Saints for Our Times: Francis of Quebec worked the frontier of North America

By Mary Lou Gibson
Columnist

In the late 1650s, the Quebec mission that was founded by Samuel de Champlin in 1608 was a little settlement of fewer than 2,000 inhabitants and greatly in need of apostolic leadership. It was to this territory that Pope Alexander VII appointed François Montmorency-Laval as vicar apostolic. Paul Burns writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that this was the newly established apostolic vicariate of New France, as the French settlements in North America were then known.
François (Francis) was well prepared for this mission assignment. He was born in the Eure region of north-western France in 1623 into a distinguished family. His father was Hughes de Laval and his mother was Michelle de Péricard. He began his education with the Jesuits at their school in La Flèche where he showed an early interest in an ecclesiastical career.
Burns writes that he was appointed canon of Evreux Cathedral by the bishop who was his uncle. This happened before he was ordained a priest.
Francis moved on to study for the priesthood at Clermont College in Paris, but was called away to take charge of the family business after his two older brothers died. He was finally able to return to his studies and was ordained in 1647. He quickly received appointment as archdeacon of Evreux where he was responsible for administering church property and appointing the clergy. After several years in this post, he became the vicar apostolic of the missionary territory of Tonkin (the northern part of what is now Vietnam). But, Burns writes, that Francis never actually went there because this was a time of war between warlords of the north and south.
Francis then entered a meditative period and spent four years in retreat at the school of spirituality in the Hermitage at Caen, near the Normandy coast.
Because of his previous appointments, Francis was considered an important figure in church circles. Matthew Bunson writes in “John Paul II’s Book of Saints” that soon after his appointment as vicar apostolic of New France in 1658, Francis was consecrated a bishop on Dec. 8 of that year. 
Shortly thereafter Francis sailed for Canada and reached Quebec in June 1659. There, he found a frontier diocese in need of organization and stability. His diocese included all of North America except for the British-held lands of New England and the Spanish settlements. When he arrived in Quebec, Francis said that his sole mission was to be “a bishop according to God’s heart.”
For the next 30 years, Francis devoted his life to the mission church. He founded parishes and defended the native tribes from exploitation by European merchants. He also attempted to limit the sales of alcohol and to regulate the fur trade. He returned to France in 1662, and, according to Burns, obtained many privileges for the church in Canada from King Louis XIV.
He founded a seminary in Quebec, and in 1674, when Quebec became a diocese, Francis became its first bishop. He spent the next several years erecting a cathedral dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and restoring a shrine of St. Anne at Baupré. He is also responsible for starting the Catholic school system in Canada.
He was an active bishop for 10 years, but his health began to deteriorate from the many years of intense activity in harsh conditions, and he resigned in 1684. He spent the last years of his life in retirement in the seminary he had founded and died there on May 6, 1708.
Burns writes that in 1712, the see of Quebec extended over the whole territory of New France covering Canada and most of the present U.S. excluding the English colonies in the east and the Spanish territories in the south. There are now more than 150 dioceses in modern Canada.
Francis de Montmorency-Laval was beatified by St. John Paul II in 1980 and is considered the father of the church in Canada. On April 3, 2014, Pope Francis made him a saint by “equipollent canonization” or “declared by decree.” His feast day is May 6.