CHAMPION, GABRIEL (Gabriel-Antoine), Roman Catholic priest and teacher; b. 17 Dec. 1748 in Le Ménil-Rainfray, France, son of Gilles Champion and Anne Cordon; d. 18 Jan. 1808 in Arichat, N.S.
Immediately upon ordination to the priesthood in 1778 Gabriel Champion became curate at the church of Notre-Dame in Romagny (dept of Manche); by his own statement, he was expelled on 29 May 1790 “for having refused to take the oath to the [Civil] Constitution of the Clergy enacted by the Assemblée Nationale.” He then served as chaplain to the Bernardine nuns of the Abbaye-Blanche at Mortain, but on 6 Sept. 1792 he was forced to leave France. He went to England and remained there until his departure for North America in 1800.
Champion was one of the French priests whom Jean-François de La Marche, the bishop of Saint-Pol-de-Léon – himself an exile – recruited to swell the ranks of the clergy in the diocese of Quebec, where there had been a serious shortage of priests since the conquest. By the 1790s their numbers had so dwindled that the needs of the people could not be met. In a memoir prepared in 1790 for the governor, Lord Dorchester [Guy Carleton], Bishop Hubert* attributed the shortage to numerous factors: the return of many priests to France after the conquest; the prolonged closing of the Séminaire de Québec; the dispersal of the clergy during the war; the six-year vacancy in the see of Quebec [see Jean-Olivier Briand*]; and the severance of ties with France, the traditional source of priests and missionaries for the colony. In the years after the conquest the British government had been reluctant to allow French priests to come to Canada, for fear of encouraging among the inhabitants too great an attachment to their former mother country. But with the coming of the French revolution and the appearance in Great Britain of thousands of refugee priests, Champion among them, this attitude had changed.
During the winter of 1800–1 Champion served the Acadians at Bay Fortune on Prince Edward Island. The following summer he was assigned to Cape Breton, with residence at Chéticamp; he was also to minister to Magré (Margaree) and Bay Fortune. He remained at Chéticamp for six years, expending himself unstintingly in frequent and exhausting visits to his scattered flock. Although Jacques-Ladislas-Joseph de Calonne* had been given the responsibility of taking the sacraments to the inhabitants of the Îles de la Madeleine, to all appearances it was Champion who went there regularly.
In 1805, at the end of Lent, Champion suddenly went blind. He sought treatment in Halifax, where Edmund Burke (1753–1820), the vicar general of the bishop of Quebec, put him up. He recovered his sight sufficiently to return to Chéticamp in the autumn and resume his ministry; but his health was shattered. He wrote Bishop Plessis* from the Îles de la Madeleine in June 1807 that he was still hampered by the same disability and also “by a shortness of breath” that “reaches down to [my] heart” and “probably portends an early death.” Replying to this pathetic letter, Plessis suggested that he take his retirement in Halifax, in Arichat, or at the Hôpital Général of Quebec; the bishop also promised him an annual pension of 200 piastres. No longer daring to remain alone in his missions, Champion in the autumn of 1807 had someone take him to Arichat, to stay with his colleague François Lejamtel*. There he died on 18 Jan. 1808. His death, Burke informed the bishop of Quebec, “leaves a gap that Your Lordship will have difficulty filling.”
Gabriel Champion was known for his kindness and his devotion. He had opened the first school at Chéticamp, where in all likelihood he was the only teacher. Unpretentious and modest, he had contented himself with a primitive chapel and wretched presbytery. He was undemanding, and probably not well versed in liturgy or canon law. At his death the church and presbytery were not “in great order,” and, as Lejamtel wrote, thought had to be given to obtaining “the things necessary for divine service.” But Champion had a generous nature. He bequeathed part of his meagre possessions to the church and the poor of Chéticamp. His parishioners had great affection for him: in addition to the tithe, they supplied him with wood, more meat than he needed, and “many other things, and all of it free.” “They miss [him] very much,” Lejamtel wrote to Bishop Plessis. After Champion’s death his colleague Jean-Baptiste Allain visited Chéticamp but he did not return there; the mission fell to Lejamtel. Six years were to pass before Chéticamp could count on the presence of another priest, Antoine Manseau*.
AAQ, 301 CN, I: 22; 310 CN, I: 22; 312 CN, III: 94, 100; IV: 18; V: 7; VI: 18, 39, 48, 50, 53; VII: 6–7. Allaire, Dictionnaire, 1: 109. Tanguay, Répertoire (1893), 165. Anselme Chiasson, Chéticamp: histoire et traditions acadiennes (Moncton, N.-B., 1961), 113–17. N.-E. Dionne, Les ecclésiastiques et les royalistes français réfugiés au Canada à l’époque de la révolution, 1791–1802 (Québec, 1905), 296–98. Johnston, Hist. of Catholic Church in eastern N.S., 1: 185–94, 202, 211, 224, 273.