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PROVENCHER, JOSEPH-NORBERT (baptized Joseph), Roman Catholic priest, bishop, and politician; b. 12 Feb. 1787 in Nicolet, Que., son of Jean-Baptiste Provencher, a farmer, and Élisabeth Proulx; d. 7 June 1853 in St Boniface (Man.).
Joseph-Norbert Provencher came from a large family of limited means, and had to wait to begin his studies until a free primary school opened at Nicolet in 1801. He attended the Collège Saint-Raphaël at Montreal in 1802–3, returned to Nicolet in 1803, and then enrolled in the classical program when the seminary opened there in January 1804. Provencher studied at this institution until 1808, along with Thomas Cooke*, who later became bishop of Trois-Rivières. He spent the school year 1808–9 at the Collège Saint-Raphaël as a regent, while starting theological studies. These studies were continued in 1809–11 at the Séminaire de Nicolet, where he also taught the third and fifth forms (Method and Belles-Lettres). After a few months at the Grand Séminaire de Québec, he was ordained priest on 21 Dec. 1811.
For the next seven years Provencher ministered in several parishes. At a time when there was a woeful lack of clergy, the availability of this young ecclesiastic made it easier for Joseph-Octave Plessis*, the bishop of Quebec, to fill vacant positions. Provencher was named curate at the cathedral of Quebec in 1811, and given the same post at Vaudreuil in 1812 and Deschambault in 1813. Plessis made him responsible for Saint-Joachim parish at Pointe-Claire in 1814, and for that of Kamouraska two years later.
Provencher’s correspondence during these years brings out certain of his traits: humility, receptiveness, and apostolic zeal. Wherever he went he deplored his parishioners’ lack of religious fervour. At Vaudreuil there seemed to be too many dances, and some people, believing a spell had been cast on them, went to a faith-healer; at Pointe-Claire he found “the young people in an unwholesome state . . . and the old hardly fervent”; and at Kamouraska he regretted that “the sin of the flesh is the most prevalent.” It appeared to him that there was “enough to occupy an evangelical worker more zealous and skilful” than himself.
Bishop Plessis had doubtless discerned the young priest’s qualities, and in 1818 he suggested to Provencher that he should go to the Red River colony (Man.) and establish the Roman Catholic church there. The Earl of Selkirk [Douglas*], a Scotsman and a shareholder in the Hudson’s Bay Company, had founded the settlement at the junction of the Assiniboine and Red rivers on a tract of land granted by the company in 1811, and the first settlers had arrived in 1812. This colonizing venture had not, however, been looked upon with favour by the North West Company, the HBC’s rival in the fur trade, because the NWC considered it a threat to the free passage of supplies between its storehouse at Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.) and the fur-rich region of Lake Athabasca. Since 1812 there had been violent and at times bloody clashes between the two companies in the area around the Selkirk settlement [see Cuthbert Grant]. In 1816 Selkirk and Miles Macdonell*, the HBC governor of Assiniboia, had asked Plessis to send a missionary to the Red River, in the hope that the presence of a mission would put the colony on a more solid footing. A Catholic himself, Macdonell was well aware that the majority of the new settlers were Irish and Scottish Catholics, and that the region’s Métis and French Canadian population, consisting of former engagés of the NWC and their families, was also in large part Catholic. Plessis had responded in 1816 by sending Father Pierre-Antoine Tabeau* into the northwest to assess the prospects for a permanent mission at Red River and itinerant missions at Rainy Lake and Grand Portage (near Grand Portage, Minn.). Following the battle of Seven Oaks (Winnipeg) in June 1816, in which Robert Semple*, the governor of the HBC’s territories, was killed, Tabeau decided not to venture farther west than Rainy Lake, and in his report to Plessis he recommended that no mission be set up at Red River so long as the conflict between the two companies persisted.
Plessis did not share Tabeau’s opinion and, as a result of a petition signed in 1817 by 22 residents of the settlement requesting a permanent missionary, he decided to send Provencher, with Sévère Dumoulin, a young priest, and William Edge, a seminarist. Provencher raised objections to the new appointment, citing his “lack of knowledge,” his inability to speak English, a painful hernia, an outstanding debt of some £250, and the immense challenge facing the missionaries. He was not, in his opinion, “the right man for the job.” But when Plessis, convinced that Provencher had the necessary qualities, insisted, he accepted.
To raise money for the mission, Samuel Gale*, Selkirk’s lawyer, launched a campaign throughout Lower Canada in January 1818. Sir John Coape Sherbrooke*, the governor-in-chief, and Plessis were among the contributors, but the directors of the NWC, Henry McKenzie*, William McGillivray*, Thomas Thain*, and others, refused to help. The subscription, which had the strong support of numerous Protestants, reached all the Catholics of Lower Canada.
Provencher, Dumoulin, and Edge left Montreal on 19 May 1818, and on 16 July reached Fort Douglas (Winnipeg), where the governor of Assiniboia, Alexander McDonell*, lived. They were warmly received by the Catholics in the settlement. Provencher was an impressive figure. He stood six feet four inches, and like his confrère Dumoulin had a noble bearing. The newcomers created a great stir, especially since the Métis and the children had never seen clerical garb. According to Plessis’s instructions, the first two objectives of the mission were to convert the “Indian nations scattered over that vast country” and to care for the “delinquent Christians, who have adopted there the customs of the Indians.” The missionaries had specific orders to learn the Indian languages, to instruct and baptize Indian women who had married French Canadians à la façon du pays, and then to bless these unions. They were to remain neutral in the conflict between the two companies and to teach “by word and deed the respect and allegiance owed to the sovereign.”
Upon arriving, the missionaries set to work to provide for the sacramental needs of the Catholics and their offspring, performing 72 baptisms in less than two weeks. In addition, with the help of the voyageurs who had brought them from Montreal, they began building their house, but only a section 20 feet by 30 was finished before winter. This house, divided in two, served as both chapel and residence. Selkirk had made over some 25 acres to the missionaries for a church on the east bank of the Red River opposite the mouth of the Assiniboine, and a tract five miles by four to support the mission. The chapel was inaugurated on 1 November, with Boniface (who had brought the Gospel to the Germanic tribes in the Middle Ages) as its patron saint. Two months earlier Dumoulin had left with Edge to establish a mission farther south at Pembina (N.Dak.). A number of families from the Red River had gone to Pembina to seek their livelihood hunting buffalo after a plague of grasshoppers had destroyed their crops in August 1818. Provencher visited them during the winter of 1818–19, and in March went to the trading posts on the Souris and Qu’Appelle rivers; in the course of the 300-mile trip he met some 260 people attached to the two companies.
Before Plessis sent Provencher to Red River, he knew he would have to appoint a bishop in the northwest, because the region was too far from his episcopal see of Quebec. When he visited Europe in 1819 he put this plan forward in London and Rome, along with the idea of appointing a bishop for Montreal; Provencher and Jean-Jacques Lartigue* were the candidates he proposed. Some of the Canadian clergy thought the appointment of a bishop for the northwest was premature, and the choice of Provencher inappropriate. Plessis stood firm and, having convinced the British government of the merits of his plan, he returned to Lower Canada in June 1820 with bulls that had been signed in Rome on 1 February nominating Provencher auxiliary bishop and suffragan to the archbishop of Quebec, as well as his vicar general.
Provencher set out for Lower Canada on 16 Aug. 1820, four days after Abbé Thomas-Ferruce Picard* Destroismaisons had arrived at Red River, and he reached Montreal on 17 October. When Plessis handed the papal bulls to him at Quebec, Provencher asked for time to think the matter over. Plessis appointed him provisionally to the parish of Sainte-Anne at Yamachiche. In January 1821 Provencher wrote to Plessis that he could not “accept a burden which is so obviously beyond my strength and my ability.” Plessis was not, however, of this opinion, as he made clear to Jean Raimbault*, superior of the Séminaire de Nicolet: “The more I study him, the more equanimity, good sense, seriousness and wisdom I perceive in his character.” That March, Provencher informed Plessis of his decision to accept the bulls. He spent 1821 in Lower Canada soliciting funds for his mission, and was consecrated bishop on 12 May 1822 at Trois-Rivières. Because there was as yet no diocese in the northwest, Rome made him titular bishop of Juliopolis, the former episcopal see of Galatia.
Provencher left again for Red River on 1 June, with a young priest, Jean Harper. He reached St Boniface on 7 August, shortly after the departure of John Halkett, the executor of Lord Selkirk, who had died in 1820. Halkett, as a member of the HBC’s London committee, had been anxious to strengthen the Red River colony. Thus he had ordered that the company’s trading post at Pembina be abandoned, and had secured a promise from Plessis that the Catholic mission there would be closed so that the settlers would be encouraged to return to Red River. Provencher wrote to Halkett pointing out that the settlement at St Boniface would not be able to provide for all the residents of Pembina during the coming winter. He therefore delayed dismantling Dumoulin’s mission until 1823. Rather disheartened, Dumoulin went back to Lower Canada. Bishop Provencher then took it upon himself to help newcomers settle at St François Xavier, in the White Horse Plain on the Assiniboine River. Since the missionaries’ arrival in the northwest, they had performed 800 baptisms, regularized or blessed 120 marriages, and given first communion to 150 people, more than half of these sacraments being administered at Pembina.
Those evangelizing in the northwest seem to have had in mind four important objectives: education of the young, assisted colonization, moral improvement of the whites, and conversion of the Indians. By 1819 Provencher had started instructing young children at St Boniface. He made no secret of his concern to find among the boys candidates for the priesthood, but he had no illusions about the prospects. The two students on whom he was counting when he returned in 1822 left him a few years later, and the other boys who might later become priests were still children. As it turned out, no young man in his territory would be made a priest during his episcopacy. The education of girls seemed no less important to Provencher. A small house was built for this purpose in 1823, but it burned down just after it was finished. He also lacked teachers. In 1824 Provencher sought the services of Angélique Nolin, the Métis daughter of Jean-Baptiste Nolin*, who had studied in Montreal and who spoke French, English, and some Indian languages fluently. Because of her father’s opposition, it was not until January 1829 that the St Boniface school for girls opened, with Angélique and her sister Marguerite as teachers. Meanwhile, Provencher had adopted the practice of visiting children at the St Boniface school, where Harper taught boys and girls, and of giving catechism classes.
To assist settlers, Provencher encouraged cultivation of the land and cattle raising, and saw that seed and livestock were brought in from Lower Canada and the United States. He set up an “industrial school” for weaving in 1838 to use wool from the sheep brought into the colony, and from the buffalo.
Provencher, in his role as a missionary, had also to take action on moral grounds. Abuse of alcohol was common, particularly after some of the whites and Métis had managed to distil it locally. The priests urged the civil authorities to prevent the sale of spirits and even beer to natives, and during the 1840s the HBC began to restrict their use. The conjugal life of the settlers also posed problems. In 1819 Dumoulin had noted that the missionaries were having difficulty persuading Canadians to regularize their country marriages with Indian or Métis women, because they liked “this liberty of being able to get rid of their wives.” That year Provencher in a letter to Lady Selkirk had noted that “concubinage” was “rife,” especially in the distant posts. In his view, more regularity of conduct “would probably have diverted the plagues that have overwhelmed us,” which were most often attributed to chance.
It took a long time to evangelize the Indians, and apart from Dumoulin’s efforts in the Pembina region little progress was made before the 1830s. Neither Provencher nor any of the missionaries with him managed to familiarize themselves with the Indian languages, and they had to resort to interpreters. In 1830 Provencher returned to Lower Canada and the following year he brought back Abbé George-Antoine Bellecourt*, a young priest who had already studied Ojibwa. Bellecourt in 1832 began his mission among the Saulteaux to the west of St Boniface on the Assiniboine River, setting up the village of Baie-Saint-Paul (St Eustache, Man.). He endeavoured to settle the Indians into a sedentary way of life and encouraged them to become farmers; these efforts were a source of tension between him and Provencher, for the bishop wanted to see native customs respected.
The white and Métis population of the Red River colony in 1831 numbered 2,390, including 262 Catholic and 198 Protestant families. The first non-Roman Catholic missionary to work there was the Anglican minister John West*. He had arrived in August 1820, and while serving the Protestants, who for the most part were Scots Presbyterians brought in by Selkirk, he had opened a boarding-school for young Indian boys. Anti-Catholic, and not well received by the Scots who wanted a minister of their own church, West soon found himself in competition with Provencher, who had already sought the right to solemnize marriages for Protestants, in the hope of thereby “retarding the introduction of Protestant ministers” into the northwest. Relations between Provencher and later Anglican ministers, David Thomas Jones* and William Cockran*, seem, however, to have been more harmonious, although the bishop never ceased to regard their doctrine as dangerous.
During the first years of his ministry Provencher had run into some difficulties with the HBC directors, who seemed to him more interested in the fur trade than in the colony’s progress. After Selkirk’s death, the Catholic missionaries were less welcome in the company canoes journeying from Lower Canada to the Red River; Provencher concluded that “we must expect nothing of benefit to the mission from men to whom the word Catholic is odious.” Although Provencher enjoyed good relations with Andrew H. Bulger, governor locum tenens of Assiniboia in 1822–23, he was not on similar terms with Halkett, of whom the bishop caustically observed, “He appears to be very devoted to the interests of the company . . . without apparently paying much attention to those of the colony.” Provencher complained in 1823 that Halkett had forbidden Bulger and John Clarke, the HBC’s chief factor at Red River, to supply the Catholic missionaries with wine, although it was required to celebrate the Eucharist. Moreover, he noted that the missionaries had not enjoyed the 20 per cent reduction in debts to the HBC that the company had granted to the settlers because it had overcharged on goods sold to them.
However, under the influence of George Simpson, the governor of the HBC’s Northern Department, there was a distinct improvement. Simpson spent the winter of 1823–24 at Red River, and Provencher reported that he was on “good terms” with him. In 1825 the council of the department, under Simpson’s chairmanship, gave the mission sugar, wine, tea, and other food valued at £20 to £25. The same year the council recommended that the London committee grant Provencher’s mission £50 annually, to indicate their approval of his beneficent work. Simpson, Provencher reported, expressed astonishment at all the good the Catholic missionaries were doing with meagre resources “whereas their ministers with so much money do nothing.” In the same year Simpson assured Provencher that he would raise no objection to granting ecclesiastics free passage in company canoes, and over the years he sponsored other gifts from the HBC, such as £100 in 1830 for a stone church to be built at St Boniface. The annual grant was raised to £100 in 1835, and when Provencher proposed to set up his weaving school in 1837 Simpson offered to pay the travel expenses and salaries for two weavers from Lower Canada to come and teach at it for three years. The governor recognized the value of Provencher’s mission in the colony, where more than half the settlers were Catholics. The company’s position was being increasingly challenged, and it was having difficulty preserving its exclusive right to the fur trade in the face of opposition from the independent Métis traders. The activities of Provencher and his priests tended to encourage among the Métis some respect for stability and the established order, a fact that Simpson was well able to appreciate.
In the 1830s the Roman Catholic Church became firmly established along the Red and Assiniboine rivers, among the whites and Métis of the colony and even of Pembina, which had not been completely deserted, as well as among the Indians. Young people were receiving a primary education and being introduced to trades they would find useful. Substantial financial aid had come from the fund-raising campaigns conducted in Lower Canada among priests and people in general. In February 1835 Provencher, by invitation, attended for the first time sittings of the Council of Assiniboia, the legislative body set up by the HBC to govern the colony. Two years later he was admitted as a councillor, and for the rest of his life he participated in the council’s business. Provencher enjoyed a degree of influence in this body, and from 1845 was a member of its committee of economy; Governor Simpson also consulted him when choosing Métis councillors [see François-Jacques Bruneau*].
In 1835 Bishop Provencher believed the time had come to visit Europe in order to provide a final impetus for the development of the church in the northwest. He also wanted to forward his plan to begin a mission in the Columbia country, beyond the Rocky Mountains. Some of the whites settled there had asked him for such a mission, and the HBC directors were ready to help him in this endeavour. Provencher left Red River in August 1835, went first to Lower Canada, and then embarked at New York. In London the bishop’s expectations were fulfilled by the HBC directors, who in particular guaranteed him the priests’ right to travel in the company canoes to Red River and even to the Columbia country. In Paris and Lyons he obtained an increase in the annual grant of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. In Rome he informed the prefect of the Congregation of Propaganda about his work in the northwest and about his plans, to which he thought the principal obstacle was the lack of priests and money. Pope Gregory XVI received him graciously and affectionately, and presented him with a beautiful chalice; Propaganda gave him the equivalent of £225 and a case of valuable books. The pope accepted Provencher’s plan for a mission on the Pacific coast and extended his episcopal jurisdiction to the Columbia.
Having returned to Lower Canada on 22 June 1836, Provencher undertook to organize committees of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, and urged the bishops of Quebec and Montreal to introduce it into their dioceses. He spent the winter in Lower Canada, and before returning to Red River in the spring of 1837 he persuaded Modeste Demers*, the curate at Trois-Pistoles, and François-Norbert Blanchet, the parish priest at Les Cèdres, to venture on a mission beyond the Rockies. Demers was at Red River during 1837–38 before joining Blanchet for the journey to the west coast.
In March 1843 the Red River colony had 5,143 settlers; more than half (2,798) were Roman Catholics. Of the 870 families, 571 were Métis or Indian, 152 French Canadian, 110 Scottish, and 22 English. There were never enough missionaries, and worse still, they were always a changing group. By 1843, 13 missionaries had come to help Provencher, but only four – Bellecourt, Jean-Baptiste Thibault*, Joseph-Arsène Mayrand, and Jean-Édouard Darveau* – were still in the colony; in 1844 Darveau was killed by Indians at Baie-des-Canards (Duck Bay, Man.). The arrival of Louis-François Laflèche* that summer therefore served only to keep the personnel at the same strength. The bishop himself was afflicted with kidney stones and had to reduce his activities. For his part, Joseph Signay*, the archbishop of Quebec since 1833, considered that it would be difficult in the future for him or his successors to force any secular priest to go to the west. It was not that Provencher had ever proved hard to please in the matter of colleagues. All the same, in a letter to Signay in 1839 he had set down some conditions: “They must have a liking for the work and be educated men, steadfast in character and not given to rancour, able to restrain themselves and refrain from losing their temper, men who are not at a loss for words and can also sing. English would be a real necessity.” He knew, however, that the archbishops of Quebec had sent him young priests somewhat at random; they had generally been good and he made no complaints.
Provencher left for Lower Canada and Europe in May 1843, hoping to find the help essential to satisfy the needs of his mission. He went by way of the United States, with the object of persuading a number of nuns to take up residence at Red River and to teach and care for the sick there, but his efforts at Dubuque (Iowa), St Louis, Mo., Louisville, Ky, and Cincinnati, Ohio, were to no avail. In Montreal, thanks to Ignace Bourget*, who had been bishop there since Lartigue’s death in 1840, he was able to persuade the Sisters of Charity of the Hôpital Général in Montreal, commonly called the Grey Nuns, to send some of their number to the colony [see Marie-Louise Valade*]. As for priests, he sought them first among the Jesuits, but they had only recently returned to Lower Canada and could not undertake such a responsibility. Provencher found himself increasingly in favour of priests who belonged to religious orders. In a letter to Charles-Félix Cazeau* in 1844 he set out his reasons: “Secular priests will make slow headway. There is no common accord in their thinking, except that they should only put their hand to the plough for a time, which they always find too long.” In France he met Charles-Joseph-Eugène de Mazenod, the bishop of Marseilles, who had founded the Congregation of the Oblate Missionaries of Mary Immaculate. Mazenod responded to Provencher’s appeal, and in the summer of 1845 two Oblates, Pierre Aubert* and Alexandre-Antonin Taché*, reached the colony; three others followed soon after. Provencher himself had returned to Red River in the summer of 1844.
On his trip through Lower Canada in 1843, Provencher had persuaded the archbishop of Quebec that it was an opportune time to erect an autonomous ecclesiastical division in the northwest. On 16 April 1844 Rome agreed to the proposal, and decided to establish the vicariate apostolic of Hudson Bay and James Bay. Meanwhile the Society for the Propagation of the Faith at Lyons guaranteed Provencher an annual payment of 30,000 francs, which eased his financial circumstances. On that score the presence at the mission of two communities of religious was reassuring to him, given their vows of poverty and their habitual generosity towards such undertakings. Personnel, whether priests or sisters, was thenceforth assured. There would no longer be a lack of money. The church of the northwest, after 25 years of unremitting toil, was at last widely established and solidly organized.
Following the establishment of an ecclesiastical province on the Pacific coast with Blanchet as its archbishop in 1846, Rome considered taking a similar step in the northwest. But to Provencher the project appeared truly premature. Since he was not in agreement, on 4 June 1847, as a compromise, his vicariate apostolic was erected into the North-West diocese; as a diocesan church was normally an integral part of an ecclesiastical province, Provencher again became suffragan to the archbishop of Quebec. What he wanted first and foremost, however, was a coadjutor. He thought there would be serious disadvantages if he were to die without a successor to take his place quickly. Among the secular clergy who were with him or who had worked in the northwest, he saw only one as suitable for episcopal ministry – the young priest Laflèche. But Laflèche’s state of health left much to be desired; he suffered so badly from rheumatism that he was unable to travel. Steps were accordingly taken to obtain the appointment of the young French Canadian Oblate Taché, and his consecration as bishop of Arath and coadjutor in the diocese of the northwest took place on 26 Nov. 1851. When Taché subsequently visited Rome, he obtained permission for the diocese to be renamed St Boniface.
Bishop Provencher died on 7 June 1853, having been struck down by “epilepsy” (more probably apoplexy) some three weeks earlier. He had accomplished the task entrusted to him 35 years before. The parish of St Boniface had more than 2,000 inhabitants, including 1,000 Catholics widely dispersed on farms along the banks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers; the village had a cathedral, a bishop’s house, the sisters’ residence, which doubled as a hospital, and a few small houses. The parish of St François Xavier had a church, a convent where the sisters ran a school, and 900 Catholics. St Charles, located between these two villages, formed a nucleus of 200 settlers, and was to become a new parish in 1854. St Norbert, which was also on the Red River and where there were 900 Catholics, would soon follow suit. As for the Indian missions, there were three: St Anne (Lac Ste Anne, Alta) to the east of Fort Edmonton (Edmonton), Saint-Jean-Baptiste at Île-à-la-Crosse (Sask.), and La Nativité on Lake Athabasca. Each had branches which the missionaries visited periodically. By 1 Jan. 1854 they had baptized 4,309 Indians in the northwest. A church had come to life.
Bishop Joseph-Norbert Provencher was a strict man who would accept no compromise in matters of duty. His devotion to people and interest in public affairs, his common sense, goodness, courage, and tenacity, his undoubted simplicity and spirit of self-denial (for a pillow he had a block of oak) were remarkable. Laflèche, who assisted him in the last nine years of his life, gave this simple testimony: “How often have I admired in him the tender piety and the admirable trust in Providence that constitute the comfort and the joy of a true Christian.” He must not be made larger than life. But it is important to recognize Provencher as a man who took with utter seriousness the mission to which he was called, and who strove to carry it out with realism and hope.
A good deal of the correspondence of Joseph-Norbert Provencher has been published in “Lettres de monseigneur Joseph-Norbert Provencher, premier évêque de Saint-Boniface,” Soc. hist. de Saint-Boniface, Bull. (Saint-Boniface, Man.), 3 (1913). Many of these letters were translated in Documents relating to northwest missions, 1815–1827, ed. Grace Lee Nute (St Paul, Minn., 1942). The report drawn up by Provencher for his visit to Rome in 1836, Mémoire ou notice sur l’établissement de la mission de la Rivière-Rouge, et ses progrès depuis 1818, présenté à la Propagande, le 12 mars 1836 ([Rome, 1836]), was also translated into English as “Memoir or account on the establishment of the Red River mission, and its progress since 1818; presented to the Propaganda, March 12, 1836 . . . ,” ed. J. E. Rea and trans. J. R. Turnbull, Beaver, outfit 303 (spring 1973): 16–23.
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