GAGNON, ANTOINE, Roman Catholic priest and vicar general; b. 12 Feb. 1785 in Petite-Rivière-Saint-Charles, near Quebec, son of Zacharie Gagnon and Geneviève Bouin, dit Dufresne; d. 2 June 1849 in Barachois, N.B.
Antoine Gagnon, who came from a family of farmers, entered the Petit Séminaire de Québec when he was ten, having first attended his parish school. Highly intelligent, he completed his classical and theological studies at the Petit Séminaire and the Grand Séminaire de Québec. On 19 Dec. 1807 he was ordained priest by Bishop Joseph-Octave Plessis* in the cathedral of Notre-Dame at Quebec. Among his classmates were Louis-Joseph Papineau*, Philippe-Joseph Aubert* de Gaspé, and Pierre-Flavien Turgeon*, all of whom were to leave their mark on 19th-century Quebec. Antoine Gagnon would leave his in Acadia.
Following ordination, Gagnon remained only two years at Quebec, serving as curate of the parish of Notre-Dame, and then in the autumn of 1809 went to Acadia. His mission, Richibouctou, covered much of the eastern seaboard of New Brunswick, taking in the Catholic villages from Baie Sainte-Anne in the north to Baie Verte in the south, a distance of more than 180 miles; he made his residence at the village of Richibouctou (Richibucto-Village). The majority of his parishioners were Acadians, for the most part descendants of people who had escaped being deported in the middle of the 18th century, but his flock also included some Micmacs, Irish, and Scots.
Because of the huge size of his mission, Gagnon was constantly on the move, and his prolonged absences created unease within the community as a whole. A dispute arose over the site of a church that Plessis ordered built when he made his pastoral visit in 1812. The arguments went on for seven years until, in June 1819, the inhabitants of Aldouane, one of the villages involved in the discussion, sent a petition to the bishop asking that the mission be split and that Gagnon minister to only one of the parts. In 1820 Plessis yielded to this request and set up two missions, Richibouctou to the north and Gédaïc to the south. Gagnon was assigned to the southern mission and established himself at the village of Gédaïc (Grande-Digue).
The results of Gagnon’s 11 years of mission work were far from remarkable when, in the autumn of 1820, he went to take charge of his new mission, but the 29 years or so that followed produced a different story. Since his territory had been halved, he was able to devote greater time to his ministry and to putting more solid structures in place in his mission. From 1825 to 1848 half a dozen churches and as many presbyteries were erected in various villages. The construction of these buildings did not, however, proceed smoothly, since the Acadian faithful were as divided as ever over the choice of sites. Gagnon had to intervene, and, though he could be difficult at times, he managed to settle each dispute that arose. During the same period he took an interest in both the administration of his mission and the church affairs of his diocese.
In 1833 Angus Bernard MacEachern*, the first bishop of the diocese of Charlottetown, which at that time covered Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, appointed Gagnon his vicar general for New Brunswick. Less than two years later MacEachern died, and as one of the longest-serving missionaries in the diocese Gagnon seemed the very man to succeed him. At least that was the opinion of Archbishop Joseph Signay of Quebec, who wrote to Rome to propose Gagnon as a candidate. Shortly before his death, however, MacEachern had appointed a new vicar general in the diocese, Bernard Donald Macdonald*. Moreover, he had confided to one of his friends that he considered this young Scottish priest a worthy successor. In Rome the Scottish clergy, with the support of the British government, demanded that one of their own succeed MacEachern, and it was Macdonald whom the pope appointed bishop of Charlottetown in 1837. Gagnon was bitterly disappointed. His name was again submitted to Rome when the diocese of New Brunswick was created in 1842, but this time it was an Irishman, William Dollard*, who became bishop.
The double set-back made Gagnon very touchy and distrustful of his fellow clergy, especially of his English-speaking bishops. He nevertheless continued to serve as vicar general under them, but not without disappointments. Macdonald refused him permission to found a bilingual classical college in Barachois [see Joseph-Marie Paquet*], and in 1845 Dollard divided his mission into two, Barachois and Grande-Digue, removing Grande-Digue from his jurisdiction.
Since the 1820s Gagnon had acquired a great deal of property, including mills, farms, and some 14,000 acres of wooded land. The purpose of this estate was, he said, to enable him to support his college. After his plan for a classical institution fell through, he decided to make use of his holdings for the education of young clergy at Quebec who showed an interest in coming to do mission work and therefore in helping him. When this long-awaited assistance arrived in 1845, Gagnon’s hopes were deceived; for it was not one of his protégés who came, but François-Magloire Turcotte, the former parish priest of Sainte-Rose (Laval), Lower Canada, who had been involved in the Patriote rebellion some years earlier.
Gagnon was upset by the appointment of Turcotte to Grande-Digue: he was losing part of his mission, and consequently his tithes, at a critical moment. The economy was in a bad state from successive slumps in the lumber trade in the 1840s, and as a result Gagnon’s financial situation became increasingly difficult. He had to get rid of this intruder at all costs.
The opportunity came in 1848. That year, following complaints about a marriage solemnized by Turcotte, Bishop Dollard decided to conduct an inquiry and entrusted it to Gagnon. Using his powers as vicar general, and with the bishop’s authorization, Gagnon suspended Turcotte from his duties. Turcotte’s parishioners were so offended that they would not let any other priest set foot in the church, maintaining that Turcotte had been reprimanded for no reason. Neither Jean-Marie Madran*, though chosen by the bishop to succeed Turcotte, nor Gagnon, appointed to minister to the mission after Madran’s hasty departure, was allowed to enter it. The inhabitants of Grande-Digue were in open revolt against the ecclesiastical authorities.
In the course of the winter of 1848–49 Gagnon’s health, which had been undermined by his missionary work, became worse following an attack of dropsy, a malady he had suffered from for several years. The bitterness occasioned by his former parishioners’ revolt and the precariousness of his finances hastened his end. He died on 2 June 1849 in his presbytery at Barachois and was buried three days later in the crypt of the local church. Gagnon had bequeathed his possessions to his bishop, stipulating that they were to be used to support the education of priests, but when his creditors were satisfied, there was almost nothing left.
AAQ, 210 A, III-XXIV; 310 CN, I-II; 311 CN, I-VI. Arch. of the Diocese of Saint John (Saint John, N.B.), Dollard papers; Antoine Gagnon papers. ASQ, Lettres, N, nos.144–53; U, no.94. R. G. LeBlanc, “Antoine Gagnon and the mitre: a model of relations between Canadien, Scottish and Irish clergy in the early Maritime church,” Religion and identity: the experience of Irish and Scottish Catholics in Atlantic Canada, ed. Terrence Murphy and C. J. Byrne (St John’s, 1987), 98–113; “Antoine Gagnon, missionnaire auprès des Acadiens du sud-est du Nouveau-Brunswick (1809–1849),” Sur l’empremier: la gazette de la Soc. hist. de la mer Rouge (Robichaud, N.-B.), 1 (1984): 119–84.