Bishop Jacques Lartigue, who was bishop of Montreal from 1820 to 1840 and his successor, Bishop Ignace Bourget, had sent priests into the territories that were being formed on both sides of the frontier between the province of Quebec (Lower Canada from 1791 to 1840) and the United States. These were referred to as the townships.
Nature of the Townships
There is a good definition of the townships in the Codex Historicus of the Oblate house in Longueuil, written about the years 1844-1845: “Although Lower Canada was inhabited by Canadians of French origin and consequently Catholics, the banks of the Saint Lawrence and Chambly Rivers for a certain distance are what are known as the Seigneuries. There the land is let on a yearly basis… All around, or at least to the east, west and south, there are what are called the townships or land which is bought as it is in France with no credit given. This part of the country is less populated than the rest and the population is English, Scottish, Irish, but mainly Anglo-American in the east, and therefore mainly Protestant. What are the reasons for that? It is said that England, by way of an unjust challenge to the French Canadians who have preserved this colony, wanted to surround them with an English circle and had made it the refuge of Loyalist Americans sending its surplus population there to colonize it. The English language, Protestant religion, mountainous country, it would take more than that to chase the Canadians away, especially when it was a question of leaving their big river which is their pride and joy; nevertheless some Canadians agreed to go into exile in the townships. The political troubles of eighteen hundred and thirty-seven together with the famine years obliged a greater number to go there. Unfortunately, it was too late, the Americans, realizing that there was a fortune to be made there quickly, had bought all the land for little or nothing. Some years previously it would have been possible to become an independent proprietor but now the only thing left was to become a slave and remain so. That was what caused the sad state of the Canadian mission in the townships while the Propagation of the Faith was unable to provide the means of dealing with it. People who had gone there to seek a morsel of bread were in no condition to build and decorate churches, or to provide for maintaining a priest. However, it was thanks to the help provided by this admirable society that the face of Catholicism has changed in the townships of the East.”
The Oblates in the Townships
Less than two months after their arrival in Canada, Bishop Bourget sent an Oblate, Father Lucien Lagier and a diocesan priest, Father John MacFalvey, to give a mission in the townships. They reached Granby but became ill and returned after eight days. In May 1842, four priests preached a mission in Saint-Georges, a newly formed parish not far from Granby. During the summer, Father Honorat informed Bishop de Mazenod that the bishop of Montreal wished to entrust this ministry to the Oblates. On October 2, 1843, Father Honorat wrote, among other things: “As regards these townships, which in my opinion should be our work of predilection, because they are the most abandoned souls, because they are the most abundant souls after those of the native peoples et oves qui perierunt. It will be necessary to speak both languages, or rather we would need to be two, one who speaks French and the other who speaks English. Nothing would suit us better. Oh! If only you had an Irishman to send us at once! The work is already there. What an amount of good could be done!”
In the month of October 1843, accompanied by two diocesan priests, Father Fleury set out to take possession of the missions in the townships. During the winter of 1843-1844 he worked there for two months with Father Dandurand. He returned together with the diocesan priest, Father Hughes, in July, September and October 1844 and in January-March, June and September 1845. They preached and administered the sacraments in about twenty localities, branching out from four centres: Granby, Stanstead, Dunham and Stanbridge. Father Baudrand was sent to Ottawa in 1856 and he does not seem to have been replaced regularly by any other priest in the towns of the East.
Nevertheless, many Oblates exercised a similar ministry afterwards in the Ottawa region (see: L’Orignal and South Gloucester) and then, in the United States, around Burlington and Plattsburgh (see: Burlington, Plattsburgh). The Oblates who worked in the townships are, mainly: Fathers Fleury Baudrand, Lucien Lagier and Damase Dandurand in the eastern areas, Fathers Pierre Telmon, Médard Bourassa, Jeremiah Ryan, Hercule Clément and François Déléage in the Ottawa region, and Fathers Augustin Gaudet, Eugène Cauvin, Jean Pierre Bernard and Claude Sallaz in the states of Vermont and New York.
According to Gaston Carrière, it seems that the apostolate of the Oblates in the eastern areas lasted only two or three years and nearly ten years in the diocese of Ottawa and in the eastern United States. Canon Philippe Desranleau has written about this ministry of the Oblates: “Who will ever write about the misery suffered by these priests… They had to travel on foot or on horseback for several days following paths that were hardly visible. For them it was an adventure, from Saint-Hilaire on the Richelieu River, or from Longueuil on the Saint Lawrence to Sherbrooke in the eastern region, to Saint Albans in Vermont, to Plattsburgh in the state of New York. When they reached their destination, they settled in as best they could in abandoned cowsheds or barns. They preached during four or five weeks, either in the open during summer or in freezing sheds during winter. Principally, they heard confessions. One cannot but be astounded at their endurance, their tenacity, the heroism of these men of faith…” (La Bannière de Marie Immaculée, 35 (1927), p.50.
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.