BROUSSEAU, JOSEPH-ONÉSIME, Roman Catholic priest and agricultural missionary; b. 22 July 1853 in Sainte-Hénédine, Lower Canada, son of Joseph Brousseau, a farmer, and Flavie Gagnon; d. 18 April 1920 in Saint-Damien-de-Buckland, Que.
Even as a child Joseph-Onésime Brousseau was noticed for his piety and his attraction to the priesthood. His parents encouraged this inclination and steered him into classical studies, which he took initially at the Collège de Lévis in 1866–69 and continued at the Petit Séminaire de Québec in 1869–75. Brousseau was remembered at the latter institution as an unassuming student, a bit rustic, but sociable, hard-working, and pious. In the period 1875–78 he did his theological studies at the Grand Séminaire de Quebec as well as taught at the Collège de Lévis for a year. He was ordained to the priesthood on 30 Nov. 1878 and appointed curate in Saint-Gervais, but in 1881 he had to go back home for rest as a result of his overly strenuous pastoral workload. The following year he was an assistant in the parish of Notre-Dame-Auxiliatrice (in Notre-Dame-Auxiliatrice-de-Buckland), where he served the missions of Saint-Philémon and Saint-Damien, and then was priest in charge at Saint-Lambert-de-Lauzon. When Archbishop Elzéar-Alexandre Taschereau* erected Saint-Damien into a parish on 28 Sept. 1882, Brousseau was made its curé.
On the south shore of the St Lawrence, far from any railway and with poor road connections, Saint-Damien was an isolated community at the foot of the Appalachians, with no more than a hundred families who eked out a living from the hilly and stony land. On his arrival Brousseau set about invigorating the parish. In the spring of 1883 he began work on the construction of a church, which would be followed in 1886 by the erection of a chapel dedicated to St Anne, whom he saw as the protector of his undertakings. For several years his father came to help him get the fabrique’s land under cultivation. He himself gave lectures on the art of agriculture, introduced fruit-growing, and helped to put in an aqueduct, a creamery, and a sawmill. For Brousseau, to restore rural life by improving farm practices and cottage industries, through the establishment of small businesses and community services, meant to advance both the Kingdom of God and his country. His aim was in keeping with the philosophy and goals of the Société de Colonisation du Diocèse de Québec, which had been founded in 1880.
In August 1892, with the help of Virginie Fournier, a teacher from Fall River, Mass., Brousseau founded the community of the Sœurs de Notre-Dame du Perpétuel Secours, intending to put its members in charge of the shelter for the aged, the orphanage, and the school he planned. Fournier, or Mother Saint-Bernard as she was named, was originally from Pointe-Lévy (Lévis), Que., and had been educated for the religious life by the Religieuses de Jésus-Marie. Under her direction Father Brousseau’s project rapidly took shape. In September the nuns took over the classes in the village, and on 21 November they moved into the first wing of the convent he had built. The elderly and orphans began to arrive and by 15 December there were 22 of them.
To support his charitable work, Brousseau had no choice but to go from door to door throughout the diocese, begging for donations. His frequent absences, which became increasingly extended, created problems. Cardinal Taschereau relieved him of his parish responsibilities in 1896 and appointed him diocesan preacher for agricultural orphanages in Saint-Damien. He did so because Brousseau had expanded his original project, which he now envisaged as a model applicable to the province as a whole. The basic idea was to intensify the colonization movement by preparing orphans from the towns and countryside for rural life. “Junior” orphanages, for both boys and girls below the age of 12, would provide religious training, primary education, and practical initiation. “Senior” orphanages, which were to be something like agricultural schools, industrial schools, and model farms, would take care of boys from 12 to 19 years old, while in domestic science schools the girls would prepare to become the sturdy wives of future colonists. Colonization centres, located on lots allocated by the government, would be developed by the orphans when they finished their education.
Brousseau briskly set about putting his plan into effect. In 1896 he began work on the last wing for the convent of the Sœurs de Notre-Dame du Perpétuel Secours, which would be completed in 1898. While waiting for the construction of the senior orphanage he dreamed of, he had a shelter for old people built in 1903 so the orphans would have more room in the convent. With the help of Joseph-A. Audet, a young man from Saint-Sébastien who had been educated at the Montreal military school, in 1902 he had founded the Brothers of Our Lady of the Fields to take care of boys from 12 to 19. The recruits were lodged at first in the sisters’ convent, but on 18 May 1903 they moved into the monastery Brousseau had built at Lac Vert, several miles from Saint-Damien. On 14 September six postulants donned the habit. The brothers’ mission would be to work the land, teach scientific agriculture, and be a role model for the orphans.
Perhaps such flourishing works arouse the ire of the Evil One – Father Brousseau certainly thought so. On 28 Nov. 1905 a disastrous fire destroyed the convent, chapel, and various buildings. Reconstruction began the following spring and Brousseau resumed his role as mendicant. His travels through more than 170 parishes exhausted him. In Thetford Mines on 2 April 1910 a paralytic attack left him physically weakened. He had to space his trips farther apart and restrict his fund-raising appeals to the churches. Soon there was nothing left for him but the discipleship of suffering. In 1911 he began living with the Brothers of Our Lady of the Fields, to whom he continued to give encouraging advice. Louis-Nazaire Cardinal Bégin* made him an honorary canon of the metropolitan chapter of Quebec in June 1915. Brousseau succumbed to another paralytic attack on 18 April 1920; he was buried on 22 April in a brick tomb under the chapel of Sainte-Anne that he had built.
With his aura of sainthood, Father Brousseau, to whom a number of astonishing cures were credited, became a cult figure after his death. He was called the Dom Bosco of Canada, no doubt because, like the Italian saint, he had devoted his life to caring for abandoned children and had founded two communities to carry on his work. His spirituality was marked by an unquestioning faith in Providence, a serene acceptance of daily joys and sorrows as the ascetic way, and a sense of personal struggle with the Evil One. His motto was Deus providebit (“God will provide”). By his everyday activities Brousseau had transformed a rural parish and put a roof over the heads of hundreds of the elderly and orphans. At the time of his death, the Institut des Sœurs de Notre-Dame du Perpétuel Secours had 230 members and 24 teaching establishments, and provided shelter for 153 children and 60 old people. The flourishing state of this community was in marked contrast to the precarious condition of the Brothers of Our Lady of the Fields, who had not managed to recruit members, play their role as colonizing friars, or obtain substantial government assistance for their undertakings. It was, after all, the era of industrialization, state takeovers of technical, agricultural, and vocational schools, and the professionalization of trades. Brousseau’s colonizing goals and the role he assigned the church in training a workforce were outdated. In 1931 Bishop Georges Courchesne* of Rimouski would merge the Brothers of Our Lady of the Fields with the Clerics of St Viator.
AAQ, 61 CD, Saint-Damien, I: 29–31, 58–60, 85, 96, 98, 100, 115, 145, 155A; II: 125. ANQ-Q, CE6-16, 22 juill. 1853. Arch. des Sœurs de Notre-Dame du Perpétuel Secours (Saint-Damien-de-Buckland, Qué.), Annales de la congrégation; Écrits du fondateur, J.-O. Brousseau; Reg. des pèlerinages. Arch. du Collège de Lévis, Qué., Fichier des étudiants. La Semaine religieuse de Québec, 22, 29 avril 1920. Le Canada ecclésiastique . . . (Montréal), 1902–20. Alphonse Désilets, Le miracle de St-Damien, 1892–1944 . . . (Montmagny, Qué., 1945). Tharsile Fortier, Le mendiant des pauvres; spiritualité du père Brousseau (Saint-Damien-de-Buckland, 1989). Julienne Gosselin, Une maison bâtie sur le roc: la congrégation des Sœurs de Notre-Dame du Perpétuel Secours (Sainte-Foy, Qué., 1992). Jeannette Mercier, Femme d’un grand amour . . . Virginie Fournier (mère Saint-Bernard) (Saint-Romuald, Qué., 1979). A.-M. Plourde, “Les pierres crieront,” Le Rosaire (Montréal), 74 (octobre–novembre 1969) [issue consists entirely of an article concerning Virginie Fournier, named Saint-Bernard]. J.-A. Plourde, Mère Saint-Bernard, fondatrice des Sœurs de Notre-Dame du Perpétuel Secours ([Montréal, 1981]). St-Damien-de-Buckland, 1882–1982; route des montagnes (Québec, 1982). Vie admirable du chanoine Joseph-Onésime Brousseau, fondateur de la congrégation des Sœurs de N.-D. du Perpétuel Secours de Saint-Damien (Bellechasse) (3e éd., Québec, 1932).