1763-1799 - Anxiety and Hope

A Time of Transition

The months immediately after the signing of the Treaty of Paris brought the departure of the French colonial officials and military and some of the leading families, the installation of a British military government and an influx of merchants, land speculators and settlers from the American colonies and from Britain.

However, it was not yet clear that the final destiny of the territory that would become Canada had yet been permanently decided. France was building up its navy and might perhaps reverse its defeat. Relations between the American colonies and Britain were increasingly fractious.

The desire to obtain the loyalty of their new subjects in the colony that became the province of Quebec led the British to pass the Quebec Act in 1774. This act guaranteed freedom of religion to the colonists and restored the old French civil law that had been suspended after the Conquest. It extended the borders of the Province of Quebec to include all territories that had been under the governor of Quebec during the French regime.

The American Revolution once more brought war to what had been New France: an American force occupied Montreal in 1775-1776 but was unable to take Quebec. An important consequence of the Revolution for Canada was the large influx of Loyalists, those American colonists who had remained faithful to the Crown and had to flee to avoid persecution. While some of these settled in the French villages most of the more than 30,000 of them settled in the Maritimes, in the Eastern Townships and in what is now Ontario, opening up territory that had been wilderness.

On the economic scene, 1783 saw the founding of the North West Company with headquarters in Montreal. This company which entered into victorious competition with both the Hudson’s Bay Company in the north and American trade to the south, helped make Montreal the economic hub of the new country that was emerging.

Portrait of General James Murray

Portrait of General James Murray

Quebec, Province of Quebec (Quebec), 1700.

The Congregation Recovers

Besides the destruction of Louisbourg the war had caused its greatest devastation and disruption to the work of the Congregation in the Quebec region. The houses of the Congregation at both Quebec and Château-Richer were burned at the time of the siege of Quebec and the house at Pointe-aux-Trembles de Québec (named today Neuville), occupied by the military. However, reconstruction began even before the signing of the peace treaty. In 1761, the house at Pointe-aux-Trembles was returned to the community. Work resumed at Sainte-Famille on the Île-d’Orléans. Although the sisters did not return to Château-Richer they opened a new mission at Saint-François de la Rivière-du-Sud in 1763. The house at Quebec was rebuilt by 1770.

The war did not bring the same kind of destruction to Montreal and a chance meeting between two Congregation sisters at Pointe Saint-Charles and General Jeffrey Amherst in 1760 seems to have prepared the way for amicable relations with the new authorities. Like their co-citizens the sisters faced the want and poverty caused by massive devaluation of currency and by the loss of income from France. Their problems were compounded when, for the second time in its history, the Congregation lost its mother house and all its contents in a massive fire in 1768. With the support of the Sulpicians, the Bishop and other benefactors, they rebuilt their house and the chapel Notre-Dame- des-Victoires.

The difficulties of the time caused the closing of two of the Congregation’s earliest missions in the 1780s, that at Lachine and that at Champlain. But there were new missions, Saint-Denis in 1783 and Pointe-Claire in 1784. In 1769 the Congregation had completed the purchase of Île Saint-Paul whose farms would continue to support the Congregation and its work until after the middle of the 20th century.

Recovery of objects from the Mother House ruins

Recovery of objects from the Mother House ruins

Montreal, Province of Quebec (Quebec), 1768.

Keeping Faith with the Past

During the night of April 11, 1768, the sisters of the Congregation awakened to find that their Mother House in Montreal was on fire. They escaped only with their lives an immense conflagration which destroyed ninety houses, two churches and a school. Like their predecessors in 1683, they took refuge with their neighbours, the sisters at the Hôtel-Dieu. The situation was so dire that the novices were offered the opportunity to return to their families. They chose to remain and to join in the immense personal sacrifices involved in the work of rebuilding. In this effort, the Congregation had the support of the Sulpicians, especially of the superior, Étienne Montgolfier.

This was not the only support offered to the community by Abbé Montgolfier in this period. He gathered all the information he could about the life of Marguerite Bourgeoys and the early history of the Congregation and wrote a biography that was to become the first such work published in Canada. He was also active in the preservation of a more concrete memorial of Marguerite Bourgeoys and of Montreal’s first days. Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel had been totally destroyed by fire in 1754 and the British thought of erecting their barracks on the site where the ruins lay. Montgolfier led the effort that resulted in the rebuilding of the chapel over these ruins in 1771-1773.

A further sign of the wish of the Congregation to remain faithful to its origins was the compilation of the “Coutumier”. The purpose of this work was to record in writing the traditional usages and customs of the Congregation.

Portrait of Étienne Montgolfier

Portrait of Étienne Montgolfier

Ville-Marie (Montreal), New France (Quebec), 1700.

Preserving the Catholic Faith

In the aftermath of the conquest, it was the expressed intention of Minister of the Colonies in London to establish the Church of England in Canada and to induce the inhabitants and their children gradually to embrace the Protestant religion. One of the principal means to this end was to be the establishment of Protestant schools in each township. General James Murray, commander-in-chief of the colony from 1762-1766, and Sir Guy Carleton who replaced him as governor were favourable toward the Canadians and tolerant of the Catholic Church. This was not true of all the new arrivals many of whom were both anti-French and profoundly anti-Catholic. Neither governor established an elected assembly in part because according to British law at that time no Catholic could hold office in such an assembly so that to do so would have given a handful of English-speaking Protestant merchants power over 70,000 Canadians.

Another threat also hung over the Catholic Church in Canada. Bishop Plessis had died on the eve of the Conquest and unless another bishop was appointed there could be no new priestly ordinations. Murray managed to persuade the authorities to permit the consecration of Jean-Olivier Briand as bishop in 1766 but there was still a shortage of priests diminished somewhat by the arrival of refugees from the French Revolution.

The attitudes and policies of Murray and Carleton lay behind the provisions of the Quebec Act guaranteeing religious freedom in 1774. However, this was still a precarious time when the work of Catholic teachers such as the sisters of the Congregation and the continued existence of Catholic schools was of crucial importance to the survival of the Catholic faith.

Class at the end XVIIIth century

Class at the end XVIIIth century

Montreal, Province of Quebec (Quebec), [after 1783].