LAURE, PIERRE-MICHEL, priest, Jesuit, missionary to the Saguenay region; b. 17 Sept. 1688 at Orléans, France; d. 22 Nov. 1738 at Les Éboulements.
Pierre-Michel Laure, who had joined the Jesuits in Paris on 29 Oct. 1707, was assigned to the missions in Canada. On 29 Oct. 1711 he arrived at Quebec, where he spent four years as a teacher at the Jesuit college. In 1716 he was in charge of the library; this is the first mention of this office in the annals of the house. Reference is also made to the fact that he was studying painting. On 27 Aug. 1713 he had received the tonsure and the minor orders in the chapel of the Hôpital Général. It was there, in June 1719, that, upon completion of his theological studies, he was ordained subdeacon, deacon, and priest by Bishop Saint-Vallier [LA Croix]. The following year he was entrusted with the task of setting up again the missions to the Montagnais in the Saguenay region, which for 18 years, since Father François de Crespieul’s death, had been virtually abandoned. He left for Chicoutimi on 1 June 1720.
At Chicoutimi he was received with manifestations of joy, but he soon became greatly distressed at the sad state of the mission and its people: “an old, tumble-down chapel . . . , no Indian had any tincture of our Holy Religion other than a great desire to learn the principles of it. The young people had never heard anyone speak about it, the older ones mumbled only a few jumbled scraps of the Lord’s Prayer and the Ave Maria which had come down from their forefathers. Licentiousness, which reigned supreme among them, polygamy, drunkenness, even more, in a word all the disorders that the most vulgar libertinism engenders were the idols that these poor, blind creatures adored, to the exclusion of all else . . . .” Faced with this spectacle, in which he could see the measure of the task awaiting him, he suffered cruelly from finding himself alone, without accommodation or help, and above all unable to remedy the evil immediately; the Algonkin language, which he had learned at the college in Quebec, did not permit him to make himself understood sufficiently by the Montagnais.
He had the good luck to find on the spot a remarkably intelligent and cultivated Indian, who spoke French well, Marie Outchiouanish, the wife of Nicolas Pelletier (Peltier). He became her pupil and made rapid progress. “She directed my studies rigorously,” he wrote, “and at the first word that she heard me pronounce she said to the others: ‘That’s it! Our father has spoken our language, I shall no longer speak French to him.’ Despite my entreaties she kept her word; and by dint of making her pupil guess she brought him to the point where he could preach the mystery at Christmas without any notes.” Later on he added: “A short oration of about three quarters of an hour on the Gospel.”
In the meantime a liveable house had been built for him. At Christmas he had the satisfaction of seeing his poor chapel filled with well-disposed faithful, some of whom had made a trip of more than 100 leagues to get there; “almost all” had confessed and had received communion, to the great edification of the Frenchmen who were employed at the trading-post.
This first wintering-over, in a hastily built house devoid of comfort, was a hard one for Father Laure. “Being unwell, at the first sign of spring, he arranged for someone to take him to Quebec, where he planned to spend some time.” But he could not stay there long. Even before the Indian hunters had arrived back, he had returned to Chicoutimi. The rumour had spread that because of discouragement he had given up his mission; finding this report false led the Montagnais to demonstrate their good feelings. He won them over completely during an epidemic which raged among them during the spring of that year, 1721. The malady broke out suddenly; it was believed that it came from the plague at Marseilles, and had been brought in in contaminated bales of blankets. Hardly had the tent village been set up than it took on the appearance of a camp of persons stricken by the plague. In three weeks 25 adults and a number of children were carried off. Night and day, unceasingly, Father Laure succoured his poor people. He was strengthened by several conversions and by some edifying deaths; but he became so exhausted that “in the interval of rest” that followed it was as it were “impossible for him to say even four words” in the Montagnais language.
He then hastened off to visit the Montagnais at Tadoussac, who had been awaiting him for a long time. “I found these people so well disposed towards the Christian religion,” he wrote, “that I could not get out of spending the winter with them.” The wintering-over took place eight leagues from there, at Anse de Bon-Désir, where 120 adults, a number of whom were occupied hunting seals, had come together for religious services. He spent four winters in a row there. In 1723 he built a chapel and a house for the missionary. From there, during the summer, he carried on his ministry to the mission at Chicoutimi and to the Papinachois at the post on the Îlets Jérémie, on the shore of the St Lawrence.
Hostility on the part of the fur-trading clerks led Father Laure to give up this well-organized and promising mission in 1725 and to go to take up residence at Chicoutimi, an arrangement which corresponded with the desires of the Indians from the interior of the Saguenay region. Repairs were made to the house he was to live in, and in the autumn construction was begun on a new chapel, in which he celebrated the first mass on 15 Aug. 1726. He worked on this chapel himself, gave “the first ax-stroke,” and with his own hands made the altar, the fittings, and the interior decorations (sculpture and painting), for he was skilful at this work. The little church, carefully built of cedar, was to last exactly 130 years. Father Laure did the same sort of work on his new house, which was begun in 1728.
It was at Chicoutimi that he regularly spent the winter, except in 1733 and probably in 1736, when he went to Quebec. From Chicoutimi, as previously when he was at Bon-Désir, he used to go, usually twice a year, to visit the groups scattered about his vast domain, which stretched from Sept-Îles to Lake Mistassini. In addition to his regular missions, he used to go wherever he was needed.
Father Laure made the suggestion that some small plots of Indian corn be cultivated near the trading posts and that modest Indian industries be established, such as making bark canoes, to keep the men and women occupied during the summer and to augment their livelihood. Affirming that he had “carried out the experiment successfully,” he also proposed the creation of “a small fund sufficient to keep some children on a modest scale and in the Indian manner, so that, when these children had been looked after for a winter by worthy old women . . . and had duly received instruction, they would return to their parents in the spring and impart their doctrine. . . .” In addition, he added, these catechizing guardians “would prepare skins, make robes, beaver hoods, moccasins, snow-shoes, and would render other services in the house which it is difficult to do without in winter.”
He would have liked to go to Labrador to found a mission and did some soliciting towards that end, but had no success. In 1737, after 18 years of apostolate in the king’s domain, Father Laure was appointed resident missionary at Les Éboulements. He returned to carry on his ministry at Tadoussac in July 1738; this was his last visit to the Saguenay region. He died 22 Nov. 1738 at Les Éboulements.
In a long account, dated at Chicoutimi in March 1730, Father Laure described the country, the tribes that inhabited it, and the first ten years of his missionary activity. This text contains important geographical and ethnological data; it also mentions two places which have never been identified: an “industrious river” (“rivière industrieuse”) at Lake St John, and a “marble cave” of a strange sort to the east of Lake Mistassini. The author refers in his account to previous relations, the texts of which we do not possess except that of a letter from Tadoussac in 1724 in which he criticizes the Montagnais severely.
Father Laure also left us an “Apparat français-montagnais,” some maps of the king’s domain, labelled “Domaine du Roy en Canada,” all of them dedicated to the dauphin, and finally a map marked “Le cours de Pitchitaouitchetz ou du Saguenay” (“The course of Pitchitaouitchetz or the Saguenay River”), dedicated to the Marquis de Beauharnois* the governor of Canada, and bearing the date 1731.
Two of Father Laure’s manuscripts are preserved at the archbishop’s palace in Quebec; one contains a short catechism in the Algonkin language, with the questions to be asked at baptisms and the forms of prayers; the other consists of prayers and songs in the Montagnais language, a catechism, also in Montagnais, recommendations for missionaries, and other small matters, and at the end the text of his letter written at Tadoussac in 1724, which is followed by some brief remarks. The theological college of the Oblate Fathers in Ottawa has in its possession the copy of his “Apparat français-montagnais,” his manuscript of “Prières et catéchisme” written in 1728, a copy of his “Alphabet et prières en langue montagnaise” which was published later, in 1767, and a small hand-written lexicon of Montagnais terms, “Les parties du corps humain.” [
AAQ, Registres des missions des Postes du Roy, Miscellaneorum Liber. ASJCF, 554; Cahier des vœux, f.33v; Lettres de l’intendant Hocquart relatives aux missions du Saguenay. JR (Thwaites). “Le clergé de la Nouvelle-France,” BRH, LIV (1948), 82, 216. Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésus. Première partie: bibliographie par les Pères Augustin et Aloys de Backer. Second partie: histoire par le Père Auguste Carayon, éd. Carlos Sommervogel (9v., Bruxelles et Paris, 1890–1900), IV, 1561. Rochemonteix, Les Jésuites et la N.-F. au XVIIe siècle, III, 432.