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The 21st of September, 1833, was
a day of desolation to me. On that day I received the letter of my bishop appointing
me curate of Beauport. Many times, I had said to the other priests, when talking
about our choice of the different parishes, that I would never consent to be
curate of Beauport. That parish, which is a kind of suburb of Quebec, was too
justly considered the very nest of the drunkards of Canada. With a soil of unsurpassed
fertility, inexhaustible lime quarries, gardens covered with most precious vegetables
and fruits, forests near at hand, to furnish wood to the city of Quebec, at
their doors, the people of Beauport, were, nevertheless, classed among the poorest,
most ragged and wretched people of Canada. For almost every cent they were getting
at the market went into the hands of the saloon-keepers. Hundreds of times I
had seen the streets which led from St. Roch to the upper town of Quebec almost
impassable, when the drunkards of Beauport were leaving the market to go home.
How many times I heard them fill the air with their cries and blasphemies; and
saw the streets reddened with their blood when fighting with one another, like
The Rev. Mr. Begin, who was their cure since 1825, had accepted the moral principles of the great Roman Catholic theologian Liguori, who says, "that a man is not guilty of the sin of drunkenness, so long as he can distinguish between a small pin and a load of hay." Of course the people would not find themselves guilty of sin, so long as their eyes could make that distinction. After weeping to my heart's content at the reading of the letter from my bishop, which had come to me as a thunderbolt, my first thought was that my misfortune, though very great, was not irretrievable. I knew that there were many priests who were as anxious to become curates of Beauport as I was opposed to it. My hope was that the bishop would be touched by my tears, if not convinced by my arguments, and that he would not persist in putting on my shoulders a burden which they could not carry. I immediately went to the palace, and did all in my power to persuade his lordship to select another priest for Beauport. He listened to my arguments with a great deal of patience and kindness, and answered:
"My dear Mr. Chiniquy, you forget too often, that 'implicit and perfect obedience to his superiors is the virtue of a good priest. You have given me a great deal of trouble and disappointment by refusing to relieve the good bishop Provencher of his too heavy burden. It was at my suggestion, you know very well, that he had selected you to be his coworker along the coasts of the Pacific, by consenting to become the first Bishop of Oregon. Your obstinate resistance to your superiors in that circumstance, and in several other cases, is one of your weak points. If you continue to follow your own mind rather than obey those whom God has chosen to guide you, I really fear for your future. I have already too often yielded to your rebellious character. Through respect to myself, and for your own good, today I must force you to obey me. You have spoken of the drunkenness of the people of Beauport, as one of the reasons why I should not put you at the head of that parish; but this is just one of the reasons why I have chosen you. You are the only priest I know, in my diocese, able to struggle against the long-rotted and detestable evil, with a hope of success.
"'Quod scriptum scriptum est.' Your name is entered in our official registers as the curate of Beauport; it will remain there till I find better reasons than those you have given me to change my mind. After all, you cannot complain; Beauport is not only one of the most beautiful parishes of Canada, but it is one of the most splendid spots in the world. It is, besides, a parish which gives great revenues to its curate. In your beautiful parsonage, at the door of the old capital of Canada, you will have the privileges of the city, and the enjoyments of some of the most splendid sceneries of this continent. If you are not satisfied with me today, I do not know what I can do to please you."
Though far from being reconciled to my new position, I saw there was no help; I had to obey, as my predecessor, Mr. Begin, was to sell all his house furniture, before taking charge of his far distant parish, La Riviere Ouelle, he kindly invited me to go and buy, on long credit, what I wished for my own use, which I did. The whole parish was on the spot long before me, partly to show their friendly sympathy for their last pastor, and partly to see their new curate. I was not long in the crowd without seeing that my small stature and my leanness were making a very bad impression on the people, who were accustomed to pay their respects to a comparatively tall man, whose large and square shoulders were putting me in the shade. Many jovial remarks, though made in halfsuppressed tones, came to my ears, to tell me that I was cutting a poor figure by the side of my jolly predecessor.
"He is hardly bigger than my tobacco box," said one not far from me: "I think I could put him in my vest pocket."
"Has he not the appearance of a salted sardine!" whispered a woman to her neighbour, with a hearty laugh.
Had I been a little wiser, I could have redeemed myself by some amiable or funny words, which would have sounded pleasantly in the ears of my new parishioners. But, unfortunately for me, that wisdom is not among the gifts I received. After a couple of hours of auction, a large cloth was suddenly removed from a long table, and presented to our sight an incredible number of wine and beer glasses, of empty decanters and bottles, of all sizes and quality. This brought a burst of laughter and clapping of hands from almost every one. All eyes were turned towards me, and I heard from hundreds of lips: "This is for you, Mr. Chiniquy." Without weighing my words, I instantly answered: "I do not come to Beauport to buy wine glasses and bottles, but to break them."
These words fell upon their ears as a spark of fire on a train of powder. Nine-tenths of that multitude, without being very drunk, had emptied from four to ten glasses of beer or rum, which Rev. Mr. Begin himself was offering them in a corner of the parsonage. A real deluge of insults and cursings overwhelmed me; and I soon saw that the best thing I could do was to leave the place without noise, and by the shortest way.
I immediately went to the bishop's place, to try again to persuade his lordship to put another curate at the head of such a people. "You see, my lord," I said, "that by my indiscreet and rash answer I have for ever lost the respect and confidence of that people. They already hate me; their brutal cursings have fallen upon me like balls of fire. I prefer to be carried to my grave next Sabbath, than have to address such a degraded people. I feel that I have neither the moral nor the physical power to do any good there."
"I differ from you," replied the bishop. "Evidently the people wanted to try your mettle, by inviting you to buy those glasses, and you would have lost yourself by yielding to their desire. Now they have seen that you are brave and fearless. It is just what the people of Beauport want; I have known them for a long time. It is true that they are drunkards; but, apart from that vice, there is not a nobler people under heaven. They have, literally, no education, but they possess marvelous common sense, and have many noble and redeeming qualities, which you will soon find out. You took them by surprise when you boldly said you wanted to break their glasses and decanters. Believe me, they will bless you, if by the grace of God, you fulfill your prophecy; though it will be a miracle if you succeed in making the people of Beauport sober. But you must not despair. Trust in God; fight as a good soldier, and Jesus Christ will win the victory." Those kind words of my bishop did me good, though I would have preferred being sent to the backwoods of Canada, than to the great parish of Beauport. I felt that the only thing that I had to do was to trust in God for success, and to fight as if I were to gain the day. It came to my mind that I had committed a great sin by obstinately refusing to become Bishop of Oregon, and my God, as a punishment, had given me the very parish for which I felt an almost insurmountable repugnance.
Next Sunday was a splendid day, and the church of Beauport was filled to its utmost capacity by the people, eager to see and hear, for the first time, their new pastor. I had spent the last three days in prayers and fastings. God knows that never a priest, nor any minister of the Gospel, ascended the pulpit with more exalted views of his sublime functions than I did that day, and never a messenger of the Gospel had been more terrified than I was, when in that pulpit, by the consciousness of his own demerits, inability and incompetency, in the face of the tremendous responsibilities of his position. My first sermon was on the text: "Woe is unto me, if I preach not the Gospel" (1 Cor. ix. 16). With a soul and heart filled with the profoundest emotions, a voice many times suffocated by uncontrollable sobs, I expounded to them some of the awful responsibilities of a pastor. The effect of the sermon was felt to the last day of my priestly ministry in Beauport.
After the sermon, I told them: "I have a favour to ask of you. As it is the first, I hope you will not rebuke me. I have just now given you some of the duties of your poor young curate towards you; I want you to come again this afternoon at half-past two o'clock, that I may give you some of your duties towards your pastor." At the appointed hour the church was still more crowded than in the morning, and it seemed to me that my merciful God blessed still more that second address than the first.
The text was: "When he (the shepherd) putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him; for they know his voice" (Jno. x. 4).
Those two sermons on the Sabbath were a startling innovation in the Roman Catholic Church of Canada, which brought upon me, at once, many bitter remarks from the bishop and surrounding curates. Their unanimous verdict was that I wanted to become a little reformer. They had not the least doubt that in my pride I wanted to show the people "that I was the most zealous priest of the country." This was not only whispered from ear to ear among the clergy, but several times it was thrown into my face in the most insulting manner. However, my God knew that my only motives were, first, to keep my people away from the taverns, by having them before their altars during the greatest part of the Sabbath day; second, to impress more on their minds the great saving and regenerating truths I preached, by presenting them twice in the same day under different aspects. I found such benefits from those two sermons, that I continued the practice during the four years I remained in Beauport, though I had to suffer and hear, in silence, many humiliating and cutting remarks from many co-priests.
I had not been more than three months at the head of that parish, when I determined to organize a temperance society on the same principles as Father Mathew, in Ireland. I opened my mind, at first, on that subject to the bishop, with the hope that he would throw the influence of his position in favour of the new association, but, to my great dismay and surprise, not only did he turn my project into ridicule, but absolutely forbade me to think any more of such an innovation. "These temperance societies are a Protestant scheme," he said. "Preach against drunkenness, but let the respectable people who are not drunkards alone. St. Paul advised his disciple Timothy to drink wine. Do not try to be more zealous than they were in those apostolic days."
I left the bishop much disappointed, but did not give up my plan. It seemed to me if I could gain the neighbouring priests to join with me in my crusade I wanted to preach against the usage of intoxicating drinks, we might bring about a glorious reform in Canada, as Father Mathew was doing in Ireland. But the priests, without a single exception, laughed at me, turned my plans into ridicule, and requested me, in the name of common sense, never to speak any more to them of giving up their social glass of wine. I shall never be able to give any idea of my sadness, when I saw that I was to be opposed by my bishop and the whole clergy in the reform which I considered then, more and more every day, the only plank of salvation, not only of my dear people of Beauport, but of all Canada. God only knows the tears I shed, the long sleepless nights I have passed in studying, praying, meditating on that great work of Beauport. I had recourse to all the saints of heaven for more strength and light; for I was determined, at any cost, to try and form a temperance society. But every time I wanted to begin, I was frightened by the idea, not only of the wrath of the whole clergy, which would hunt me down, but still more of the ridicule of the whole country, which would overwhelm me in case of a failure. In these perplexities, I thought I would do well to write to Father Mathew and ask him his advice and the help of his prayers. That noble apostle of temperance of Ireland answered me in an eloquent letter, and pressed me to begin the work in Canada as he had done in Ireland, relying on God, without paying any attention to the opposition of man.
The wise and Christian words of that great and worthy Irish priest, came to me as the voice of God; and I determined to begin the work at once, though the whole world should be against me. I felt that if God was in my favour, I would succeed in reforming my parish and my country in spite of all the priests and bishops of the world, and I was right. Before putting the plough into the ground, I had not only prayed to God and all His saints, almost day and night, during many months, but I had studied all the best books written in England, France and the United States, on the evils wrought by the use of intoxicating drinks. I had taken a pretty good course of anatomy in the Marine Hospital under the learned Dr. Douglas.
I was then well posted on the great subject I was to bring before my country. I knew the enemy I was to attack. And the weapons which would give him the death blow were in my hands. I only wanted my God to strengthen my hands and direct my blows. I prayed to Him, and in His great mercy He heard me.