CHARON DE LA BARRE, FRANÇOIS (he signed fs Charon), merchant, founder of the Brothers Hospitallers of the Cross and of St Joseph, as well as of the Hôpital Général of Montreal; b. 7 Sept. 1654 at Quebec, son of Claude Charron* and Claude Camus (Le Camus); d. shortly after 9 July 1719 at sea on board the king’s flute Chameau.
Mother Jeanne-Françoise Juchereau de Saint-Ignace tells us that his parents sent him to France to study, which would explain his fine handwriting. The son of a rich notable of Quebec, François Charon chose to live at Montreal, the cross-roads for the trade in pelts, where he became a money-lender to the fur-traders. His father must have helped him, for on 25 Oct. 1684, when the joint estate of his parents was being divided up shortly after his mother’s death, François acknowledged that he owed his father the sum of, 10,000 livres in French money, by a promissory note dated 30 Oct. 1683. In August 1683 Charon was one of the four Montreal merchants who had Cavelier* de La Salle’s furs at Fort Frontenac seized. In partnership with Charles Catignon, the king’s storekeeper at Quebec, François prospered. During the summer of 1688 alone the partners advanced more than 40,000 livres in money and goods to those holding fur-trading permits. At the bottom of the notarial recognizances are to be found the names of the most important fur-traders of the time.
On 4 Aug. 1687 François had been chosen to be the guardian of the under-age children of his father and his father’s second wife Élisabeth Damours. On the preceding 27 April he had signed an act before the notary Gilles Rageot* by virtue of a power of attorney from his father. Claude Charron seems therefore to have died sometime between these two dates.
According to various leases, François Charon lived at Montreal in houses rented on Rue Saint-Paul; in the one belonging to Jean-Vincent Philippe de Hautmesnil he fell so seriously ill in the autumn of 1687 that he had to dictate his will on 26 November. The will was revoked on 12 March 1688; this time Charon was living in the house of the widow Le Moyne [Thierry], situated on the Place du Marché. In his will François Charon left the major part of his possessions to the poor of the town, and he revoked it, not to deprive them but in order to assist them more effectively. It seems that in the face of death life had appeared to him in a new light, and having recovered his health he resolved to follow henceforth the precepts of the gospels by practising charity. In this frame of mind he decided to found an almshouse at Montreal for old men in need.
The religious spirit which had presided over the founding of Ville-Marie was still very much alive there. The brothers Pierre Le Ber and Jean Le Ber Du Chesne, along with Jean Fredin, joined with Charon to make his charitable project into a reality. This project, solidly based on the associates’ fortunes and their honesty, inspired confidence in the people of Montreal, who showed their generosity through gifts, legacies, annuities, and loans on favourable terms. The benefits conferred by this almshouse were so evident that as early as 28 Oct. 1688 Dollier de Casson, representing the seigneurs of Montreal Island, granted the associates nine acres of land at Pointe-à-Callières. The associates’ aim was clearly stated in the deed of grant: “to join together to found a hospital for men in this place, and . . . create for it a community of Brothers of Charity.” On 3 Oct. 1689 Charon dissolved the company that he had formed with Charles Catignon, and gave up the guardianship of his half-brother, on 25 May 1691, in order to devote himself more freely to the building of his hospice. He obtained from the Conseil Souverain on 31 Aug. 1692 the authorization to begin construction. By 17 October of that year, before the notary Antoine Adhémar, Charon signed the first contract with Jean Tessier, dit Lavigne, by the terms of which the latter would furnish the lime, at 60 sous a barrel, the fieldstone, and the quoins necessary for constructing the building.
Soon a handsome three-storey stone building with a slate roof – the future Hôpital Général – could be seen rising outside the town’s walls. It had a frontage of 90 feet and a depth of 30, and was flanked by two 30-foot wings; it contained 24 rooms in addition to the offices. Sister Marie Morin, the annalist of the Hôtel-Dieu, wrote that it “already surpasses all the others in accommodation.” On 1 June 1694 the first needy person was admitted, Pierre Chevalier, an idiot of about 40 years of age.
The recruiting of the Brothers Hospitallers continued as well as could be expected, despite the death of Jean Le Ber Du Chesne, killed by an Iroquois arrow on 31 Aug. 1691. He had bequeathed his land grant at Pointe Saint-Charles to the associates. When Jean Fredin went to France in 1700, never to return, the founders were reduced to two. But already some recruits had joined this nucleus and as early as 2 Oct. 1694 Bishop Saint-Vallier [La Croix] granted them permission to live as a community, to perform the duties of Hospitallers, to construct a small belfry to ring for services, to have mass said, and to keep the Holy Sacrament. Once he had obtained the local authorizations, Charon applied for royal assent, without which no establishment had any chance of surviving in New France. The letters patent signed by Louis XIV on 15 April 1694 stipulated that “this almshouse is authorized to receive poor orphan children, [the] crippled, the old men, the infirm, and other needy members of their sex . . . to teach crafts to the aforesaid children and to give them the best possible education, all this under the jurisdiction of the heads of the colony.” In their joint letter of 20 Oct. 1699, Callière and Bochart de Champigny wrote: “A House which will be useful to the colony is that of the Brothers Hospitallers which has been established in Montreal. It has so far cost the country nothing, yet it does a great deal of good. There is a ward full of poor people . . . they are well cared for there.”
Bishop Laval, writing that same year to Abbé Tremblay*, superior of the Missions Étrangères in Paris, said: “Render all possible service to M. Charon as to the missionaries themselves. He is a true servant of God.” Charon had indeed lent two of his brothers to the missionaries of the seminary of Quebec for their missions to the Tamaroas. One of them, Brother Alexandre Turpin, remained there for two years, and François de Montigny* praises him as follows: “Brother Alexandre, a Hospitaller from Montreal, who had accompanied us on this journey and who had edified us the whole way by his worthy behaviour and principally by his charity towards our sick people, having gone to the sick child, baptized him without any difficulty, the mother having no fear of him.” The Indian women used to flee at the approach of the Black Robes, with the result that the priests were not able to administer baptism to dying children. Brother Alexandre took the missionary’s place on this occasion, and perhaps on others too.
The work of Charon also received encouragement from Louis XIV. Indeed, on 5 May 1700, the king granted an annual gratuity of 1,000 livres for the work of the Hôpital Général of Montreal. Bishop Saint-Vallier then delegated his vicar-general, Joseph de La Colombière, to form the associates into a religious community according to canonical rules. The community of the Brothers Hospitallers of the Cross and of St Joseph was thus regularly established. It should be noted that the official documents from the court refer to them only as the Hospitallers of Montreal or the associates of M. Charon. The people called them the Charon Brothers.
On 25 April 1701 the brothers adopted a uniform habit which their constitutions described as follows: “The habits of the brothers are simple and modest, rather like the frock-coat of the ecclesiastics. The jacket, breeches, and stockings will be black, as will be the habit. The professed will be distinguished from the novices by a woollen cross which they will wear on the breast over their habit and which will come down over the top of the jacket. The bands and cuffs may be of cambric provided they are not too costly.” On 17 May 1702 six brothers, headed by François Charon, pronounced the simple provisional vows of religion according to the Rule of St Augustine in the presence of M. de La Colombière who was assisted by M. Vachon de Belmont. Pierre Le Ber, however, declined to take vows and to wear the uniform habit, although he continued to live in the almshouse until his death on 11 March 1707.
François Charon had cleared fairly easily all the stages involved in setting up his foundation, but as soon as he tried to make a religious community of it he ran up against a host of difficulties, particularly the king’s opposition. In a letter dated 30 June 1707, Pontchartrain [Jérôme Phélypeaux] clearly indicated the king’s prohibitions, which had been outlined in several letters since 1700. Louis XIV forbad the brothers to take religious vows, to wear a uniform habit, and to call themselves brothers. This refusal to permit the taking of religious vows undermined enthusiasm; some brothers left the community and nobody came forward to fill the ranks. No spiritual master was ready to take on the responsibility of moulding these men of goodwill into a cohesive whole. Charon, who had been elected superior in 1704, was well aware of this, since he attempted, in vain, to unite his community with that of Saint-Sulpice or with the seminary of Quebec. On 6 June 1708, the king repeated his orders, but Charon de La Barre had already gone to France in the autumn of 1707 to plead his cause before the court. Ruette d’Auteuil claimed in his report of 1712 that Charon was still dancing attendance upon the minister: “Charon, an intelligent man, keenly observant in all things and capable of making good reports, has been languishing in Paris for five years, vainly seeking permission to return to Canada to give support to his establishment, which is in the last stages of collapse.”
In accordance with the letters patent authorizing the foundation, which prescribed the teaching of crafts to orphans, and after securing specific letters patent to this end dated 30 Aug. 1699, Charon made several attempts to create some small industries. He had set up three crafts at the Hôpital Général, and, in 1719, on the occasion of his last trip to France, he hired “the Sieurs Darles and Souste, workers and manufacturers of silk and woollen stockings,” in order to establish a factory. He had made one other attempt, to establish a brewery. This lucrative operation soon became a source of vexations, even occasionally of disorders. Having lost grain and beer for lack of proper milling, Charon decided to build himself a mill on the grounds of the hospital. As milling was the exclusive privilege of the seigneurs, there resulted stubborn and protracted differences between the Sulpicians, who were seigneurs of Montreal Island, and the Hospitallers. Charon de La Barre was thus carrying on many enterprises at once. In 1700 he had requested permission to open a hospital for the sick at the post at Detroit which Cadillac [Laumet] proposed to establish. The court had rejected his plan on receiving a report by the Sieur Clairambault d’Aigremont, who had been instructed to inquire into it.
Finally, Charon wished to accomplish more than the letters patent of 15 April 1694 required. There was already a primary school at the Hôpital Général, and Charon tried in vain, from about 1708 on, to extend teaching to the country districts. It was not until 1717 that Bégon* endorsed this initiative, and that Charon went to France to obtain royal approval. In the spring of 1718, provided with his letters patent, Charon returned to Canada with six schoolmasters. The king granted an annual allowance of 3,000 livres, on the express condition that there be maintained at least six masters for the free teaching of boys in the country districts. Once the schoolmasters who had been so painfully recruited here and there in France got to Canada, they did not persevere for long in their teaching. The tenacious Charon undertook another round of recruiting on French soil in 1719. He was returning with six other schoolmasters on board the king’s flute the Chameau, when death overtook him on the 17th day of the crossing. To execute his will, which had been dictated 9 July 1719 at 1 pm to the Sieur de Saint-Eugène, king’s clerk, he had appointed Louis Turc* de Castelveyre, one of the six schoolmasters.
Previously on 2 Feb. 1710, in a solemn deed, François Charon had given over to the poor of the Hôpital Général all the sums of money which he had personally paid for the building of the hospital; the chapel alone had cost 49,414 livres. He had endowed Montreal with its first hospice for old men, at a total cost of 23,016 livres. Charon was the founder of the only male community ever created in Canada, His charity and piety were beyond dispute. Deploring his death, Bishop Saint-Vallier wrote: “what consoles us all is that his death was as saintly as his life.” At Montreal this bereavement was marked by public prayers.
Bishop Saint-Vallier, acting, as he believed, in accordance with the founder’s views, appointed Louis Turc, who adopted the name in religion of Brother Chrétien, superior of the community. It was at that time composed of five of the original Hospitallers although 22 had been admitted since the beginning. Before entering upon his office, Brother Chrétien had an inventory of the community’s possessions drawn up by the notary Adhémar on 25 Oct. 1719.
However, Brother Chrétien did not have the business sense possessed by François Charon, and during his administration from 1720 to 1735 the community suffered a number of disappointments. In 1731, for lack of schoolmasters, the king withdrew from the Brothers Hospitallers the annual allowance of 3,000 livres, and Bishop Pierre-Herman Dosquet* forbad the brothers to receive other persons. In addition, following a legal action that lasted five years, they were obliged to pay their creditors 24,419 livres, 19 sols, 10 deniers. This debt, added to the already considerable ones owed by the hospital, hastened its ruin. The judgement pronounced in April 1735 recognized Brother Chrétien’s integrity but also his deplorable incompetence. In 1747 there remained at the hospice only three octogenarian brothers, who begged the authorities to relieve them of the administration both of this vast, broken-down building and of the four old men who were vegetating in it. The hospital activity launched by Francois Charon had lasted for 53 years by the time it passed into the skilful hands of Mme d’Youville [Dufrost*].
AJM, Greffe d’Antoine Adhémar; Greffe de Bénigne Basset, 26 nov. 1687, 3 oct. 1689; Greffe de Pierre Raimbault. AN, Col., B, 29, ff. 194, 374; 40; C11A, 39, ff.391, 393; 40, f.23; 41, f.170; 82; F3, 7, f.1. ANDQ, Registres des baptêmes, mariages et sépultures, 9 sept. 1654. ASGM, Concession par M. Dollier de Casson à M. Charon, 28 oct. 1688; Constitution pour les Frères Hospitaliers de la Croix et de Saint Joseph, observations de la règle de Saint Augustin; Lettres patentes de confirmation de l’Hôpital-général de Montréal et Meutres d’école, 1er févr. 1718; Lettres patentes pour l’établissement d’un Hôpital à Ville-Marie dans l’Île de Montréal, 15 avril 1694, Lettres patentes pour l’établissement des manufactures d’arts et métiers à l’Hôpital-général de Montréal, 30 mai 1699; Registre de l’admission des pauvres et des sépultures; Registre des vêtures, professions, sépultures et visites canoniques des Frères Hospitaliers, 1701–1748; Testament de Frère Charon de La Barre, 9 juillet 1719. ASQ, Fonds Verreau, M. Saberdache; Lettres, R, 41–73. Juchereau, Annales (Jamet). “Lettres et mémoires de F.-M.-F. Ruette d’Auteuil,” APQ Rapport, 1922–23, 1–114. É.-Z. Massicotte, “Inventaire des documents et des imprimés concernant la communauté des frères Charon et l’Hôpital Général de Montréal sous le régime français,” APQ Rapport, 1923–24, 163–201. Camille Bertrand, Histoire de Montréal (2v., Paris et Montréal, 1935, 1942. [É.-M. Faillon], Vie de Mme d’Youville, fondatrice des Sœurs de la Charité de Villemarie dans l’île de Montréal en Canada (Ville-Marie [Montréal], 1852). Gosselin, L’Église du Canada.