SALIGNAC DE LA MOTHE-FÉNELON, FRANÇOIS DE, priest, Sulpician, missionary; b. 1641 at the Château de Fénelon in Périgord (France); d. 31 Aug. 1679 at Aubeterre (Aubeterre-sur-Dronne), France.
He was a half-brother of the famous archbishop of Cambrai, who was ten years his junior. Nothing is known of his early years, of his education, or of his studies. We do know, however, that in 1666 he was so eager to devote himself to the missions in New France that he obtained permission to leave after spending only 15 months in the seminary in Paris. He set sail on 30 Jan. 1667 and arrived at Quebec on 27 June. Bishop Laval* ordained him priest on 11 June 1668.
At this period those Iroquois who had settled in the Kenté (Quinte) peninsula, on Lake Ontario, came to Montreal to ask the superior of the seminary for missionaries. M. de Fénelon and M. Trouvé* made known their desire to accept the invitation. The superior, M. de Queylus [see Thubières], agreed to this and sent them both to Quebec to acquire the necessary civil and religious authorizations. They obtained from Governor Rémy de Courcelle a grant of land on which to establish their mission, and from Bishop Laval they received a warm letter of recommendation. On 28 Oct. 1668 they reached the village of Kenté. They spent the winter there.
In the spring M. de Fénelon went down to Montreal and Quebec by canoe “to seek payment for the Indians who were feeding them.” He brought back with him his cousin, M. Lascaris* d’Urfé. Instead of spending the winter of 1669 with his two companions, he went to teach the Iroquois of Gandaseteiagon in their village, located on Lake Ontario near present-day Port Hope.
It was not to be expected that these missionaries would themselves provide a detailed account of their heroic enterprise. In 1669, when Bishop Laval wanted to publish the story of their exploits in the Jesuit Relations, M. de Fénelon replied: “The greatest favour that you can grant us is not to have us mentioned at all.” Nevertheless, in 1672 M. Dollier* de Casson appended to his Histoire du Montréal a long letter written by M. Trouvé, which is a résumé of the history of the Kenté mission. One can glimpse in it the great daring and stamina which characterized these athletic young missionaries who propelled their birch-bark canoes through rapids and ice floes as they travelled from Lake Ontario to Montreal and Quebec, wintering in the woods where at times they got lost, eating sagamité and pumpkin, sharing the wretchedness of the indigenous people, and succeeding only in baptizing children or a few adults on the point of death.
Fortunately there was interest in the Kenté mission in Paris, and it was decided to begin building there and to send out some animals, which was done in the course of the following decade.
At Montreal there was concern about the education of the First Nations children. It was thought necessary to move them away from the town, and consideration was given, as a site for settling them, to three islands in Lac Saint-Louis (above Lachine), which were given the name Gentilly. M. de Fénelon was summoned there, as he already had experience of indigenous life. He arranged to have these islands granted to him in due course. On that occasion Governor Buade de Frontenac wrote on 9 Jan. 1673: “The great zeal that Sieur Abbé de Fénelon has exhibited for several years in the propagation of Christianity in this colony, and the devotion that he has displayed in His Majesty’s service, constrain us to seek every kind of means of recognizing them and of pressing him to keep up the zeal he has shown up to the present; a zeal whose ardour has prompted him to abandon all the substantial establishments that his birth and merit might have entitled him to expect in France, in order to devote himself entirely to the conversion and education of the Indians.” On the shores of the island adjacent to the lake, the seminary of Montreal erected the necessary buildings, in the hope of attracting some new settlers to this part of the island. Soon M. d’Urfé came to rejoin his colleague there.
In 1674 we find M. de Fénelon at Montreal again. By virtue of his personal qualities and his name, he was in the good graces of the governors of Quebec and Montreal, Frontenac and Perrot. But this situation was soon to change.
François-Marie Perrot, who had married Talon’s niece and whom M. de Bretonvilliers, superior of the seminary of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, had appointed governor of Montreal at the request of the intendant, was not the personage one might have hoped for. He had come to Canada only to make his fortune and had soon revealed himself in his true light: grasping, arrogant, having no respect for the seigneurs, and taking improper advantage of his office; he had opened, on the island that bears his name, a trading agency, whose management he entrusted to his clerk, Antoine de La Frenaye de Brucy, and, scorning the regulations, he authorized frequent leaves for the coureurs de bois. Frontenac for his part, no less eager for gain, had used corvée labour to construct Fort Cataracoui (Frontenac), in order to protect and group the indigenous people; he made use of the fort, however, to carry on trade in pelts through the intermediary of his liegeman, Robert Cavelier de La Salle, to whom he had given the post. Now it happened that two outlawed coureurs de bois came to Montreal and sought seclusion in the home of M. de Carion, a confidant of Perrot’s. The judge of Montreal, Charles d’Ailleboust, wanted to seize them. Perrot resisted this. The judge wrote to Frontenac, who dispatched Bizard. The latter was coolly received by Perrot, although it must be said that Bizard had behaved in very provocative fashion and had done so on Frontenac’s orders. The governor gave Perrot notice to appear before him at Quebec and wrote to M. de Fénelon, their mutual friend, asking him to act as his intermediary. Fénelon prevailed upon Perrot and they both went down to Quebec. Upon their arrival Frontenac imprisoned Perrot, and Fénelon, in attempting to intercede for him, annoyed the governor and lost his friendship. Fénelon had realized, moreover, that Frontenac had taken advantage of his friendship and had deceived him.
On his return to Montreal, the abbé thought it discreet, in view of probable future difficulties, to turn over to the seminary his property holdings on the Îles Gentilly, where the seminary had, after all, met all the expenses. Fénelon, who was responsible for delivering the sermon at Easter high mass, preached to all the citizens of Montreal. In the second part of his sermon, dealing with the duties of those who are set in authority, he alluded to certain abuses, especially to burdensome corvées, and so on. La Salle created an uproar at that point; he stood up and drew the attention of the listeners to what the preacher was saying. The general opinion was that in his criticisms the abbé had been alluding to Governor Frontenac.
After mass all M. de Fénelon’s colleagues condemned his sermon. The superior went to make his apologies to the local commandant, M. de Lanouguère, and wrote to the governor himself to dissociate the Society from the blunder committed by one of its members. Frontenac took a very high and mighty attitude and asked the superior to expel M. de Fénelon from the Society. (It should be pointed out that Sulpicians do not take any vow of obedience.) M. de Fénelon went away, however, of his own accord and carried on his ministry at Lachine.
In addition to his sermon on 25 March 1674, the abbé had committed another indiscretion: that of having the citizens of Montreal sign a petition protesting against the arbitrary imprisonment of Perrot at Quebec. Hence Frontenac ordered him to appear before him. M. de Fénelon went to Quebec and challenged the right of the Conseil Souverain to judge him. These scions of ancient families, proud of their noble birth, were not afraid to speak bluntly before their peers. Furthermore, the suit that was being brought against Abbé Fénelon was contrary to both the ecclesiastical and the civil laws of the kingdom. Despite the intervention of Lascaris d’Urfé, a relative of the abbé and a friend of Frontenac, matters became so unpleasant that the Conseil Souverain decided to refer the litigation to the king himself. M. d’Urfé, for his part, sent off a conclusive report to the minister, Colbert.
Perrot and Fénelon went to France in 1674. Perrot was shut up in the Bastille for some months and then sent back to his governor’s duties at Montreal. Frontenac was very severely reprimanded by the king for his attitude towards M. de Fénelon. It was solely to safeguard the governor’s authority that the king refrained from publicly rebuking him. As a result of this episode, the members of the Conseil Souverain were thenceforth appointed by the king.
As for M. de Fénelon, forbidden by the king to remain in Canada and denounced by the seminary of Paris just as he had been by that of Montreal, he withdrew from the Society of Saint-Sulpice.
On 7 May 1675 M. de Bretonvilliers said to the priests of Montreal: “I urge you all to profit from the example of M. de Fénelon. By dint of too much intriguing in society and interfering in what did not concern him, he has marred all his undertakings and damaged those of his friends while trying to serve them. In matters of this sort, which are concerned only with private differences, neutrality will always be the desirable course.”
Where did M. de Fénelon spend his retirement? Historians have so far been unable to find out. Was it with his uncle, the bishop of Sarlat, or, more likely, on the estate of his family in Dordogne? We know only that he retired on an unknown date to the convent of the Minims of Aubeterre, where he died on 31 Aug. 1679.
It is a matter of regret that the career of this fearless missionary was cut off so early. Not even a trace remains of the mission he founded at Kenté. Only his name lingers on, at Fenelon Falls on the Trent River.
Ivanhoë Caron, “Inventaire de documents,” APQ Rapport, 1939–40, 221–25. Correspondance de Frontenac (1672–82), APQ Rapport, 1926–27, 67–73, 81. Dollier de Casson, Histoire du Montréal. Jug. et délib. “Le proces de l’abbé de Fénelon devant le Conseil souverain de la Nouvelle-France en 1674,” APQ Rapport, 1921–22, 124–88.
“Le différend entre M. de Frontenac et l’abbé de Fénelon,” BRH, XLII (1936), 614–17. Eccles, Frontenac. Faillon, Histoire de la colonie française, III. Ægidius Fauteux, “Les surprises de la généalogie,” BRH, LI (1945), 391–94. Lionel Groulx, “Frontenac vs l’abbé de Fénelon: une tragi-comédie judiciaire,” RHAF, XII (1958–59), 358–71.
Revisions based on:
Arch. Départementales, Charente (Angoulême, France), J 960.