Canada’s Christian Heritage Web Site
Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve
“Bring about the glory of God and the salvation of the Indians.”
Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve was a noble soldier with a desire to make redemption accessible to the native people of New France. His efforts were part of the counter Reformation prevalent in seventeenth-century Europe to strengthen and spread Roman Catholicism throughout the world. This religious impulse led to the creation of Montreal in 1642, with Maisonneuve its first governor. Maisonneuve, along with a group of affluent Catholic mystics in France, were moved by visions to build a missionary centre in the wilderness with the intention of converting the natives.
Maisonneuve was born and baptized in Neuville-sur-Vanne in the province of Champagne in 1612. His family was deeply religious, well-known, and well respected. As was the custom, Maisonneuve’s military career began early: he became a soldier at thirteen. Maisonneuve’s inclination toward a role in the New World took root as he was recovering from a war wound received in Arras (Flanders). His long recovery proved to be a time of enlightenment, sparked by his reading of Paul Le Jeune’s Account of What Happened in New France on the Great Saint Lawrence River, wherein the Jesuit priest describes his evangelistic mission to a Montagnais tribe in Tadoussac. Aware that a handful of English citizens had recently crossed the Atlantic in the Mayflower to establish a devout Protestant society in the New World, Maisonneuve reasoned, “Why not attempt the same on French and Roman Catholic land?”
At thirty years of age, Maisonneuve retired from soldiering and went to Paris to seek employment. There, he met Jesuit Charles Lalemant, the procurator of the Canadian mission in France. Lalemant informed Maisonneuve of a project to create in Canada a station for the evangelization of the natives led by Jérôme de La Dauversière, a friend of Lalemant’s. La Dauversière had founded the Société Notre-Dame de Montréal and was in charge of acquiring the island, appointing a governor, and financing the colony. A meeting was arranged, and La Dauversière, finding Maisonneuve to be “a gentleman of virtue and heart,” appointed him the governor of the new colony.
Maisonneuve’s mission was to establish a Catholic settlement at Montreal for evangelization and colonization. He summarized it in four points: evangelize the Algonquin, teach them agricultural skills, provide them with medical assistance, and educate them.
Maisonneuve and his recruits left for New France in two ships on May 9, 1641. Accompanying him was JEANNE MANCE, the nurse and treasurer of the contingent, and some fifty men and women who were promised free land. Fall storms delayed their plans for the settlement of Montreal, however, forcing them to winter in Quebec City.
The colonists and the governor of Quebec City and their governor called their missionary intentions a “crazy plan.” The money and effort, they felt, would be better spent on Quebec City than in trying to evangelize Algonquin. They especially warned of attacks from the Iroquois. But Maisonneuve was resolute: “Nothing shall turn me one inch from my mission. Those who send me want me in Montreal, and it is my honour to fulfill their wish. Should each tree of the island be changed into an Iroquois, I would go.”
On May 17, 1642, Maisonneuve founded Ville-Marie on the island of Montreal, naming it after the Virgin Mary to whom he entrusted the protection of the colony. Mass was celebrated, and Father Vimont, the superior of the Jesuits in Canada, sermonized: “You are a grain of mustard seed that shall rise and grow until its branches overshadow the earth. You are few, but your work is the work of God.” A description of the day relates that “They sang hymns of joy and thanksgiving to God. After stepping out of a boat and putting his feet on the soil Monsieur de Chomedey dropped to his knees to adore God. They all sang psalms and hymns to the Lord.”
Meanwhile, La Dauversière published a book on Ville-Marie, The Purpose of Montreal, that raised support for the project in Paris. Written in 1643, it describes the settlement shortly after its founding: “There is a chapel there that serves as a parish, under the title of Notre Dame.… The inhabitants live for the most part communally, as in a sort of inn; others live on their private means, but all live in Jesus Christ, with one heart and soul.”
The settlement, however, was nearly destroyed by a flood in its first winter. On Christmas Eve 1642, the Saint Lawrence River overflowed. After consulting with the chaplains, Maisonneuve promised that he would carry a cross to the top of Mount Royal if the waters that were already surging against the gates of the fort subsided without causing serious damage. He put his promise in writing; had it read publicly; and then placed a cross, at whose foot was the written statement, on the bank of the overflowing river. After much prayer and invocations for the Virgin’s protection, the waters subsided. Two weeks later, Maisonneuve carried a cross through the bush to the top of Mount Royal. Today, an illuminated cross marks the spot.
Soon, a few Algonquin made contact with the settlement, which offered them food and protection. By 1643, however, Indian attacks were endangering the mission. Warring Iroquois forced Maisonneuve to return fire, first with thirty men against two hundred Indians, then with an organized, permanent defence. France, comparing persecuted Ville-Marie to the early church, sent new recruits. Maisonneuve was a revered leader who governed wisely and kept order in the growing colony. He ordered brawlers to pay the medical bills of their victims and slanderers to praise each other in public.
Over the years, Maisonneuve was recalled to Paris many times to discuss how best to preserve Montreal’s religious purpose amid growing economic interests. He took part in the powerful Communauté des Habitants assembly to save Montreal from becoming only a relay for the fur trade market, arguing that “money leads to perdition.” He also led fund-raising drives and recruited homesteaders in France. On one of these trips, he and Jeanne Mance were successful in getting funds and 120 new settlers. Among the latter was MARGUERITE BOURGEOYS, Montreal’s first teacher and the first teacher and the first of its nursing sisters.
In France, however, the Société Notre-Dame de Montréal weakened, lost directors, and went bankrupt. La Dauversière, insolvent and ruined, died. And Ville-Marie’s future was entrusted to Louis XIV.
Maisonneuve was recalled to France permanently in 1665. Although he had lived in Ville-Marie for twenty-three years, he never became a landowner, choosing to dedicate himself to his religious cause. Back in Paris, he lived in a secluded cabin that he built, and remained humble and discreet until his death in 1676.