Acta Sanctorum: St. Francis Laval (May 6)
May 06, 2024
Fr. John Colacino C.PP.S.


May 6

St. Francis Laval

Life (1623-1708)

New France at one time embraced all of North America apart from the American seaboard and the Hispanic Southwest. Eventually its control receded, but it had meanwhile established the Province of Quebec as a Francophile and Catholic territory. Francis Laval, the first bishop of Quebec, had had a strong influence in confirming its Gallic character and Catholic identity. His full name was Francois de Montmorency Laval. He was born in Normandy, the third son of a soldier of high aristocratic level. Destined for the priesthood according to custom, but also according to his own content, Francis entered the royal college of LaFleche, the most famous of French Jesuit schools, at the age of nine. At age 12, according to the contemporary church practice, he was admitted to the clergy and named a canon of Evreux by his uncle, the bishop of that diocese. At 19 he transferred to the Jesuit College de Clermont in Paris for his theological studies. There he associated with a number of zealous young seminarians who would eventually found the Seminary of Foreign Missions. Laval would have been ordained a priest before 1647, but the death in quick succession of his father and two older brothers left him heir to the family responsibilities, and he had to take time off to attend to them. Meanwhile, named archdeacon of the diocese of Evreux, he attended devotedly to the duties of that administrative office.

In 1653, Pope Innocent X appointed him vicar apostolic of Tonkin, Indochina, today Vietnam. (French Jesuits had established a stable mission there as early as 1615.) But ecclesiastical intrigue, war, traveling conditions, and renewed family obligations conspired against his setting out at once for Asia. From 1655 to 1658 he lived at the “Hermitage”, a retreat house at Caen, in the practice of piety and good works. This stay brought him into close contact with some of the leading spiritual reformers of the time. He was deeply influenced by the teachings of Jean de Bernieres-Bertigny, the lay mystic who had founded the “Hermitage”. Finally Rome named him titular bishop of Petraea and vicar apostolic, not of Tonkin but of Quebec! Consecrated a bishop in Paris on December 8, 1658, he arrived in Quebec City June 16, 1659. At that time French Canada was a typical frontier settlement. Quebec City had only 500 inhabitants, and Canada no more than 2200 souls, all struggling to make a living but fearful of being destroyed at any moment by the Iroquois Indians. The colony needed, above all, a strong shepherd. Laval proved to be the ideal leader: a churchman of vision, a patriot who was still not afraid to defend the Church when civil officials interfered; a nobleman who could command, yet was himself a pattern of humility and devotion.

The new Vicar Apostolic left the Indian missions in the care of his friends the Jesuits, although he later invited Recollect Franciscans to work in the local mission field. He personally baptized in a solemn ceremony, one of the outstanding Iroquois converts, the noble Onondaga chieftain Garakontie. He was tireless in his visitations, which entailed difficult travels through wild country. He encouraged the Catholics to practice religious devotions, especially to the Holy Family, the Immaculate Conception, and Saint Anne (the cult of St. Anne developed at Beaupre during his episcopate). Laval’s focus on education was thorough and durable. He set up a complete educational system: primary, classical and technical, largely with his personal funds. He also founded a seminary (1663) that became both the source and center of his diocesan priesthood, and an institution paralleling the famous Seminary of Foreign Missions in France. Out of his seminary would arise, in 1852, Laval University, which subsequently acquired a Montreal branch as well. In 1668 the bishop also initiated a minor seminary. Obedient to the instructions of the King, he admitted Native American boys as candidates for the priesthood to this “little seminary”, but priestly and religious vocations would always be rare among the Indians. In 1674 Quebec was created a diocese, the first in Canada, and Msgr. Laval was, of course, named its bishop.

Laval’s greatest struggle was against the liquor trade. The liquor merchants exploited the Indians’ weakness for firewater, and were in danger of corrupting them completely. Eventually, after much consultation, Bishop Laval decreed excommunication for those liquor sellers whose greed made them enemies of all Canadian society. Excommunication helped solve the problem, but it gained for Laval many enemies in business and government. The first bishop of Quebec loved Canada and contributed greatly not only to its piety but to good government, law enforcement, and even military security. In 1688 he retired, worn out by his tireless efforts. Personally, he was devout, self-denying, and devoted to the poor.

On June 22, 1980, he was declared “blessed” by Pope John Paul II. Beatified on this same occasion were Marie Guyard, foundress of the Canadian Ursulines, and Kateri Tekakwitha, “Lily of the Mohawks”. They were three great heroes of pioneer Quebec!  Francis-Xavier de Montmorency-Laval was canonized by Pope Francis on April 3, 2014. --Fr. Robert F. McNamara


(Year B). His thanksgiving after the holy sacrifice lasted till seven o'clock, and yet, even in the greatest cold of the severe Canadian winter, he had nothing to warm his frozen limbs but the brazier which he had used to celebrate the mass. A good part of his day, and often of the night, when his sufferings deprived him of sleep, was also devoted to prayer or spiritual reading, and nothing was more edifying than to see the pious octogenarian telling his beads or reciting his breviary while walking slowly through the paths of his garden. He was the first up and the last to retire, and whatever had been his occupations during the day, never did he lie down without having scrupulously observed all the spiritual offices, readings or reciting of beads. It was not, however, that his food gave him a superabundance of physical vigour, for the Trappists did not eat more frugally than he. A soup, which he purposely spoiled by diluting it amply with hot water, a little meat and a crust of very dry bread composed his ordinary fare, and dessert, even on feast days, was absolutely banished from his table. "For his ordinary drink," says Brother Houssart, "he took only hot water slightly flavoured with wine; and every one knows that his Lordship never took either cordial or dainty wines, or any mixture of sweets of any sort whatever, whether to drink or to eat, except that in his last years I succeeded in making him take every evening after his broth, which was his whole supper, a piece of biscuit as large as one's thumb, in a little wine, to aid him to sleep. I may say without exaggeration that his whole life was one continual fast, for he took no breakfast, and every evening only a slight collation.... He used his whole substance in alms and pious works; and when he needed anything, such as clothes, linen, etc., he asked it from the seminary like the humblest of his ecclesiastics. He was most modest in matters of dress, and I had great difficulty in preventing him from wearing his clothes when they were old, dirty and mended. During twenty years he had but two winter cassocks, which he left behind him on his death, the one still quite good, the other all threadbare and mended. To be brief, there was no one in the seminary poorer in dress...." Mgr. de Laval set an example of the principal virtues which distinguish the saints; so he could not fail in that which our Lord incessantly recommends to His disciples, charity! He no longer possessed anything of his own, since he had at the outset abandoned his patrimony to his brother, and since later on he had given to the seminary everything in his possession. But charity makes one ingenious: by depriving himself of what was strictly necessary, could he not yet come to the aid of his brothers in Jesus Christ? "Never was prelate," says his eulogist, M. de la Colombière, "more hostile to grandeur and exaltation.... In scorning grandeur, he triumphed over himself by a poverty worthy of the anchorites of the first centuries, whose rules he faithfully observed to the end of his days. Grace had so thoroughly absorbed in the heart of the prelate the place of the tendencies of our corrupt nature that he seemed to have been born with an aversion to riches, pleasures and honours.... If you have noticed his dress, his furniture and his table, you must be aware that he was a foe to pomp and splendour. There is no village priest in France who is not better nourished, better clad and better lodged than was the Bishop of Quebec. Far from having an equipage suitable to his rank and dignity he had not even a horse of his own. And when, towards the end of his days, his great age and his infirmities did not allow him to walk, if he wished to go out he had to borrow a carriage. Why this economy? In order to have a storehouse full of garments, shoes and blankets, which he distributed gratuitously, with paternal kindness and prudence. This was a business which he never ceased to ply, in which he trusted only to himself, and with which he concerned himself up to his death." (Biography by de Breath; The Makers of Canada)
Musical Selection (trans.)

The time that we take, saying “I love you”
Is all that remains at the end of our days
The vows that we make
The flowers that we sow
We harvest them within
Among the splendid gardens of time’s flow.

People of my country, your turn has come
To let love speak to you
People of my country, your turn has come
To let love speak to you

The time to love each other, and the day to say it,
Melt like the snow touched by spring.
Celebrate our joys, celebrate our laughter
Our eyes meeting in embrace
Tomorrow I was only twenty.

The stream of our days, today comes to a pause
And forms into a pool where everyone can see
As if it were a mirror, the love that it reflects,
For those hearts to whom I wish
The time to live out all our hopes.

O God, eternal shepherd of the faithful,
who sent Blessed François de Laval as bishop
to extend the dominion of Christ to the people of Canada,
grant, through his intercession,
that we may strive always to keep and to put into practice
the faith which, with unquenchable zeal, he strove to proclaim.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God, for ever and ever.  Amen.