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Young, Brian.

Kingston, McGill-Queen's University Press, c1986. 295pp, cloth, $30.00, ISBN 0-7735-0554-7. CIP

Reviewed by Robert Nicholas Berard

Volume 15 Number 2
1987 March

Most traditional treatments of the role of Roman Catholic religious orders in the history of French Canada have dealt primarily with their work in education, social service, and the formation and sustenance of a national culture. In this fascinating study of the Sulpician Seminary of Montreal during the middle of the nineteenth century, however, Brian Young of McGill University examines in detail the working of a major religious order as an economic institution.

A product of the Catholic Reformation, the Compagnie de Saint-Sulpice was founded in France in the 1640s to provide theological education in its seminaries and a model of parochial administration in the churches it served. Drawn largely from the French upper classes, socially and politically conservative, the Sulpicians grew rapidly into one of the most influential religious congregations in France. They acquired three large seigniories in Canada at the end of the seventeenth century, one of which comprised the whole island of Montreal. They established a Seminary and the College de Montreal, maintained an Indian mission at Oka, served as the economic and spiritual advisors to the three major female religious orders in Montreal, and provided pastoral care to the faithful of that growing community. By 1759, the Sulpicians were the largest male religious community in New France.

From the Conquest in 1759 until 1840, the Seminary endured a period of political and economic insecurity. Although its seigneurial rights were accepted by the large mercantile interests in Montreal, the Seminary's economic privileges were challenged by local producers, such as millers, who wished to compete against Sulpician mills; by censitaires, who resisted payment of traditional duties and taxes; and by urban land developers, who wished to free land from Sulpician leasehold. The order's traditional Gallican orientation ensured generally good relations with British authorities, especially after the strong support shown the government during the War of 1812 and the rebellions of 1837-1838, but it had contributed to the alienation of both French Canadian liberals and the episcopal authorities, who feared that the Sulpicians were too ready to sacrifice traditional French Canadian rights for state recognition of their economic privileges. In this atmosphere, the Seminary was re- luctant to test its legal standing in the courts.

In 1840, however, an ordinance was passed that gave clear legal status to Sulpician property rights in exchange for undertakings that the Seminary's urban properties would be converted to freehold tenure where possible and that many seigneurial duties would be waived for a cash settlement. This arrangement made possible the transformation of the Seminary from a feudal landlord in a precapitalist economic system to an important player in the emerging capitalist economy of Lower Canada. Land holdings were converted into new sources of income from rents, stocks and bonds, mortgages, warehousing, banking functions, and land sales. An essentially personal style of management grew steadily more professional, and the Seminary became, through its investment and land development policies, a major force in the social and economic growth of Montreal.

Young's chronicling of the Seminary's economic rites of passage into the age of industrial capitalism is well researched, making critical use of a wide range of the best recent research on this period and supported by a wealth of economic data spread over several appendices. The book is clearly written, although we are never sure if leases are commuted or commu-tated, and there are more typographical errors than usual in works from this press. The author has challenged effectively the assumption that Catholic institutions blindly resisted the shift from the feudal to the capitalist economy and obstructed economic development in Lower Canada.

In concentrating on the Seminary "in its corporate capacity," however, he does not always do justice to its religious mission. An increase in Canadian vocations in the nineteenth century is accounted for in purely social and economic terms. The Seminary's exceptionally gentle treatment of bad debtors, its social investments, and the favourable terms it frequently accorded its business partners are recognized, but explained only as gestures to secure a more positive public image.

Furthermore, the author includes a less well-argued chapter on the old Marxist hobby-horse of class legitimation. Through the haze of ideology, Sulpician and other philanthropy becomes a simple conspiracy to frustrate "broad popular hostility," and efforts at social and moral improvement appear as an "attack on popular culture." The Seminary's moral leadership, especially among the Irish population, is simply an attempt at pacification, and its values are said to have "meshed nicely" with the requirements of industrialists. By ignoring the internal agenda of Catholic theology and ecclesiastical policy, Young caricatures the Seminary as a mere handmaid of capitalist authority. This is unfortunate in work that makes a substantial contribution to Canadian urban, business, and religious history.

Robert Nicholas Berard, Dept. of Education, Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S.
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