in 1869 and 1870, he was unable to travel so far. Every year thereafter until 1889 he visited the missions along the north shore of the St Lawrence. From 1890, because of his age, he would undertake no more long expeditions.
His attempts to preach the gospel to the Naskapi and Inuit made Babel, indirectly, the first scientific explorer of northeastern Quebec. A tireless chronicler, a meticulous observer, and a well-informed scientist, he was the first to report iron ore in what was to become New Quebec. His descriptions of lakes, rivers, rapids, and portages, his meticulous observations on the nature of the soil and the forest, and his constant reporting on climatic and meteorological conditions make his travel journals of particular scientific value. During his 1868 journey, for instance, he used the Rochon telescope, also called the telescope for measuring distances, to give brief descriptions of the places he visited, and he provided copious and detailed data about the size of the lakes, the direction in which the rivers flowed, the length of the portages, and the direction and velocity of the winds, taking care to add the time at which he made these observations. In 1873 the Quebec Department of Crown Lands published a large map based on his data, the first one to describe the interior of Labrador. It would prove a reliable and valuable scientific guide for both missionaries and explorers. Babel’s contribution to the knowledge of native languages also deserves mention. He was the author of a French-Montagnais dictionary, which is still in manuscript form, and wrote notes which were to be used in preparing a Montagnais grammar.
Babel is remembered as a great missionary because of his total dedication to the evangelization and welfare of the aboriginal peoples, and as a model religious because of his self-sacrifice, courage, detachment, and promptness in carrying out the difficult tasks assigned to him. Unlike Father Arnaud, who was known for his gentleness, Babel was stern, uncommunicative, and rough-mannered. These traits created many problems for him in his relations with colleagues and church members, and earned him the nickname given him by the Montagnais, Ka Kushkueltitak, “he who meditates.”
Father Babel would never see his native village of Veyrier again. After 60 years of missionary work, mainly among the Montagnais, he ended his days in Pointe-Bleue. In 1948 his remains, as well as those of Arnaud, were brought to Betsiamites. A monument was erected to his memory in Schefferville in 1970, and his name was given to a township in the Saguenay region and a mountain in the region of Lac Plétipi.
The following manuscripts by Father Louis Babel are preserved in the Arch. Deschâtelets, Oblats de Marie-Immaculée (Ottawa): HEB 1113.L88C, no.4 (instructions sur les grandes vérités à l’occasion des missions); HEB 1113.L88S, no.1 (sermons donnés à Musquapo à l’époque de la “mission” de tous les Indiens de la Côte-Nord); HR 1026.M75R, no.11 (notes utiles pour servir à composer une grammaire montagnaise); no.16 (dictionnaire français-montagnais); and HR 1029.M75R, nos.10, 12, 14, 25 (sermons et instructions en montagnais). Also available there, at HEB 1113.L88 (fonds Babel), are copies of several of Babel’s published reports and letters, along with copies of numerous journal articles concerning him. Babel’s account of his travels, a copy of which is also available at the Arch. Deschâtelets, has been published by Huguette Tremblay as Journal des voyages de Louis Babel, 1866–1868 (Montréal, 1977).
Of the monographs and journal articles that are devoted to Babel, or that mention him, the most important are Gaston Carrière, Dictionnaire biographique des oblats de Marie-Immaculée au Canada (4v., Ottawa, 1976–89), 1: 39–40, Explorateur pour le Christ: Louis Babel, o.m.i., 1826–1912 (Montréal, 1963), and Histoire documentaire de la Congrégation des missionnaires oblats de Marie-Immaculée dans l’est du Canada (12v., Ottawa, 1957–75), 8: 111–354; E. H. Bovay, Le Canada et les Suisses, 1604–1974 (Fribourg, Suisse, 1976), 74–78; Alain Rastoin, Ashuanipi: sur la piste des Indiens du Québec-Labrador (Paris, 1983); “Louis Babel, 1826–1912,” Missions de la Congrégation des missionnaires oblats de Marie-Immaculée (Rome), 51 (1913): 566–74; and the following articles in La Bannière de Marie-Immaculée (Ottawa): François Poncet, “Le père Babel,