DENYS, JOSEPH (baptized Jacques), priest, first Canadian Recollet, provincial commissioner; b. 7 Nov. 1657 at Trois-Rivières, son of Pierre Denys de La Ronde and Catherine Leneuf de La Poterie; d. 25 Jan. 1736 at Quebec.
Joseph Denys was descended from illustrious Canadian families. His maternal grandfather, Jacques Leneuf* de La Poterie, had arrived in Canada in 1636 and had made his permanent home at Trois-Rivières in 1640. His paternal grandfather, Simon Denys* de La Trinité, came to Acadia in 1632; in 1650, he brought his family to Cape Breton Island and remained there a year before settling in Quebec. His father, after his marriage in 1655, lived for some years at Trois-Rivières, and around 1661 he also went to live at Quebec.
Jacques, the second child of a family that was to number 12, was born on 7 Nov. 1657 at Trois-Rivières. He was baptized the next day by the Jesuit Pierre Bailloquet*, and received the Christian name of his maternal grandfather. At the age of 11, that is on 21 Aug. 1669, he entered the Petit Séminaire of Quebec, which had opened its doors the preceding year. Was he already contemplating the priesthood? The arrival of the Recollets in 1670 no doubt made him think about the religious life, for at 20 he entered the Franciscan noviciate, thus becoming the first priest to serve his noviciate in Canada.
The habit was conferred upon him by Father Potentien Ozon, the superior of the convent of Notre-Dame-des-Anges. He received the name of Joseph, no doubt in memory of the patron whom the Recollets of 1615 had given to Canada. The following year, 1678, Father Valentin Leroux heard the religious profession made by Brother Joseph, who immediately went to France for his theological studies and was ordained priest there in 1682. His superiors sent him back to Canada, where he devoted himself to preaching, hearing confessions, and conducting religious services for the settlers.
In 1683, after a brief period of apprenticeship, the young priest found himself plunged into the great adventure of successively establishing parishes and holding superiorships, which were to lead him to the top of his province. For some ten years his father, Pierre Denys, had been a partner with Charles Aubert de La Chesnaye in a fishing undertaking at Percé. The two had been joint owners of the seigneury of Île Percée since 1677 when a third owner, Charles Bazire*, had died. Probably the father suggested to the Recollet authorities that his son should come to Percé, and offered to assist in the building of a church there. However that may be, the Recollet reached Percé in 1683, accompanied by Brother Didace Pelletier*, a carpenter by trade. As soon as they arrived, they started to build a church and complete the missionaries’ residence; where for ten years the Recollet Father Exupère Dethunes* had been living. Le Clercq* states that this was the first church in the locality. It was dedicated to the apostle St Peter. Opposite Percé, on Bonaventure Island, the Recollets had another mission, with a church dedicated to St Claire. Its architect was perhaps Father Joseph.
During the six years of his missionary service at Percé, Joseph Denys served in a dual capacity: as a minister to the residents, who were few in number and relatively fervent, and to the fluctuating and mixed population found there in the fishing season. At those periods he had to fight the abuses pointed out by Bishop Saint-Vallier [La Croix] on his visit in 1686: failure to attend divine service and lack of respect towards it, working on Sundays, theft, drunkenness, profligacy, and quarrelling.
In September 1689 the Recollets opened a mission at Placentia (Plaisance), Newfoundland. Father Xiste Le Tac was its superior and Joseph Denys was appointed parish priest with the title and function of vicar general. His task was no easier than at Percé. In February 1690, 45 English privateers surprised Placentia. The Recollet echoed the general anxiety in his representations to the minister; he begged His Excellency to have compassion on nearly 30 families who were exposed not only to the usual cruelty of the English, but also to the inhumanity of wretches who respected neither religion nor law. He himself risked his life to disarm a murderer who threatened to kill whosoever dared to approach him.
In March 1692 Louis XIV officially recognized all present and future establishments of the Recollets of Canada, Acadia, and Newfoundland, including those on the islands of Saint-Pierre and at Plaisance. That same year Father Joseph received new instructions from his superiors: to found at Montreal an establishment for the Recollets. M. Tronson, the superior general of the Sulpicians, states the reasons to Buade* de Frontenac: “to remove all cause for complaint where we are concerned and to leave all consciences free.” Father Denys therefore became the founder of the first Recollet convent at Ville-Marie. In cooperation with the syndic of the Recollets, Bertrand Arnaud, a Montreal merchant, he acquired about four and a half acres of land, and within two months the residence and chapel were built. It was only a temporary construction, for 12 years later the convent was rebuilt in stone.
The following year, 1693, the community was completely installed, and on 15 October Bishop Saint-Vallier was able to write: “The land acquired by the Recollets is so attractive that there is a place for one of the finest and largest convents; the garden is in perfect condition, and I do not believe that there is a more splendid one in Canada.”
In March 1694 Father Joseph took part, with his fellow religious, in the first synod held at Montreal by Bishop Saint-Vallier. In May of the same year the incident known as the “prie-dieu affair” burst upon his convent. On 10 May, in the church of the Recollets at Montreal, two novices took the habit [see La Frenaye]; Bishop Saint-Vallier and M. de Callière took part in this ceremony. The bishop was of the opinion that the prie-dieu intended for the governor was in a more honourable place than his was, and asked Father Denys, the superior of the convent, to have it removed; the latter obeyed the bishop. Knowing nothing about the incident, the officers who entered the church put the governor’s prie-dieu back in its accustomed place. The bishop got angry and tried to force the governor to sit elsewhere, and on the latter’s refusal he left the church.
The next day the bishop ordered the Recollets to remove all the prie-dieu, including his own. The governor having had them put back by his soldiers, the bishop placed the church under interdict, and it was closed to the faithful. Knowing that they were in no way responsible for this dispute between the civil and religious authorities, the Recollets nevertheless obeyed, believing that their submission would represent sufficient satisfaction for the alleged insult that had been received on their premises, and that the bishop would lift the interdict after a few days. Two months went by during which all attempts at reconciliation came up against the demands of the bishop. Convinced that matters were going to drag on, the Recollets took their stand on their privileges and canonical exemptions, drew up a report of the affair, made a protest to the bishop, and reopened their church. The bishop issued three monitions to induce the religious to submit to authority. They obstinately refused. Then Bishop Saint-Vallier resorted to the supreme measure: a personal interdiction on each religious of Montreal, on pain of excommunication. The Recollets paid no heed to this, and continued to keep their church open and to carry on their ministry. The Conseil Souverain of Quebec, before which the affair was brought, referred it to the council of state in France. The latter declared that as the bishop had exceeded his powers and acted without sufficient information, there were grounds for deciding in favour of those who complained of misuse of authority. These contentions lasted from May 1694 to the end of October 1695.
It does not seem that Father Joseph Denys received any rebuke from his superiors over this affair, for in 1696 he was nominated to assume the direction of the community of Quebec, the most important Recollet mission in Canada.
During these years at Quebec he experienced a double sorrow: the death of his mother, aged about 60, on 24 Oct. 1697, and the following year, on 28 November, the death of the Comte de Frontenac, the Recollets’ syndic. Father Joseph complied with the last will and testament of the governor, who had expressed the desire to be buried in the church of the Recollets. He also intended to transport the governor’s heart to France, but it is not known whether he was able to do this.
As superior he was present on 27 Feb. 1698 at the third synod summoned by Bishop Saint-Vallier, in the course of which 23 statutes were adopted. He also took part on 3 Oct. 1699 in the meeting of the representatives of the three estates, called with a view to better regulating the farming-out of the trade in furs.
In 1699 Father Joseph ceased to be guardian of the convent in Quebec, and went to France for the affairs of the mission. He returned with the title of provincial commissioner of the mission, succeeding Father Goyer. He discharged these important duties for five years, and then became once more an ordinary religious. He devoted himself to his ministry as parish priest at Cap-Saint-Ignace and at Saint-Michel until the autumn of 1707, when he undertook another journey to France and returned holding the office of novice-master of the convent at Quebec. Two years later, in 1709, he was appointed guardian and priest of the parish of Trois-Rivières, where he was to remain until 1717. He had a stone church built there which remained standing until the fire of 24 June 1908. During his stay at Trois-Rivières he accepted responsibility for a certain time for the spiritual direction of the Ursulines.
Father Joseph, being a former provincial commissioner and of Canadian origin, was interested in the future of the Recollets in Canada. Hence on 6 Nov. 1716 he signed a petition addressed to the provincial and council of definitors of the ecclesiastical province of New France. He suggested among other things that the provincial commissioner should not be attached to any community, so that he could always be fair and equitable in the allotment of religious and in the distribution of the alms which the king gave to the mission; he further suggested that the provincial commissioner should have a council composed of the local superiors and of the three most senior members of the convent where this council would sit, and that the said council should have authority to decide on the spot, without having recourse to the council of definitors in France, upon matters concerning the mission.
Freed of his responsibilities as superior and as parish priest of Trois-Rivières, Joseph Denys then devoted his attention to the cause of Brother Didace Pelletier, who had died in great sanctity on 21 Feb. 1699 and whose body was buried in the chapel of the Recollets at Trois-Rivières. Father Joseph had been his confessor for 14 years, and his travelling companion for still longer. In 1718 he went to France with a whole dossier containing a summary of Brother Didace’s life, as well as reports of allegedly miraculous acts attributed to the religious. He took steps to present his case for beatification to Rome, and even planned to write a detailed biography of his confidant, but we do not know whether he carried out his project.
While he was returning from one of his numerous journeys to France, Father Joseph stopped at Île Royale and stayed there from the month of October 1722 until the spring of the following year. In 1727 he returned there, this time as vicar general of Bishop Saint-Vallier with residence at Louisbourg. In an act dated 8 April 1728 he called himself “provincial commissioner of the Recollets of Paris and vicar-general in all the new colony of Île Royale.”
It was at Louisbourg that he learned of the death of his bishop, Saint-Vallier, which occurred on 26 Dec. 1727. Both advanced in age, and among the oldest priests in Canada, they had contributed greatly to the building of the young Canadian church. Father Joseph returned to Quebec in 1729; he was 71. There he was to finish his days, in the peace of mind brought by prayer. After an illness of three days, he died on 25 Jan. 1736. People wrote at that time that he had died in great sanctity. He left tangible marks of his work at Montreal, Trois-Rivières, Quebec, Percé, Île Royale, and Placentia.
AN, Col., B, 38, ff.166, 195; C11A, 120, f.150. AQ, NF, Doc. de la jur. de T.-R., 18. ASQ. BN, MS, Fr. 9097, f.20. “L’affaire du prie-dieu à Montréal, en 1694,” APQ Rapport, 1923–24, 71–110. Hugolin [Stanislas Lemay], L’établissement des Récollets à l’île Percée (1673–1690) (Québec, 1912); L’établissement des Récollets à Montréal, 1692 (Montréal, 1911); L’établissement des Récollets de la province de Saint-Denis à Plaisance en l’île de Terre-Neuve, 1689 (Québec, 1911); Le père Joseph Denis, premier récollet canadien (1657–1736) (2v., Québec, 1926). Jouve, Les Franciscains et le Canada: aux Trois-Rivières, 90–111.