ODELIN, JACQUES, Roman Catholic priest and polemicist; b. 5 Aug. 1789 in Saint-Constant, Que., son of Jacques Odelin and Marie-Angélique Lavigne; d. 9 June 1841 in Saint-Hilaire (Mont-Saint-Hilaire), Lower Canada.
Little is known of Jacques Odelin’s life before he entered the Collège Saint-Raphaël in Montreal in 1801. Sulpician Antoine-Jacques Houdet* taught philosophy there, emphasizing the importance in logic of searching for criteria of truth. Houdet in Montreal and Abbé Jérôme Demers* at the Séminaire de Québec were the great figures in science and philosophy at the time in Lower Canada. Odelin left the college in 1811 and, choosing the priesthood, went to do theology at the Séminaire de Nicolet. He studied under either a professor or the superior, Jean Raimbault, and also taught the fifth-year class (Belles-Lettres) in 1811–12, the two-year Philosophy program in 1812–13, the sixth year (Rhetoric) in 1813–14, and Philosophy again in 1814–16, probably using the notes he had taken in Houdet’s courses.
Upon being ordained by Bishop Joseph-Octave Plessis* on 4 Feb. 1816, Odelin quit teaching to become assistant priest, first at Sainte-Marguerite-de-Blairfindie (L’Acadie) from 17 February to 18 Sept. 1816, and then in the Montreal parish of Saint-Laurent from September 1816 till September 1817. He was chaplain of the Hôpital Général of Quebec, with responsibility for mission work at Notre-Dame in Quebec and Sainte-Foy, from September 1817 till October 1819. Then Odelin received his first parish charge, at Saint-Grégoire (Bécancour), where he served until September 1821. He found that the parishioners showed some “indifference” to religion. The combined effect of “impertinent remarks” from churchwardens and others, difficulty in collecting the tithe, and a lawsuit to re-establish his authority led him to tell his bishop, in a mood reminiscent of Hugues-Félicité-Robert de La Mennais, that he was “convinced the spiritual ministry is inseparably linked to the temporal.” In this region near Nicolet, where Odelin had already spent five years as a theological student, he discovered the “little France” around Lac Saint-Pierre whose moving spirits were French priests driven out by the revolution. In particular, Abbé Jacques-Ladislas-Joseph de Calonne* brought La Mennais to the attention of Canadians in 1819 as the author of the Essai sur l’indifférence en matière de religion (Paris, 1817), a work which he introduced in Lower Canada and which was of great interest to the Sulpician Jean-Jacques Lartigue.
Odelin’s difficulties continued with his appointment in September 1821 as parish priest of Saint-Ours-du-Saint-Esprit (Saint-Esprit), where he would remain until 1827. In September 1825 and again in 1826 some prominent parishioners sent a petition to Lartigue about the scandal caused by their priest’s fondness for the bottle and for “the fair sex.” Odelin, a disputatious man, tackled these accusations from the pulpit and even considered launching a civil action against his accusers. Archbishop Plessis contemplated keeping him in office, but after an inquiry by vicar general François-Joseph Deguise, the curé of Varennes, he demanded Odelin’s resignation and suspended his powers as parish priest for nearly five years, from February 1827 to October 1831. In February 1828 Odelin was still in his parish, living by himself. The following year he was at Detroit, having left “without permission or exeat,” but he came back in August 1830. Bishop Lartigue and Archbishop Bernard-Claude Panet* then agreed to punish him, sending him to live with Jean-Baptiste Bélanger, the curé at Belœil, from August 1830 till October 1831 and imposing a “rule of life” upon him that required study of dogmatics and moral theology and of carefully chosen religious and devotional works suitable for clergy, as well as vigilance with regard to strong drink and “members of the other sex.”
Upon being granted absolution, Odelin was named parish priest at Saint-Hilaire in October 1831 “to reward” the parishioners for their zeal in finally agreeing to “build a fine church” and ensure an additional tithe for a curé. Odelin continued none the less to experience other vexations in these years, with the rise of liberalism, indifference to religion, Protestant proselytizing in the region, crises in farming, and cholera epidemics. The parishioners rejected the assessment of tithes and neglected to pay them. For Odelin temporal matters were not easy: besides attending to maintenance and repair of the church and moving the cemetery, to survive he had to cultivate and enclose his garden, keep some beehives and a few animals (though without a stable or cowshed), and sell on the local market the apples he sometimes received in lieu of tithes.
It was against this background that a controversy broke out, this time of a philosophical nature, in which Odelin earned the title of “Canadian metaphysician.” Censured by Lartigue in matters of discipline, Odelin took occasion to question the orthodoxy of the bishop, who was a disciple of La Mennais. On 12 and 13 Aug. 1833, during the annual year-end exercises at the Séminaire de Saint-Hyacinthe, the students publicly defended La Mennais’s “theory” concerning common sense as the source of certainty. Odelin, who was attending the exercises, considered the matter so “strange” that he immediately proceeded to refute the pupils. He was arguing so vigorously that their philosophy professor, Joseph-Sabin Raymond*, had to come to their rescue in a long oratorical match that forced the cancellation of other parts of the program. Not satisfied with the answers given him, Odelin renewed the debate in L’Ami du peuple, de l’ordre et des lois, a Montreal newspaper, and in L’Écho du pays, of Saint-Charles (Saint-Charles-sur-Richelieu). In 1833 and 1834 he signed some 30 articles, using first the anagram Dionel and later his own name. As followers of La Mennais, Jean-Charles Prince* and above all Joseph-Sabin Raymond replied, publishing some 50 responses opposing his views.
In condemning the adoption “too hastily and without prior examination” of a doctrine “as new as [it is] dazzling, as unsound as inadmissible in its consequences,” Odelin became, as one commentator has observed, “the first in Canada to perceive the subtle poison concealed in the overrated Lamennais’s writings.” Since Leo XII had approved La Mennais’s doctrine of common sense and Gregory XVI had rejected the political ideas implicit in it, people in Lower Canada were wondering how one could accept an author’s philosophy but not his political thinking. Odelin claimed it was impossible in this case, since there was a link between the philosophical doctrine and the political concepts. For Odelin, La Mennais’s mistaken political notions stemmed from an erroneous conception of the common sense that he set up as the sole criterion of certainty, with the authority of revelation being relegated to the background. Odelin much preferred the position taken by Descartes, who in this matter affirmed the inviolable privilege of authority while upholding the sacred rights of reason.
The debate on common sense was in reality a debate on what, in systems of philosophy, could be advanced as orthodox doctrine. It was on this argument that the polemic ended, when on 15 July 1834 Gregory XVI condemned in Singulari nos the Paroles d’un croyant and consequently all of La Mennais. Although subsequent events did not confirm Odelin’s thesis about the orthodoxy of Cartesianism – the official and universal philosophy of the church was proclaimed in 1879 to be that of Thomas Aquinas – the condemnation of La Mennais’s philosophical ideas in general assured him victory over the teachers at the Séminaire de Saint-Hyacinthe. They complied, Abbé Prince publicly, with Lartigue’s ban on teaching “anything from La Mennais’s books, systems, or doctrine”; the bishop did not even want his name “or his authority to be mentioned in any way in teaching.”
Politically, Odelin seems as a priest to have been loyal to the established authority. At the time of the rebellions in 1837–38 he took to heart Lartigue’s recommendation to summon people to go back home and publicly demonstrate loyalty to the government. A nationalist in his own way, on 25 Feb. 1840 he signed a petition from the clergy of the diocese of Montreal against legislative union of Upper and Lower Canada.
A few months before he died Odelin published four new articles under the title “Pensées théologico-philosophiques.” In these he discussed the authenticity of the Scriptures and examined in outline both man as a moral being and man seen through his intellectual faculties. Linking philosophical and theological contemplation, reason and revelation, Odelin showed that man participates in the Trinity through his senses and his intellect. For, he said, “if the properties of the increate and creative being as well as man’s properties” are analysed “clearly and concisely,” then “trinity and generation in unity will be perceived everywhere.” The life of this contentious man ended, then, on a relatively serene note. His final article appeared alongside the funeral announcement noting his sudden, unexpected death, which occurred on 9 June 1841. The parish priest of Saint-Hilaire was buried in his church two days later.
Correspondence concerning Jacques Odelin is held in the archives of the various dioceses in which he served (Quebec, Montreal, Joliette, Nicolet, and Saint-Hyacinthe), in either the file on the particular parish or that on Odelin himself. His correspondence with Bishop Plessis may be followed in Caron, “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Plessis,” ANQ Rapport, 1927–28, 1928–29, 1932–33; with Bishop Joseph Signay in Caron, “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Signay,” ANQ Rapport, 1936–37, 1937–38, 1938–39; and with Bishop Lartigue in Desrosiers, “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Lartigue,” ANQ Rapport, 1941–42, 1942–43, 1943–44, 1944–45, 1945–46.
The polemical debate between Odelin and professors of the Séminaire de Saint-Hyacinthe is to be found largely in L’Écho du pays (Saint-Charles[-sur-Richelieu], Qué.) and L’Ami du peuple, de l’ordre et des lois, from 15 Aug. 1833 to 25 Sept. 1834. There is only one other piece known to have been written by Odelin: “Pensées théologico-philosophiques,” in Mélanges religieux, 23 April, 14 May, 4, 11 June 1841.
ANQ-M, CE1-18, 6 août 1789; CE2-16, 11 juin 1841. Allaire, Dictionnaire. F.-M. Bibaud, Le panthéon canadien (A. et V. Bibaud; 1891). Gilles Chaussé, “Un évêque menaisien au Canada: Monseigneur Jean-Jacques Lartigue,” Les ultramontains canadiens-français, sous la direction de Nive Voisine et Jean Hamelin (Montréal, 1985), 105–20. C-P. Choquette, Histoire du séminaire de Saint-Hyacinthe depuis sa fondation jusqu’à nos jours (2v., Montréal, 1911–12), 1: 162–63. Douville, Hist. du collège-séminaire de Nicolet. Yvan Lamonde, La philosophie et son enseignement au Québec (1665–1920) (Montréal, 1980), 83–89, 96–105. Louise Marcil-Lacoste, “Sens commun et philosophie québécoise: trois exemples,” Philosophie au Québec, Claude Panaccio et P.-A. Quintin, édit. (Montréal, 1976), 73–112. Maurault, Le collège de Montréal (Dansereau; 1967). Armand Cardinal, “Messire Jacques Odelin (1831–1841), premier curé résident à Saint-Hilaire,” Soc. d’hist. de Belœil–Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Cahiers (Belœil, Qué.), 5 (juin 1981): 3–17. Émile Chartier, “L’abbé Jacques Odelin ou Audelin, dit Jolibois (5 août 1789–9 juin 1841),” Rev. canadienne, 72 (janvier–juin 1917): 27–37. Yvan Lamonde, “Classes sociales, classes scolaires: une polémique sur l’éducation en 1819–1820,” CCHA Sessions d’études, 41 (1974): 43–59.