BENOIT, PAUL (baptized Joseph-Paul-Augustin), Roman Catholic priest, member of the Canons Regular of the Immaculate Conception, professor, writer, and colonizing missionary; b. 14 Jan. 1850 in Les Nans, France, son of Charles Benoit, a farmer, and Euphrasie Blondet; d. 19 Nov. 1915 in Saint-Chamond, France.
Raised in Les Rousses, in the Jura district of France, Paul Benoit received an education “faintly tinged with rigorism” and he remained marked by his Catholic, royalist, and traditionalist upbringing all his life. He attended the petits séminaires and the grand séminaire of his native region, and the French Seminary in Rome, where he was ordained in 1874. That same year he obtained a doctorate in philosophy from the Gregorian University and a doctorate in theology from St Thomas College, part of the Minerva. He then became a professor at the grand séminaire in Lons-le-Saunier, in France, being made its director on his arrival.
In 1877 Benoit was admitted to the community of the Canons Regular of the Immaculate Conception, an order founded by Adrien Gréa in 1866 which sought to bring back a way of life widely practised in the early church; members centred their communal life on liturgy and mortification, while also devoting themselves to the parish duties normally assumed by the secular clergy. In 1884 Dom Benoit became master of novices, director of studies, and the “principal adviser” to the superior, with whom he established a firm and abiding friendship. An intellectual with a great capacity for work, he showed dogmatic leanings and was unshakeable in his convictions. He strongly opposed liberal ideas, which he blamed particularly on freemasonry; two volumes of his treatise La cité antichrétienne au XIXe siècle dealt with this movement. He loved debate in person and in print, fighting rationalism, modernism, secularism, and all “modern errors.”
When around 1880 the government of France was visibly implementing republican ideals in matters of everyday life, French North America had come to seem a chosen land to Benoit, the more so since he had met a few of its clergy when they were completing their studies in Rome. As early as 1887 he was corresponding with Auguste Bodard, secretary of the Société d’Immigration Française in Canada, and soon after, he outlined a proposal for a settlement in the New World.
Benoit arrived at Quebec in the summer of 1890 on an exploratory trip which eventually took him as far as the future province of Saskatchewan. He thought of the French-speaking parts of North America as “the true France.” Finding his opinion confirmed in a way, he set his heart on some uncultivated land in the part of Manitoba open to settlement. Back home, he sent out a circular in eastern France and French-speaking Switzerland to recruit mountain people willing to follow him to this new area. By 14 May 1891 he had established a first group (3 religious and 44 laity) in the region known as the Pembina Hills. Although the church and the priory were no sooner built than they were destroyed by a fire, in which Benoit also lost “several works in progress,” he was not demoralized: a month later construction was again under way. In 1891 he got the parish of Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes canonically erected. In the ensuing years other groups of settlers made of these beginnings the largest French-language rural parish in the archdiocese of St Boniface, with a population of 1,247 in 1910. A second colony, Saint-Claude, which became a parish in 1895, also prospered; two others were less successful.
Dom Gréa had made Benoit his delegate for all the order’s houses in the New World, and the Canons Regular eventually ministered to 12 parishes and 10 missions in southern Manitoba. They also established houses at Bonne Madone (Sask.) and Vegreville (Alta), as well as at Nominingue (Lac-Nominingue), Que. They had only 4 members in Canada when Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes was founded in 1891, but by 1902 they had 45. Local recruiting, however, was limited; the new associates were almost all from France, a sign of Benoit’s difficulties in attracting local youth as colleagues. Indeed, some people, including Gréa and Mgr Adélard Langevin, criticized him for excessive strictness and inflexible insistence on the canonical rules. Yet from the moment Langevin acceded to the seat of St Boniface in 1895 Benoit could count on the archbishop’s deep friendship. There followed 20 years of cooperation between prelate and priest, who were like-minded despite their utterly different personalities.
In 1890 the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba had created a non-denominational school system, thereby depriving Catholic schools of public funds [see Thomas Greenway*]. By 1898, however, Benoit had reached a modus vivendi at Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes: he agreed to have the parish’s five schools designated as “national,” or public, and the Department of Education, in view of his political influence, was willing to ignore the fact that French and religion were being taught in them. This precarious arrangement was adopted elsewhere in the archdiocese, but the compromise would founder under a new wave of intolerance in 1916.
Throughout these years Benoit also provided valuable statistical reports about his settlements, put out numerous critiques of “the modern errors,” and was still publishing studies on ecclesiastical history from time to time. He contributed an abundance of articles to some 20 periodicals, in Switzerland and France as well as in Quebec and the prairie region. From 1900 to 1904 he worked unflaggingly on his hefty two-volume Vie de Mgr Taché, archevêque de St-Boniface.
In 1906 the community of the Canons Regular of the Immaculate Conception in Rome, seeking modernization, softened the order’s rule. Benoit objected to the reforms; on 28 March 1910, in what he said was “the greatest sorrow of my life,” he was relieved of his duties as superior of the New World congregation and parish priest of Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, and he retired close by at St Leon. At his urging, the priests of the Pembina Hills, with the exception of those at Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, joined the ranks of the secular clergy in the archdiocese.
Anticipating that changes in the upper echelons of the church would enable Gréa’s supporters to re-establish the original rule, Benoit travelled to Rome in 1915 to advocate his viewpoint. He died that year, in his native land, where he was leading a retreat and awaiting the result of his initiatives. The restoration he had hoped for never came. Buried at Les Rousses, Benoit’s remains were transferred to the parish of Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes in 1925.
After founding parishes that still flourish at the end of the 20th century, Dom Paul Benoit had to abandon his dream of establishing other settlements and reconquering the prairies for francophones. The propagation of his order in North America was only a limited success. The modus vivendi he negotiated to deal with the Manitoba school issue would crumble soon after his departure. He wrote several works, but some had to be remaindered, and others were not well received. None the less, as an apostle of colonization, a leader, a writer, and, above all, an influential adviser to Archbishop Langevin, Benoit played a major role in shaping a territory as vast as his native Jura, and he left an indelible mark on prairie history.
[The papers of Dom Paul Benoit, who maintained an extensive correspondence with his contemporaries, are scattered among numerous repositories; a partial listing is found in the author’s dissertation, “Dom Paul Benoit et le Nouveau Monde, 1850–1915” (thèse de d.ès l., univ. Laval, Québec, 1970). This list is incomplete because some documents remain closed to researchers and others have come to light since the thesis was prepared. m.d.]
In addition to his statistical reports, which are also enumerated in the author’s thesis, and his major articles in magazines and newspapers, Dom Benoit produced several unpublished works as well as eight published ones: La cité antichrétienne au XIXe siècle (4v., Paris, 1885–86; the two-volume first part, Les erreurs modernes, was republished in 1887, a revised and enlarged fourth edition was issued in 1894, and a Spanish translation appeared in Barcelona in 1888); La vérité sur Voltaire (Lons-le-Saunier, France, 1887); Histoire de l’abbaye et de la terre de Saint-Claude (2v., Montreuil-sur-Mer, France, 1890–92); L’anglomanie au Canada: résumé historique de la question des écoles du Manitoba ([Trois-Rivières, Qué.], 1899); Vie de Mgr Taché, archevêque de St-Boniface (2v., Montréal, 1904); Le jeune Dom Paul Benoit ([Lyon, France, 1916]); La vie des clercs dans les siècles passés . . . (Paris, ); and Vie populaire de saint Claude (Besançon, France, 1924).
B.-M. Berthet, “Dom Paul Benoit (1850–1915),” Soc. d’Émulation du Jura, Mémoires (Lons-le-Saunier), 12e sér., 13 (1945): 101–21. “Feu le R.P. Dom Paul Benoit” and “Dom Paul Benoit,” Les Cloches de Saint-Boniface (Saint-Boniface, Man.), 14 (1915): 383–88 and 15 (1916): 116–20, 129–32, respectively. Donatien Frémont, Les français dans l’Ouest canadien (Winnipeg, 1959). Antoine Gaborieau, Un siècle d’histoire: Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes (Manitoba), 1891–1990 (Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, 1990). [A.-G.] Morice, Histoire de l’Église catholique dans l’Ouest canadien, du lac Supérieur au Pacifique (1659–1915) (2e éd., 4v., Saint-Boniface et Montréal, 1921–23).