Born in Lauzon, Lower Canada, on October
Ordination to the priesthood, November 30, 1822
Ordination as bishop, July 25, 1837
Died in Sault-au-Récollet, on June 8, 1885.
Ignace Bourget was born on October 30, 1799 in the parish of Saint Joseph of Lauzon, Quebec, the eleventh of thirteen children, son of Thérèse Paradis and Pierre Bourget, a farmer. He studied at the minor seminary of Quebec, then, from September 1818 on, he studied at the major seminary of Nicolet where, at the same time, he taught at the minor seminary. Ordained to the sub-diaconate on May 20, 1821, he was immediately appointed secretary to Bishop Jean-Jacques Lartigue, the auxiliary bishop of Montreal. We was ordained to the priesthood on November 30, 1822.
As a man in whom Bishop Lartigue placed his confidence, he soon was given a number of jobs: secretary of the bishop, supervisor of the building of the rectory and the church of Saint James, pastoral responsibility for this parish and for the major seminary, which was lodged on the ground level of the bishop’s palace. Appointed bishop of Montreal in 1836, Bishop Lartigue immediately suggested his secretary as his successor. By an apostolic brief issued by Gregory XVI, on March 10, 1837 Abbé Bourget was appointed bishop of Telmesse in partibus infidelium and coadjutor of the bishop with right of succession. He was consecrated bishop on July 25 of 1837 in Saint James cathedral.
From 1838 to 1840 the coadjutor bishop visited his diocese which extended from the United States to James Bay, from the frontier between Upper and Lower Canada to the west right up to a line extending between Montreal and Quebec City on the east. When, upon the death of Bishop Lartigue on April 19, 1840, he became bishop of Montreal, he knew his diocese well. At the time, it had 79 parishes, 34 missions and 4 missions to the Amerindians.
One of the first decisions he took was to seek in Europe some fellow workers to assist him. The Jesuits and the religious sisters of the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus would come to Montreal in 1842, the religious sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd from Angers came in 1844. In 1841, the bishop succeeded in getting the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He showed the Oblates the love of a father and he was to ask a lot of them. On August 19, 1841, he already wrote to Bishop de Mazenod, “It is my hope that God will endow my heart with the tender affection that you bear those you have brought to birth in Jesus Christ.” He entrusted to the Oblates the pastoral care of Saint Hilary, the preaching of parish missions, and shortly after, the evangelization of the Amerindians. On October 19, 1843, Father Honorat wrote to the Founder, “The bishop is using the Jesuits in only one parish. As for us, he has put us in charge both of the missions of already established parishes and of the townships and the lumber camps and the Algonquins and the Iroquois and in his diocese and in the three or four dioceses that surround him, for, all of that, he looks to us to do it and none others.”
Not only did Bishop Bourget entrust the Oblates with many tasks, but also he followed their work closely, giving them advice and sometimes reprimanding them. To make his admonitions more acceptable and effective, he sometimes had them communicated through Bishop de Mazenod. For example, on May 4, 1844, he wrote: “I can assure you that your effort of writing to these worthy priests will not be unavailing, for your letters for them are balm which soothes the bitterness of the contradictions which it pleases Divine Providence to hold in store for them. And since we are on this topic I beg you to urge them, when you have the opportunity, to gather together as often as possible between missions at their house in Longueuil to recapture in a time of reflection the spirit of being one heart and one soul. Urge them to display a great deal of seriousness in the different rectories where they will have the opportunity to dwell during their missions, to be as simple as doves and as wise as serpents in their dealings and relations with the clergy and the people, to never make, even in jest, any suggestion which, if it was bandied about, could humiliate this or that priest, speaking warmheartedly what is praiseworthy and covering in silence what is reprehensible, not to become too familiar with the people of this country who are under the impression that the priest should respect their status as long as they do not do it with arrogance, to be especially vigilant, now that they are establishing themselves in other dioceses, not to make any reflections critical of other dioceses, or to make any critical reflections against the diocesan administration, to always present a united front and to be very devoted to each other, to make every effort to see to it that their superiors are honoured and respected, supporting with all their strength the administration, not to be too hasty in undertaking endeavours that are suggested to them, just as they should not easily change something that has already been decided. I have only praise for the respectful submission your sons display in what I tell them for their own good. Nevertheless, I am convinced that a word from you weighs more than a hundred words from me for you are the shared fountain from which flows all the streams that water the tree that you have planted in the field of the Church and which is beginning to spread its branches into the distance…”
Bishop de Mazenod had already received a similar letter written January 30, 1843. When he read it, he wrote in the March 20 entry in his diary: “Letter from My Lord Bishop of Montreal. I read it with deep emotion, admiration and thankfulness. I cannot transcribe it because it is no less than eight pages, but it is precious as documentation and it gives an accurate picture of the state of the community in Canada. He knows all the troubles of that place and he judges them with paternal restraint. From his observations, it is nonetheless evident that our priests have conducted themselves with uncommon rashness from the beginning. They have displayed themselves with all their imperfections not only before the eyes of the bishop who is inclined to find excuses for them, but also before the clergy and even the laity. It is most wretched! To thus fail all our expectations, to abuse my confidence, to pay no attention to my recommendations to take themselves in hand, to give each other mutual support, to present a united front to those outside the community. Instead of that, to betray each other, to disparage each other, not with regard to virtue, but with regard to each other’s character, their education, etc. In spite of that, God has blessed their ministry propter gloriam nominis sui [for the glory of his name] and as a result of the protection that he graciously grants our Congregation […]” (Oblate Writings I, No. 18, p. 41-42)
Bishop de Mazenod only answered Bishop Bourget’s letter on May 30 of 1843. Among other things, he told him: “What a letter is this to which I am to respond! I bow to the heart that dictated it. No, Monseigneur, I shall never be able to express to you how much it has moved my sensibility or excited my admiration and gratitude. Let me pour out my heart with such simplicity and frankness as can banish all flattery; in each line I admire the generosity of the bishop, the goodness of a father, the trust of a friend. I would wish that those who are the object thereof might always have under their eyes this admirable letter, just as I keep it etched in my soul. Believe, Monseigneur, that whatever sorrow they may have occasioned you involuntarily, they nonetheless merit your kindness because of the sentiments which animate them in your regard. They rightly consider you as their protector and their father; their duty as well as their inclination will render them always docile to all your counsels and submissive to all orders that you may give them.”
In a May 31 letter to Father Honorat, Bishop de Mazenod copies some excerpts from the letter of the bishop of Montreal and adds: “ What an admirable letter! However, much it may weigh on me, it fills my soul with the liveliest sentiments of gratitude for the holy prelate who has given himself the trouble to write it. What moderation, what mildness, what charity! With so many motives for displeasure, not one complaint is uttered; it lays stress on the work and the virtues of those who show themselves to be so imperfect, so far beneath their holy mandate – such he brings out in the first part of the letter which I have not copied. But also, what a lesson is to be learnt from the recommendations which he suggests I make to them! Not a word is amiss. It is the truth pure and simple. It is the mirror faithful to an incontestable reality.” (Oblate Writings I, No. 18, p.42, footnote 11).
Bishop de Mazenod and Bishop Bourget got along quite well: similar in heart, in zeal. Thanks to their close collaboration, the Oblate Congregation developed rapidly throughout Canada and played an undeniable role that is known in the history of the Canadian church of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Bishop Bourget is the real founder of the church of Montreal. In addition to welcoming several religious congregations of both men and women, he founded several, created new parishes, especially in the city, which was rapidly expanding. He introduced the Roman liturgy, adopted Saint Alphonsus’ moral theology, entrusted the direction of the major seminary to the Sulpicians, etc. A movement of lack of faith and disparagement was becoming prevalent among the upper social classes of the time. The plague of drunkenness sowed its ravages. Dances and entertainments gave rise to abuses that were detrimental to Christian morality. The shepherd was vigilant and intervened by means of many pastoral letters. As well, he strongly promoted social work and works of charity. Moreover, he took an interest in the Canadian church, as for example, the establishment of the ecclesiastical province of Quebec in 1844, the creation of the diocese of Toronto in 1841 and Bytown in 1847 where, not without difficulty, he succeeded in having Father Guigues named bishop, the sending of missionaries to the West, etc.
Bishop Bourget appointed Bishop John Charles Prince as his coadjutor from 1845 to 1852 and Bishop Édouard Charles Fabre from 1873 on. He resigned in 1876 and was named titular archbishop of Martianopolis. He then retired to Sault-au-Récollet where he died on June 8, 1885. His remains are laid to rest in the mortuary chapel of the bishops of the cathedral of Montreal.
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.
Sources And Bibliography
Archives of the chancellery of the
archdiocese of Montreal: 901: Collection Lartigue-Bourget; Registry of Bishop
Bourget’s letters; 18 letters from Bishop de Mazenod and drafts of letters from
Bishop Bourget to Bishop de Mazenod.
G. A.: A few handwritten letters to Fathers Antoine and Vincens, to Bishop Allard, to Bishop Faraud. The handwritten letters from Bishop Bourget to Bishop de Mazenod have disappeared.
Bishop Ignace Bourget, Mandements, 8 Vol.
Le Jeune, Louis, o.m.i., “Mgr Bourget”, in Dictionnaire général… du Canada, Ottawa University, Vol. I, 1931, p. 230-231.
Pouliot, Léon, s.j., Mgr Bourget et son temps, 5 Vol., Montreal, 1955-1977.
Sylvain, Philippe, “Mgr Bourget”, in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, University of Toronto/Université Laval Press, Vol. XI from 1881 to 1890, 1982.