HOUDIN, JEAN-MICHEL (called Father Potentien), Recollet, later Church of England clergyman; b. January 1706 in France; d. c. 1766 at New Rochelle, New York.
We know little about Jean-Michel Houdin’s youth except that on 25 May 1725, at the age of 19 years and four months, he made his profession with the Recollets under the name of Brother Potentien. On 4 March 1730 he was ordained at Trèves (Trier, Federal Republic of Germany) and was sent to Canada shortly afterwards; he was at Quebec in 1734. Nine years later he was appointed superior and parish priest of Trois-Rivières, and in 1744 he went to the convent in Montreal. In that year Houdin cast off the frock and, accompanied by Catherine Thunay, dit Dufresne, widow of François Demers Monfort, fled to the Huguenots in New England. The gossip written by Mme Bégon [Rocbert] on 17 May 1749 to her son-in-law, Honoré Michel de Villebois de La Rouvillière, tells us of a missive sent by “that rogue Potenssien” to the superior of the Recollets, Valérien Gaufin. In it Houdin accused Gaufin of having stolen about 500 livres “to give to prostitutes in their quarter with whom he amuses himself.” According to the letter-writer, Houdin stated that he was not interested in the Pope’s pardon and “that he no more believes in the Holy Father’s relics than do those with whom he is living; that moreover, the Pope has enough to do distributing pardons and indulgences to the Spaniards.” Finally Houdin is supposed to have said that he was “content with his condition and convinced that God blesses him, since he gives him a fine family; that he would consider he would be doing greater wrong in abandoning it [his family] than he does in remaining as he is, and a thousand other things equally extravagant and horrifying”; and Mme Bégon added: “Best of all, he does not speak at all of his companions in debauchery.”
On 29 June 1744 Houdin was in the city of New York, where the provincial council authorized him to live at Jamaica (N.Y.C.) until August. After that he seems to have returned to New York; in 1749, on Easter Sunday, he was received into the Church of England, and some time later accepted as a clergyman. In 1753 the new pastor was a missionary at Trenton, New Jersey, and on 29 Aug. 1757 he was named military chaplain for the 48th regiment. In this capacity he took part in the capture of Quebec and the battle of Sainte-Foy, which led to the military conquest of New France by the British armies.
Did Houdin have some responsibility in the capture of Quebec? General Wolfe could probably have made use of his knowledge of the region, since Houdin had lived there some years earlier. Did he really point out the Chemin du Foulon, or was he only an interpreter? Whatever the truth may be, Houdin, after Wolfe’s death, claimed the reward the general had promised for his services.
Houdin spent the winter of 1759–60 in Quebec, where he ministered among the Huguenots, and in the spring he was replaced as missionary by the clergyman John Brooke*. Houdin went to New Rochelle that same year and returned to Montreal early in 1761 to plead on his wife’s behalf. During this few months’ stay Houdin seems to have been received coldly by his former compatriots. The talk his presence caused forced the vicar general, Étienne Montgolfier*, to intervene. In February the Sulpician wrote him, urging him to leave his wife, do penance, and return to the Church of Rome. Houdin lost no time in handing this letter over to James Murray*, who used it in 1763 to belittle the vicar general to Lord Shelburne and to diminish the Sulpician’s chances of succeeding Bishop Pontbriand [Dubreil] in the see of Quebec.
The annalist of the Hôtel-Dieu of Montreal enlightens us about an attitude which was perhaps general among the inhabitants of New France at that time towards a person such as Houdin: she describes the visit to the hospital wards of an unhappy apostate monk who some years earlier had said mass in their church; the circumstances suggest that she referred to the former Recollet Houdin. The presence of the English Protestant soldiers, and the sight of this monk “who had become the minister of those sectarians,” filled the hospitaller’s soul with bitterness. “Under the pretence of zeal,” she wrote, “he remained constantly in the wards, to blaspheme against religion and to ridicule our most venerable mysteries and sacraments; equipped with a potful of disgusting grease, he visited, one after the other, the sick heretics, to give them, he said, the last Sacrament.” And the annalist added: “We were not allowed to make any reply to all these harangues.”
Jean-Michel Houdin left Canada in 1761 and was replaced as chaplain of the 48th regiment by Richard Griffith. After his departure the Huguenots in New France – their presence there was tolerated in the final decades of the French régime – found themselves without a French-speaking pastor. Indeed, John Brooke, Houdin’s replacement in Quebec after 1760, neither spoke nor understood French; the French Protestants had to wait for David Chabran* to arrive from Lille in 1766 to enjoy again regular religious services in French.
Houdin subsequently settled for good with his family in New Rochelle. It seems certain that he had married Catherine Thunay, dit Dufresne shortly after his flight from Montreal in 1744. A petition by the French community of New Rochelle signed on 1 Feb. 1762 informs us that they had at least three children, John, Kitty, and Elizabeth.
Jean-Michel Houdin’s case resembles somewhat those of Pierre-Joseph-Antoine Roubaud* and Emmanuel Veyssère*. The Jesuit Roubaud, however, was a schemer and left his church ostentatiously; the Recollet Veyssère broke with the Catholic community of Quebec without friction or fuss. As for Jean-Michel Houdin, he left his order and his church furtively, and apparently was extremely bitter in his relations with his former compatriots.
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