PELLETIER, ALEXIS, Roman Catholic priest, educator, and polemicist; b. 26 April 1837 in Saint-Arsène, which was attached to the parish of Saint-Georges de Cacouna, Lower Canada, son of Louis Pelletier and Sophie Michaud; d. 25 June 1910 at the convent of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd (Angers) in Montreal
Having entered the Séminaire de Québec at 13, Alexis Pelletier did classical studies from 1850 to 1859 and theological studies from 1859 to 1863; he then embarked upon a teaching career there. He proved one of the most faithful disciples of Jacques-Michel Stremler. A priest from Lorraine, in France, Stremler fervently supported Mgr Jean-Joseph Gaume’s view that a Christian reform was needed in the teaching of the classics since pagan writers were overemphasized. Under Stremler’s guidance and in collaboration with a few other professors at the seminary, late in 1864 Pelletier published some articles in Le Courrier du Canada that provoked vigorous reactions in the seminary and the archbishopric of Quebec. Forbidden to use the newspapers as a vehicle, Pelletier carried on his crusade by bringing out two anonymous pamphlets in 1865, Mgr Gaume, sa thèse et ses défenseurs: les classiques chrétiens et les classiques payens dans l’enseignement and Situation du monde actuel; coup d’œil sur l’origine et la propagation du mal dans la société. . . . When his colleague Abbé Thomas-Aimé Chandonnet* entered the debate, Pelletier was prompted to produce a third pamphlet that year, La question des classiques en présence des rectifications et des critiques de M. l’abbé Chandonnet, which he signed with the pseudonym Un chrétien. To end the dissension agitating the seminary, the superior, Abbé Elzéar-Alexandre Taschereau*, got rid of most of the Gaumists. Pelletier twice received written admonitions for “his excessive and rash zeal” and on 21 May 1866 thought it wise to resign and take refuge at the Collège de Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière, which was then under the direction of his uncle, André Pelletier.
In his classes, the fifth form (Belles-Lettres) and the sixth (Rhetoric), Pelletier was a competent and dynamic teacher who roused the enthusiasm of his pupils. Teaching, however, formed only a small part of his activities. For several years the college had been disrupted by fierce confrontations between partisans and adversaries of Abbé François Pilote*, its bursar and former superior; Pelletier soon made a scapegoat of him and in 1870 went so far as to denounce him as dishonest or else mad. Furthermore, in utter secrecy and under the pseudonym George Saint-Aimé, the young professor published three pamphlets. The first was quite didactic, La méthode chrétienne considérée dans ses avantages et sa nécessité et réponses à certaines difficultés (1866); the polemic nature of the other two is revealed by their titles, Lettre à Monseigneur Baillargeon, évêque de Tloa, sur la question des classiques et cornmentaire sur la lettre du cardinal Patrizi (1867) and Réponse aux dernières attaques dirigées par M. l’abbé Chandonnet contre les partisans de la méthode chrétienne et commentaires sur des documents authentiques qui dévoilent les machinations de MM. les abbés Chandonnet et Benjamin Paquet (1868). The personal attacks and malevolent insinuations brought condemnation of these writings by Archbishop Charles-François Baillargeon* of Quebec, and the threat of suspension ipso facto if the unknown author failed to make amends for the outrage within 30 days.
On the advice of his friends Stremler, Gaume, and Mgr Luigi Filippi, Pelletier lay low, meanwhile continuing to publish in La Gazette des campagnes. From 1868 to 1871 he wrote the “Revue de la semaine” for it, pursuing in a trenchant style and impertinent tone liberalism in all its forms and such liberals as Bishop Félix Dupanloup and Joseph-Édouard Cauchon*. He drew ripostes from six newspapers, various anonymous correspondents, and even Archbishop Baillargeon and his vicar general, Charles-Félix Cazeau*, at whom, in passing, he had taken a dig. To protect the Collège de Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière and its school of agriculture, Pilote, who had become the superior again, did everything in his power to have Pelletier dismissed. Upon his return from the first Vatican Council Baillargeon dealt severely with Pelletier, appointing him assistant priest at Saint-Joseph-de-Beauce. In Pelletier’s view, such an appointment, before the end of the school year (he left the college on 20 May 1870) and for what parish priest Louis Proulx* called a “penal colony,” was a stigma and he immediately denounced it to Rome. While waiting for a reply he found refuge for a time with curé Joseph-Elzéar Michaud at Saint-Onésime, and then with curé Louis-Napoléon Cinq-Mars at Saint-Fidèle.
Another problem concerning Pelletier was under discussion in Rome: the question of his belonging to the diocese of Rimouski, where he was born. Although the authorities at Quebec “for more than one reason” were ready to let him go – Archbishop Baillargeon even wrote to him that he belonged to Rimouski – Pelletier had insisted upon a decision from Rome. When it finally arrived on 2 Sept. 1871, it put him under the authority of Bishop Jean Langevin* of Rimouski, provided that Langevin offered him a post or a suitable means of living. On the basis of this condition Pelletier refused all the bishop’s proposals; he would not agree to be missionary at Natashquan or Moisie, or parish priest at Rivière-au-Renard, and in the end requested his exeat from the diocese. For the sake of peace Langevin assented, so long as Pelletier found a bishop who would accept him and would send a priest in exchange. Bishop Louis-François Laflèche* of Trois-Rivières showed interest but had to give up in the face of his clergy’s hesitations. The discussion between Pelletier and Langevin became heated, each interpreting in his own way a new reply from the prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda; in March 1872 Pelletier even accused the bishop of providing him with only an abbreviated version of the reply and committing “errors that are not wholly unintentional.” Presented with “such an outrageous” letter, Langevin said that he “could no longer have any personal dealings” with him and gave up on this talented priest once and for all. He granted him his release from the diocese on 5 Aug. 1872, warning Bishop Ignace Bourget* of Montreal in confidence that he considered Pelletier “an arrogant and wildly excited mind, capable, particularly in certain situations, of doing great harm to religion by sowing discord among the clergy and undermining the foundations of episcopal authority.” None the less Bourget incardinated him on 8 September.
In his new diocese Pelletier at first was assistant priest at Saint-Henri-des-Tanneries (Montreal); he served as curé of Saint-Bruno in Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville from 1873 to 1878 and of Sainte-Cécile in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield from 1878 to 1891. But he did not give up polemics. On Sunday, 27 Oct. 1872, at the beginning of the celebrations marking the golden anniversary of Bourget’s ordination, Pelletier delivered a sermon in the chapel of the bishop’s palace and in the presence of Archbishop Taschereau and Bishop Langevin that offended the two prelates with its scarcely veiled attacks. In November of that year he became a regular contributor to the ultramontane newspaper Le Franc-Parleur; in the period up to 19 Jan. 1877 he wrote 186 articles for it on doctrinal matters or political questions. Using various pseudonyms (Abbé Ste. Foy, Luigi, Un conservateur, Un collaborateur du Franc-Parleur), he scathingly denounced such modern errors as liberalism, Gallicanism, moderantism, and naturalism, and he continued to promote educational reform along Christian lines. In 1881, under the pseudonym Un catholique, he wrote a pamphlet entitled La source du mal de l’époque au Canada, a confidential paper which was reserved and intended solely for the authorities in Rome but which none the less circulated in Canada and was censured by several bishops.
However, Pelletier had had to face reality some years earlier. To acquaint himself more fully with the implications of the Holy Office’s judgement in 1868 concerning the pamphlets signed George Saint-Aimé, he had applied to Rome in 1876, disclosing that he had written them and that he had taken no heed of the sanctions imposed by his bishop. After seeking some explanations from Archbishop Taschereau, Prospero Cardinal Caterini wrote to the bishop of Montreal that Pelletier had been justifiably and validly censured by the archbishop of Quebec, had been delinquent in not respecting the judgement, had engaged in irregular conduct, and could receive absolution only by humbly recognizing his errors and forgoing for all time writing on the question of the classical authors. Bourget’s successor, Bishop Édouard-Charles Fabre*, maintained that Pelletier had fulfilled the conditions imposed by Rome in apologizing to the archbishop of Quebec and that the matter was closed, but Taschereau firmly insisted upon a public declaration of submission; published on 19 Jan. 1877 in Le Franc-Parleur, it was reprinted in all the newspapers under the signature “Luigi, alias Alexis Pelletier, priest.”
With the exception of two or three instances of “forgetfulness” that were quickly curbed by his superior, Alexis Pelletier ceased engaging in polemics and devoted himself to parish ministry. In 1891 he left Salaberry-de-Valleyfield to take a rest in Saint-Gabriel-de-Brandon until 1895. Then he was appointed chaplain to the provincial convent of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd (Angers) in Montreal [see Marie-Elmire Cadotte]. He died there of throat cancer on 25 June 1910 and was buried in Saint-Arsène, his native parish. Despite his intransigent convictions and excesses of language, in his milieu Alexis Pelletier was a talented writer and an unrivalled polemicist who could take criticism – and return it with interest. Apart from intellectual disputes, he was a pleasant person, a pastor of whom Archbishop Paul Bruchesi* in his funeral eulogy said, “Let us ask God to give us many priests as learned, as pious, and as kind as Monsieur Pelletier.”
From 1865 to 1881 Alexis Pelletier published 17 pamphlets, all of them anonymously or pseudonymously. He was a regular contributor to La Gazette des campagnes (La Pocatière, Qué.) and Le Franc-Parleur (Montreal), and wrote occasionally for Le Nouveau Monde, La Minerve, and L’Étendard, all of Montreal. A list of his pamphlets and articles may be found in Thomas Charland, “Bibliographie de l’abbé Alexis Pelletier,” RHAF, 1 (1947–48): 463–68.
AAQ, 31-16 A. AP, Saint-Georges (Saint-Georges-de-Cacouna, Qué.), RBMS, 27 avril 1837. Arch. de l’Archevêché de Rimouski, Qué., A-1, reg. d’insinuations B; A-4-1, corr. générale, reg. A–E; A-13-3, prêtres diocésains (les Anciens), Pelletier, Alexis; A-24-1, diocèse de Québec. Arch. de l’Évêché de Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière (La Pocatière), Collège de Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière. Arch. du Collège de Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière, Pelletier 58, XXVI–XXVII; Pilote 67, LXXIX. Archivio della Propaganda Fide (Rome), Scritture riferite nei Congressi, America settentrionale, 12. ASQ, Letters, B, nos.4, 7, 9, 16c–18c; Séminaire, 73, nos.25, 26a; Univ., 116bh. Thomas Charland, “Un gaumiste canadien: l’abbé Alexis Pelletier,” RHAF, 1: 195–236. Antonine Gagnon, “Alexis Pelletier, collaborateur au Franc-Parleur (1872–1877),” Les ultramontains canadiens français, sous la direction de Nive Voisine et Jean Hamelin (Montreal, 1985), 183–204. Serge Gagnon, “Le collège de Sainte-Anne au temps de l’abbé François Pilote: les conflits du personnel enseignant” (thèse de d.e.s., univ. Laval, Québec, 1968). Pierre Galipeau, “La Gazette des campagnes,” Idéologies au Canada français, 1850–1900, sous la direction de Fernand Dumont et al. (Québec, 1971), 149–78. Wilfrid Lebon, Histoire du collège de Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière (2v., Québec, 1948–49), 1. Mandements, lettres pastorales, circulaires et autres documents publiés dans le diocèse de Montréal depuis son érection (30v. parus, Montréal, 1869– ), 6. Mandements, lettres pastorales et circulaires des évêques de Québec, Henri Têtu et C.-O. Gagnon, édit. (19v. parus, Québec, 1887– ), . Séraphin Marion, Les lettres canadiennes d’autrefois (9v., Hull, Qué., et Ottawa, 1939–58), 6; “La querelle des humanistes au XIXe siècle,” Rev. de l’univ. d’Ottawa, 17 (1947): 405–33. Philippe Sylvain et Nive Voisine, Les XVIIIe et XXe siècles: réveil et consolidation (1840–1895), [vol.3] of Histoire du catholicisme québécois, sous la direction de Nive Voisine (4v. parus, Montréal, 1984– ). Robert [Philippe] Sylvain, “La querelle des classiques païens et chrétiens au Canada,” Le Voilier (Québec), 1946: 72–81.