DESAUTELS, JOSEPH, Roman Catholic priest and vicar-general; b. 26 Oct. 1814 at Chambly, Lower Canada, son of Joseph Desautels and Madeleine Fréchette; d. 4 Aug. 1881 in Salem, Mass., buried 9 August at Varennes, Que.
A student at the Petit Séminaire de Montréal from 1828 to 1830, Joseph Desautels subsequently acquired a knowledge of canon law under the direction of Bishop Jean-Jacques Lartigue* before being ordained priest on 29 April 1838. After serving as curate at Sainte-Martine (1838), Saint-Hyacinthe (1838–39), and Sainte-Marie-de-Monnoir (Marieville) (1839–40), he accompanied Bishop Ignace Bourget on an extensive visitation of the Ottawa valley in 1840. Struck by the lack of pastoral services in this region, Bourget erected its first canonical parish, Saint-Paul in Aylmer, and put Desautels in charge of it. The young parish priest also assumed responsibility for the lumber camps nearby. After eight years of intensive missionary activity, he was transferred to the parish of Sainte-Madeleine in Rigaud. There, with the help of his churchwardens, he set up the Collège Bourget in 1850, entrusting its management to the Clerics of St Viator. The next year he accompanied bishops Jean-Charles Prince* and Alexandre-Antonin Taché* to Rome to secure ratification of the decrees of the first Provincial Council of Quebec.
Bourget recognized Desautels’s dedication to duty and in 1855 appointed him to one of the most prestigious parishes in the diocese of Montreal, Sainte-Anne in Varennes. Desautels soon increased the number of religious organizations in his parish, founding the boarding-school of Notre-Dame-du-Sacré-Cœur in 1855, the industrial college at Varennes in 1857, and the Hospice de La Jemmerais for the poor, the aged, and orphans in 1859. In 1860 he was involved in a lawsuit brought by Pierre Jarret, dit Beauregard, against Michel Sénécal; Jarret sought to invalidate Sénécal’s election as churchwarden because it had taken place at a meeting chaired by Desautels, the parish priest, rather than by a member of the parish council. Desautels gave advice on canonical matters to Sénécal’s lawyer, Côme-Séraphin Cherrier, one of the most famous of the profession in Canada East. Cherner won the case for Sénécal, judgement being given by Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine*, the chief justice of the Superior Court. In 1860 a law entitled “An act to regulate the presidency at fabrique meetings in the Catholic parishes of Lower Canada” embodied La Fontaine’s ruling. Even though this statute supported Desautels’s position, he strongly opposed the state’s encroachment on religious liberties. He set forth his arguments systematically in Manuel des curés pour le bon gouvernement temporel des paroisses et des fabriques dans le Bas-Canada, published in 1864. The church, he maintained, had the power in Canada to legislate on all matters within its sphere since Canadian law unquestionably recognized this authority. In 1862 Bishop Bourget appointed him honorary canon of the Cathedral of Saint-Jacques (Montreal) and that year he was one of the small group accompanying the bishop to Rome to discuss such matters as the establishment of a Catholic university in the diocese of Montreal. At this time Bourget secured him the title of honorary privy chaplain from the ecclesiastical authorities in Rome.
From 1865 to 1875 Desautels played a vital role in the major religious controversies in French Canada. When the parish of Notre-Dame in Montreal was divided in 1866 [see Joseph-Alexandre Baile; Ignace Bourget], he encouraged his bishop to disregard the rich and powerful opposition to the episcopal plan. He even advised the use of canonical sanctions to bring the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice back into line. In 1867 he and canons Alexis-Frédéric Truteau* and Étienne-Hippolyte Hicks were sent to Rome to defend the interests of the diocese. Desautels quickly assumed leadership of the delegation, determining strategy, making the written submissions, and ingratiating himself with the cardinals and their advisers. In the dispute with the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice Desautels claimed that episcopal prerogatives were simply a question of rights based on civil and canon law. He took occasion to accuse the Sulpicians of Gallicanism, insubordination towards episcopal authority, and bad management of parish funds. At the beginning of 1868 he returned to Montreal, satisfied with his mission. Soon after, Bourget made him a vicar general.
In 1870 Judge Joseph-Ubalde Beaudry*, who had been the lawyer for the parish council of Notre-Dame, published in Montreal his Code des curés, marguilliers et paroissiens accompagné de notes historiques et critiques, which in some sense was a justification of the Sulpician claims. Worried that it had been written by such an eminent and influential jurist, Bourget commissioned Desautels to find a competent layman to refute its argument. Desautels chose Siméon Pagnuelo*, a young lawyer who had endorsed the Programme catholique [see François-Xavier-Anselme Trudel], and supplied him with the requisite arguments to meet Beaudry’s challenge. Hence a work entitled Études historiques et légales sur la liberté religieuse en Canada appeared in Montreal in 1872, transforming a simple issue of parish government into an ideological confrontation. The book defended the idea that the Canadian church had full jurisdiction over religious questions; in the minds of those who upheld it, the denial of this right led directly to Gallicanism. The debate had a strong nationalist character and deeply divided the Quebec clergy. Simultaneously, other religious controversies arose over such issues as the New Brunswick schools question, the amnesty of Louis Riel, and the establishment of a Catholic university in Montreal.
At the conclusion of a canonical inquiry into the dismemberment of the Montreal parish, occasioned by a rescript issued by the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda on 8 March 1871 and conducted by the archbishop of Quebec, Elzéar-Alexandre Taschereau*, Desautels left again for the Eternal City, where he remained for two years. He conceived his mission to be to defend and ensure the continuance of the religious endeavours, and Bourget, seriously ill in 1872, thus had a helper and successor in Rome who could pursue his objectives. Desautels wanted to dissuade Propaganda from accepting the recommendations of Taschereau’s report, which he knew was sympathetic to the Sulpician arguments. He also attempted to capitalize on the political and religious issues being debated in Quebec in order to induce the cardinals to decide the university question in favour of Montreal. Finally, he wished to get official approval for the course of action the diocese had adopted in respect of the Programme catholique, the civil code, the New Brunswick schools question, and the diocesan newspapers. In order to accomplish these objectives, he endeavoured to discredit the religious hierarchy in Quebec by denouncing its willingness to accommodate politicians. He told Propaganda that, except for Bourget and the bishop of Trois-Rivières, Louis-François Laflèche*, the bishops were influenced by a network of family connections or friendships with political leaders; in this instance Desautels was alluding particularly to Archbishop Taschereau and to Jean Langevin*, the bishop of Rimouski. According to him their bias rendered them powerless to preserve the independence and integrity of the church. Finally, Desautels placed the Code des curés before the Catholic authorities in Rome to secure an explicit condemnation of it. Rome, however, never acted on his proposal.
As long as the vicar general stayed in Rome the balance between the dioceses of Montreal and Quebec was maintained. It is true that the canonist Filippo de Angelis publicly approved Bourget’s arguments in the major political and religious discussions, but the cardinals, to help restore religious peace in Quebec, scrupulously avoided taking sides. Although Propaganda showed great concern for the prerogatives of the archdiocese of Quebec in relation to the university question, it also supported the episcopal interests of the diocese of Montreal in the division of the parish of Notre-Dame. In 1874 the deterioration of the diocese’s financial position forced Desautels to return to Canada after the promulgation of the fourth papal decree on the dismemberment. From then on Benjamin Pâquet*, the representative of the archdiocese of Quebec, gained increasing ascendancy in Propaganda.
In 1875 Monsignor Cesare Roncetti came to Canada as an ablegate to investigate the university question. Desautels accompanied him throughout his stay and made such a favourable impression on him that Roncetti had him appointed domestic prelate. For Desautels this was the summit of his career. The growing influence of Pâquet nevertheless became obvious early in 1876 when Rome settled the university question. The decision taken – to create a Montreal campus of the Université Laval – was diametrically opposed to Bourget’s cherished idea of an independent university in Montreal. Crushed by this move the bishop resigned. Desautels, like most Montreal canons, thought that Bourget’s resignation jeopardized the very future of Catholicism. Although the other bishops accepted the 1876 decree, they had differing interpretations of the right it conferred on the episcopate to supervise the professors. The suffragan bishops composed one petition in which they described this right, while Taschereau and the authorities of the Université Laval drew up another favourable to the existing rights of the university.
Rome communicated its decision through the apostolic delegate, Bishop George Conroy*, who remained in Canada from May 1877 to June 1878. Conroy relied on specific instructions which called upon him to calm the state of political and religious agitation in Quebec and to secure the bishops’ acceptance of the plan proposed to Rome by Taschereau and the Université Laval. Moreover, in accordance with the 1876 decree, the diocese of Montreal found itself obliged to assume the heavy financial burden of establishing the Montreal branch of the university while the Université Laval enjoyed the exclusive right of appointing the professors. Furthermore Bourget’s friends were excluded from the new law faculty, and Sulpicians were favoured. As for the division of the parish of Notre-Dame in Montreal, Bishop Conroy opted for a compromise and ignored various important claims advanced by Bourget. Desautels saw in these developments the total destruction of Bourget’s endeavours and the consequent subjection of the church to the politicians. No longer received at the bishop’s palace, he spent his last days at Varennes among his parishioners.
A zealous disciple of Lartigue and Bourget, Desautels was a practical man who had a realistic view of human nature. “I have the misfortune,” he once boasted, “of not seeing the Pope or God in every employee of the Congregations.” His shrewdness and enthusiasm were of great importance when the interests of the diocese of Montreal had to be defended in Rome. On the other hand, his words and actions often betrayed a lack of judgement and restraint that in turn led to the failure of some of the causes he had championed all his life.
Joseph Desautels was the author of Manuel des curés pour le bon gouvernement temporel des paroisses et des fabriques dans le Bas-Canada etc., etc. avec un chapitre sur la dîme (Montréal, 1864). ACAM, 901.086; 901.136; RCD, 41–44; RLB, 16–25. Arch. du diocèse de Saint-Jean-de-Québec (Longueuil, Qué.), 6A/202–488. La Minerve, 6 août 1881. Allaire, Dictionnaire, I. Wallace, Macmillan dict. Antoine Bernard, Les Clercs de Saint-Viateur au Canada (2v., Montréal, 1947–51), I. Lareau, Hist. de la littérature canadienne. Hector Legros et sœur Paul-Émile [Louise Guay], Le diocèse d’Ottawa, 1847–1948 (Ottawa, ). Robert Perin, “Bourget and the dream of the free church in Quebec, 1862–1878” (phd thesis, Univ. of Ottawa, 1975).