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PÂQUET, BENJAMIN, Roman Catholic priest, theologian, educator, and author; b. 27 March 1832 in Saint-Nicolas, Lower Canada, ninth of the fourteen children of Étienne Pâquet, a farmer, and Ursine Lambert; d. 25 Feb. 1900 at Quebec.
Descended from a family of practising Catholics, some of whom had served in the church, Benjamin Pâquet was raised in an atmosphere of piety. He began studies at Saint-Nicolas, where his success brought him to the attention of the curé, Étienne Baillargeon, whose brother Charles-François* would later be archbishop of Quebec. Through the financial assistance of his uncle Benjamin Pâquet, a rich merchant and farmer who encouraged members of his family to take up a religious vocation, he was able to continue his studies at the Petit Séminaire de Québec in the fall of 1845. In 1849 his mother, on her way back from a pilgrimage to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, paid him a visit and told him of her earnest desire for him to become a priest. And so, when he finished the classical program at the age of 22, he enrolled in the Grand Séminaire. For three years he received theological training under Elzéar-Alexandre Taschereau. At the same time, as was customary, he taught at the Petit Séminaire. He also helped found and edit the newspaper L’Abeille in 1853.
Pâquet was ordained to the priesthood in his native parish on 20 Sept. 1857 by Bishop Modeste Demers*. He then became assistant priest at the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Quebec, an indication of the high expectations his superiors had of him. He was assigned the special task of ministering to the church of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires. Apparently more drawn to his alma mater, however, in 1862 he offered his services to the seminary, which accepted his offer and had him teach at the Petit Séminaire in 1862–63. In 1863 the seminary designated him, along with his brother Louis-Honoré and young Louis-Nazaire Bégin*, as a future professor in the faculty of theology at the Université Laval. By September the three men were in Rome, where Pâquet was enrolled at the Roman College (Pontifical Gregorian University), studying moral theology. He was particularly influenced by Girolamo Pietro Ballerini, a Jesuit professor of ethics, and also, according to the ultramontane Alexis Pelletier*, by Abbé Maynard, who was the agent of Catholic liberals, Bishop Félix Dupanloup, Frédéric Falloux, Comte de Falloux, and Charles Forbes, Comte de Montalembert. In August 1864 Pâquet delivered a speech at the Second International Catholic Congress in Malines, Belgium, where the previous year Montalembert had given his celebrated address on a free church in a free state.
Although Pâquet took an interest in theology, he also had a passionate concern for events and people. In particular, he was fascinated by the dispute between the Quebec seminary and Bishop Ignace Bourget* of Montreal over plans to set up a university in Montreal, which Bourget considered essential but which the seminary feared would hinder the development of the Université Laval. Pâquet spoke out occasionally in defence of his Quebec colleagues’ arguments. A shrewd observer, he soon learned the inner workings of the Roman curia and developed connections with leading religious figures in positions of authority. Although the advantages of this situation were recognized, his superiors in Quebec expressed reservations about his judgement; Taschereau, for example, described him as “highly alarmist.” During his stay in the Eternal City, Pâquet also discovered the splendour of ritual. He made no secret of his admiration for magnificent ceremonies and manifestations of outward piety.
Pâquet’s studies ended in the spring of 1866, when he was awarded a doctorate in theology and was recalled to Quebec. Appointment to the faculty of theology at the Université Laval awaited him and he was admitted as a member of the community of the Séminaire de Québec. He immediately found himself involved in a controversy with Abbé Alexis Pelletier, who for several years had been trying to eliminate all references to pagan authors from the classical curriculum at the colleges, a step Mgr Jean-Joseph Gaume had been advocating in France. At Rome, Pâquet had supported Taschereau and Baillargeon in their opposition to Gaume’s views. For this he was attacked by Pelletier, who accused him of being party to a plot. Bishop Baillargeon felt impelled to come to Pâquet’s defence in a pastoral letter against Gaume’s teachings, issued on 12 Aug. 1868. At the university Pâquet taught various courses including one on natural law and the law of nations in 1871–72. The last five lectures in the course (published in 1872 and reissued in 1877) dealt with the controversial topic of liberalism. Taking papal documents and the teachings of his professors at the Roman College as his basis, he revealed himself an ultramontane, although he was moderate in his remarks. In a lengthy examination and refutation of liberalism in the light of Pope Pius IX’s condemnation in the Syllabus of Errors and the encyclical Quanta cura, he dealt with the philosophy only in its most radical and reprehensible form, “without making reference to troublesome local questions.” He did not share the belief that the province of Quebec was threatened by liberalism; for him, the term did not have the same meaning at home as in Europe.
When Pâquet’s lectures were published in 1872, all the bishops in the province acknowledged the soundness and purity of the doctrine they contained. The Jesuit newspaper in Rome, Civiltà Cattolica, praised them as the most faithful echo of Roman doctrines. Only Pelletier, who had not forgotten the controversy about Gaume’s teachings, denounced them in Le Nouveau Monde and Le Franc-Parleur, as well as in a pamphlet published in 1872. He accused Pâquet of deliberately omitting reference to Catholic liberalism, which in his view threatened the country, and he branded him a liberal in both religion and politics. Following Pelletier’s attacks, the hard-line ultramontanes successfully opposed Pâquet’s candidacy for the episcopal see of Kingston in 1873. He was said to have political friends who were liberals. In 1875 Pâquet criticized a joint pastoral letter of 22 September by the bishops of the province of Quebec on Catholic liberalism, because it was seen by the majority of the clergy and the episcopate as a condemnation of the Liberal party. This stance he found “utterly unfair to the Catholics of an entire party.” In fact, Pâquet believed it was in the best interests of religion to remain above electoral issues and political parties and he was one of the first to condemn clerical interference in elections. Like all those close to Archbishop Taschereau, he denounced such excesses of the die-hard ultramontanes as the Programme catholique of 1871 [see François-Xavier-Anselme Trudel*].
A professor in the faculty of theology until 1879, Pâquet was its dean as well from 1871. In 1873, however, he submitted his resignation to the rector, Thomas-Étienne Hamel, citing reasons of health. For one thing, he could not bear the sedentary life of the seminary. His superiors let him take a year off to recuperate in Europe. When he left in the fall, in the company of Abbé Pierre Roussel, the seminary provided a sum of money, partly in consideration of services they might render to the Université Laval. Thus the peaceful, relaxing journey turned into a mission. Pâquet became one of the university’s chief defenders in the face of numerous problems: Bourget’s repeated requests to have a university in his city and Laval’s counter-proposal for a branch campus to be set up there; difficulties concerning the affiliation of the colleges; Laval’s demands for a share of the Jesuit estates; and numerous criticisms of the doctrines taught at the university, especially accusations of liberalism, gallicanism, and freemasonry.
Pâquet eagerly girded himself for the task. He proved a shrewd tactician. He sent items and documents, wrote reports and letters, provided and requested information. He orchestrated the steps to be taken at Quebec. Through a few colleagues and trusted friends, in particular his brother Louis-Honoré and Abbé Jean-Baptiste-Zacharie Bolduc in the archbishop’s office, he fed information to Hamel and Taschereau. He received the news, rumours, and snippets of gossip that enabled him to keep one step ahead of his opponents. In Montreal he could count on the collaboration – often secret – of Abbé Hospice-Anthelme-Jean-Baptiste Verreau*, and he had his antennae in Nicolet (Calixte Marquis*), Saint-Hyacinthe (Joseph-Sabin Raymond*), and Sainte-Thérèse. He was recognized on both sides as “a skilful advocate and a formidable opponent.” He compared his moves to the progress of a military engagement. “If Napoléon III had taken the same precautions, he would not have suffered such a humiliating defeat,” he wrote to Bolduc in January 1875. “Don’t misunderstand me, I do not guarantee victory, but I promise that the struggle will at least be an honourable one, and that the enemy will not boast much, even if he should be victorious.”
A cultivated man and pleasant conversationalist, Pâquet devoted much of his day to public relations. He visited many cardinals and other influential people and had outings and dinners with them. His opponents accused him of buying off the cardinals with meals that reputedly cost him more than 22,000 francs. There is no doubt that he strategically distributed by the thousands offers to celebrate mass for a particular intention, and gifts such as Indian moccasins and maple products. He gained influence by prestigious appointments: apostolic protonotary in 1876, privy chamberlain the following year, and adviser to the Congregation of the Index in 1878. Through well-placed Roman friends, especially the minutante to the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda, Zepherino Zitelli, and Cardinal Alessandro Franchi, he received secret information about almost every document and strategy of the hard-line ultramontane bishops, as well as good advice about how to counter them.
Pâquet succeeded in getting Bourget’s plan for an independent university at Montreal rejected and he received from the Roman authorities almost unfailing support for Laval’s cause, including the appointment of a cardinal protector. Rome’s canonical erection of the university in 1876 sealed the victory. Pâquet was still working against the radical ultramontanes on other controversial issues: against Bourget’s endeavour to have the parish of Notre-Dame in Montreal divided, and against Bishop Louis-François Laflèche’s opposition to splitting the diocese of Trois-Rivières and establishing the diocese of Nicolet. One of his other responsibilities while in Rome was serving as postulator for the beatification of Marie de l’Incarnation [Guyart*]. The ultramontanes blamed Pâquet for all the ills afflicting the Canadian church. Laflèche declared that it was Pâquet, acting through his Roman friends, “who governs the province of Quebec ecclesiastically and in an effective, though clandestine, manner.” According to Laflèche, the true Catholics could not get a hearing at Rome because of Pâquet’s obstructiveness, and at Quebec Archbishop Taschereau, deceived by the same man and by the university, was helping to defeat the Catholic forces and to swell the ranks of the freemasons and antireligious forces. Moreover, according to Bishop Jean Langevin, the apostolic delegates, such as Bishop George Conroy* in 1877, arrived “with their hands tied and the issues already decided by Mgr Benj.” Bégin remarked sarcastically to his friend Pâquet, “If it rains, if it hails, above all, if it thunders, Abbé Pâquet is the cause of it. Hence the torrents of anger and boiling rage.”
In 1878 a great many bishops requested Pâquet’s recall as an essential step towards restoring religious peace to the province. He did indeed come back in the spring, but it was more because of illness than because of his opponents’ demands. He was said to be at death’s door, and Abbé Luc Desilets* saw his coming death as a sign of God’s mercy to the country. But the ultramontanes were disappointed: Pâquet recovered. Thereafter, however, he played a more unobtrusive role. He was a professor at the university until 1879, then procurator of the seminary from 1879 to 1885 and director of the Grand Séminaire in 1885–86. In 1887 he was appointed superior of the seminary and rector of the university. Two years earlier his name had circulated in connection with the new see of Nicolet, but Rome had chosen a more neutral candidate, Elphège Gravel*, as first bishop. Pâquet returned to Rome in 1886 and again in 1888 to defend the Université Laval. Judge François-Louis-Georges Baby*, who had had occasion to spend some time with him, refers to “the deference paid to him in the papal curia and the real influence that he enjoyed there.” Baby added, “At Propaganda he seemed quite at home.” The pope appointed Pâquet a domestic prelate in 1887. But although Pâquet had succeeded in saving the principle of a branch campus of the Université Laval at Montreal, Archbishop Édouard-Charles Fabre, Bourget’s successor, would obtain effective and virtually autonomous control of it for his archdiocese.
On his return to Quebec in 1889, Pâquet resumed his responsibilities as rector of the university and superior of the seminary until 1893, when he was reappointed director of the Grand Séminaire. The previous year a plan to have him made bishop of Chicoutimi had been dropped because of fierce opposition from his foes. It was recalled how unpopular he had been. Laflèche in 1892 asserted that he “had been one of the main causes of the religious difficulties that have arisen over the past 30 years in the province of Quebec because of his stubborn and overbearing nature, and because of the strong influence he has always exerted on Archbishop Taschereau.” “This appointment would,” he added, “be seen in a bad light by a great many people, and would awaken memories that it would certainly be better not to recall.” Rome then decided to forget about Pâquet’s candidacy once and for all.
Pâquet reacted to the accusations with dignity, observing that it was better to be slandered than to slander others. But occasionally he was discouraged by the struggles. Several times he resigned from the seminary. He asked that the parish of L’Ancienne-Lorette be held for him, but when it was offered he refused the appointment and decided to stay at the seminary. Later on he even contemplated becoming a Jesuit in Rome, despite the many battles he had waged against that community in the past.
Now frail, Pâquet lived out his last years in illness and semi-retirement. He divided his time between the seminary and L’Ermitage, a manor he had built at Saint-Nicolas in 1890, where he greatly enjoyed entertaining students, seminarians, and members of the clergy. The manor was near Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, a chapel which he had erected on his return from Rome in 1866 to honour a vow made when his brother Louis-Honoré had been seriously ill that he would dedicate a monument to the glory of the Virgin should he recover. The inheritance he had received from his uncle and benefactor Benjamin Pâquet enabled him to undertake this kind of initiative. He himself was especially interested in business. He had invested in an insurance company at Quebec and thus experienced considerable uneasiness whenever, as frequently happened, fire broke out in the city. He was on the board of the Caisse d’Économie de Notre-Dame de Québec and often made investments in Canada of funds belonging to the Paris Foreign Missions Society, sums totalling $200,000 to $300,000. A skilful financier, he bequeathed a sizeable estate to his brother Louis-Honoré and his nephew, the philosopher and theologian Louis-Adolphe Paquet*.
Benjamin Pâquet was a highly controversial man who was well known for his respect for religious obligations. According to his old friend Louis-Nazaire Bégin, his wide knowledge of business matters and “the active part he had played in the intellectual movement and the university question made him a man to be consulted, a valuable man. . . . He had fine qualities, piety, a great sense of the practical, enlightening and persuasive insights.” Inevitably, his shortcomings were also well known. Endowed with a strong, indeed domineering personality, he could not bear to be contradicted. He had quite serious and often stormy differences of opinion with nearly everyone he worked with. He gave advice, but above all he liked to have his advice followed. A practical man rather than an ideologue, he devoted himself completely to the success of his mission, unconcerned about scholarly debates. It was no doubt because Pâquet had been a man of action that no one could remain indifferent to him.
Benjamin Pâquet is the author of Discours prononcé à la cathédrale de Québec, le 10 avril 1869: cinquantième anniversaire de la prêtrise de Pie IX (Québec, 1869); “Notice biographique sur Mgr F. Baillargeon, archevêque de Québec,” Rev. canadienne, 7 (1870): 788–815; Le libéralisme; leçons données à l’université Laval (Québec, 1872); “Discours,” Spoliation des biens de la Propagande; protestation solennelle faite à l’université Laval (Québec, 1884), 33–41; and Quelques lettres suivies de quelques remarques par l’abbé J. B. Proulx, vice-recteur de l’ université Laval, à Montréal (Montréal, 1891).
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