Born at Montigny-sur-Avre, France on April 30, 1623, Francois de Laval was the son of Hughes de Laval and Michelle de Péricard;. He was a scion of an illustrious family, whose ancestor was baptized with Clovis at Reims, and whose motto reads: "Dieu ayde au primer baron chrestien."
Laval studied under the Jesuits at La Flèche, and learned philosophy and theology at their college of Clermont (Paris), where he joined a group of fervent youths directed by Father Bagot. This congregation was the germ of the Seminary of Foreign Missions, famous in the history of the Church, and of which the future seminary of Quebec was to be a sister institution.
Because his two older brothers died in battle, François inherited the family title and estate. But he resisted all worldly attractions, and his mother's entreaties, and held fast to his vocation. Laval was ordained a priest in 1747, and served as archdeacon at Evereux.
The renowned Jesuit missionary, Alexander de Rhodes, having obtained from Innocent X permission to appoint three vicars Apostolic for the East, chose Laval for the Tonquin mission. The Portuguese Court vehemently opposed the plan and from 1655 to 1658 Laval lived at the "hermitage" of Caen, in the practice of piety and good works. This solitude was a fitting preamble to his apostolic career.
He was finally appointed Vicar Apostolic of New France, with the title of Bishop of Petrea, and was consecrated on December 8, 1658, by the papal nuncio Piccolomini in the abbatical church of St-Germain-des-Prés, Paris. He landed in Quebec on 16 June, 1659, which then counted barely 500 inhabitants. In fact, the whole French population of Canada did not exceed 2200 souls. Laval's first report to the pope, dated 1660, expresses admiration for the natural grandeur of the country, courage, hope for the future, and praise for the zeal of the Jesuits.
From the outset Bishop Laval had to assert his authority. Most of the colonists hailed from Rouen, and the Archbishop of Rouen, Francois De Champvallon, resented that he did not have jurisdiction over the colony. Laval claimed his jurisdiction over New France directly from Rome. This conflict, which caused trouble and uncertainty, was ended when the See of Quebec was erected in 1674 as a regular diocese depending solely on Rome.
But the hardest struggle, the trial of a life-time, was against the liquor-traffic with the natives. The civilization and salvation of the aboriginals, and the welfare of New France depended on a finding a solution to this problem. The challenge was made more arduous by the lawless greed of the white trader, and the dependency on alcohol that developed among the natives because of it.
After exhausting all persuasive measures and consulting the Sorbonne theologians, Laval forbade liquor traffic under pain of excommunication. The civil authorities pleaded with him to lift the ban in the interest of commerce. First the Governor Pierre Dubois d'Avaugour relaxed the severity of the prohibition, but, through Laval's influence at court, it was fully reinstated.
At this time the Diocese of Quebec comprised all of North America, except New England, the Atlantic sea-board, and the Spanish colonies to the West. Laval's zeal embraced all whom he could reach by his representatives or by his personal visitations. In season and out of season, he made long and perilous journeys by land and water to minister to his flock. His fatherly kindness sustained the far-off missionary. "His heart is always with us", writes the Jesuit Dablon. Laval was a protector and guide to the religious houses in Quebec and Montreal. He was also deeply attached to the Jesuits, his former teachers, and recalled to Canada in 1670 the Franciscan Recollets, who had brought the Gospel to region in the first place.
With the baptism of Garakontie, the renowned Iroquois man, an effacacious promoter of the true Faith was secured among his fellow-countrymen. Laval's foresight made him foster the most cherished devotions of the Church: belief in the Immaculate Conception, the titular of his cathedral, and the cult of the Holy Family, which flourished on Canadian soil (Encyclical of Leo XIII). He was a devout client of St. Anne, whose shrine at Beaupre was rebuilt in 1673.
Laval was also one of the foremost promoters of education. At that early period, with a handful of colonists and scanty resources, he organized a complete education system: primary, technical, and classical. His seminary, established in 1663, and minor seminary, established in 1668, trained candidates for the priesthood.
An industrial school, founded at St-Joachim (1678), provided the colony with skilled farmers and craftsmen. Laval gave all of his possessions to these institutions, especially the seminary. These institutions eventually became the university which today bears his name.
In view of the future he built the seminary on a relatively large scale, which excited the envy and criticism of Governor Frontenac. No regular parishes had been established yet, so the clergy were attached to the seminary, from where they were dispatched for parochial or mission work. The tithes, after much discussion and opposition, had finally been limited to the twenty-sixth bushel of grain harvested, an enactment still legally in force in the Province of Quebec. These tithes were paid to the seminary, which, in return provided labourers for Christ's vineyard.
Laval's patriotism was remarkable. The creation of the Sovereign Council in lieu of the Company of New France was greatly due to his influence, and helped ensure the proper administration of justice, the progress of colonization, and the defence of the country against the ever-increasing ferocity and audacity of the Iroquois.
Exhausted by thirty years of a laborious apostolate, and convinced that a younger bishop would work more efficaciously for God's glory and the good of souls, Laval resigned in 1688. His successor, Abbé de St-Vallier, a virtuous and generous prelate, did not share all his views regarding administration. Laval might have enjoyed a well-earned retreat in France, but after having returned to France he realized he preferred to remain in the country that was the scene of his labours.
To Laval’s sorrow, the seminary was burned twice (1701 and 1705), and rebuilt through his energy and generosity. The end was near. He spent his final years in greater retirement and humility, and died on May 6, 1708 in the odour of sanctity.
His reputation for holiness, though somewhat dimmed after the Conquest, revived during the nineteenth century. The cause for his canonization was introduced in 1890 and reached its completion on April 3, 2014 when Pope Francis signed a decree recognizing his sanctity in an equivalent canonization.
Photo courtesy of CNS