Québec and French America: What Might Have Been

In a country like the United States, which has never been Catholic – nor in which has the undiluted Faith taken root deeply enough to shape to any extent the life of society – those who still cling to the Church may deplore her sorry state these past recent decades, but they will never know the personal grief, bitterness, and sense of loss (for what once was) that is apt to be felt by the few remaining faithful in lands that formerly were described as Catholic before anyone would think to characterize them in additional terms. To know all that was most important about one of these lands, it was sufficient to speak of Catholic France, Catholic Spain, Catholic Ireland, and so on. Life might vary in its details in each, but in all of them it was what the one word said: Catholic.

No such land exists today. There is none left where Catholic teachings and beliefs are still lived by a majority and still enshrined in law as well as occasionally reflected by fading custom. Among those that did exist were the ones that constituted French Canada and, indeed, looking south from that vast region of this continent, but including it, all of l’Amérique française – French America. Even in today’s U.S., vestiges of it, and sometimes more than mere vestiges, exist here and there in, for instance, New England, Missouri and, above all, Louisiana. Once upon a time these places were simply parts or outposts of the much greater whole.

In Canada itself, and although the country has been officially, nationally bilingual for several decades, French Canada essentially is reduced to its heartland, Québec.

If no one today would think to describe Québec as being Catholic in any serious way, and no reasonable person would (not when it has the lowest birthrate of any Canadian province, and Mass attendance is less than ten percent of the baptized population), the life of Blessed Fr. Frederick Janssoone that is recounted elsewhere in this issue of From the Housetops reminds us that the heartland of French Canada was once far different – that it was Catholic before it was anything else – and that, not very long ago. It was within the lifetime of persons still living.

It is amazing that Catholic Québec survived as long as she did, that she did not die along with New France – the political entity that embodied l’Amérique française – when it ceased to exist in 1763. Indeed, it is more than remarkable that French Catholic culture in North America could have survived anywhere after le grand dérangement, or “the great upheaval,” of a decade earlier. Recently described as “the first ethnic cleansing in American history,” the genocidal dérangement of 1755 did effectively eradicate the most vibrant American expression of the culture that it ever had.

That Catholic Québec survived the tragedy (even as Catholic France, Catholic Spain, Catholic Ireland, and so on, all survived for a time) if only in an attenuated state, the secularization of Europe that began in 1789 with the French Revolution and is now nearly total, bespeaks another tragedy: whatever the legal form of their governments, all these lands might have continued to endure as at least culturally Catholic if certain leading circles of the Church had not managed to “open” her to the modern world forty years ago so that she became less than fully so herself.

That infamous “opening” or updating (or aggiornamento, as it was called) was epitomized by Vatican II’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty,” a document whose effect was to ratify the Revolution’s principal goal: separation of Church and state, best understood as the separation of Christian teaching from the way men live. However, the transformation of the religion into one that somehow can be practiced purely privately and still be practiced at all, is not our concern here. What we want to do in the lines that follow is to see how Catholic Québec and French America came to exist, and then tell some of the history of developments, like the dérangement, that ought to have finished them off entirely, but which they succeeded in surviving for a time.

We shall begin not at the beginning, but with reference to a time as late as the 19th century – the very time which produced Bl. Father Janssoone – when there were men in Québec able to envision something that would have been even larger than the reconquest of l’Amérique française. Listen to the lines I will shortly provide. They were drawn from a book published in Québec City in 1864, Histôire de la Mère Marie de l’Incarnation. The author is a priest, Abbé Henry R. Casgrain. We may not mourn for what once was in our country because we never had it, but Abbé Casgrain makes us think of what could have been.

That statement needs to be rephrased because, in fact, we can, to a degree, mourn what once was, if we remember that before the arrival and proliferation of the English-speaking colonizers, who eventually produced the U.S., there was no Christian presence anywhere in America except the Catholic one. That was in the days when no America existed but l’Amérique française, and, where it did not, Hispanidad did. (No slight is intended in this article to the glorious contribution made by the Spanish to the development of Catholic North America, but it is fair to observe that if it was they who discovered, began to explore and settle the continent, the very word, “America,” was first written in France. For the record, this was in a book published in St. Die in Lorraine in 1507. It erroneously attributed the discovery of both American continents to Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian-born, naturalized Spaniard who had sailed with Columbus and then undertaken subsequent voyages to the New World, including an exploration of the Venezuelan coast. In the book, “America” was coined from his name, Amerigo.[1]

In any event, here is Abbé Casgrain: “Here, as in Europe, and more rapidly even than in Europe, Protestantism is dying. Split into thousands of sects, it is moldering into dust and will soon be lost in rationalism. Soon, to use an expression of Count de Maistre, ‘the Protestant empire,’ squeezed from both sides by the Gulf of Mexico and the Saint Lawrence, will split in the middle, and the children of truth, advancing from the north and south [i.e., from French Canada and Mexico], will embrace on the banks of the Mississippi, where they will establish forever the reign of Catholicism.”

Lest Abbé Casgrain’s vision seem no more than the fevered imagining of a Québeçois cleric, we can cite as authoritative a voice as the New York Times warning in an editorial in 1889 of the menace of French-Canadian immigration into New England: “If these Canadians become sufficiently numerous or naturalize in numbers sufficiently large to hold the balance of power in the United States, then they will be a danger for us because they would ask for and receive legislation favorable to their interests, which are different from ours and hostile to the general interest of the country.”

Why exactly would the Canadians be a danger? What made their interests “different” and even “hostile”? It was not simply that they spoke French and drank wine with their meals. From its birth, the U.S. had included minorities who were linguistically and culturally different – to a degree. For instance, forty percent of the population of Pennsylvania was German-speaking in 1776. The French Canadians were a danger because if they came even close to holding the balance of power, it would presage, as the presence of the Pennsylvania “Dutch” (or Jansenistic immigrant Irish, most of whose senior bishops embraced the heresy of Americanism) never did, the end of what Abbé Casgrain (after Joseph de Maistre) called “the Protestant empire.”

Let us ignore it that the empire is no longer Protestant. Neither, after all, is French Canada any longer Catholic. Our concern is history, the history of French Canada and l’Amérique française, and let us finally begin it at its beginning.

That was on July 7, 1534, a scant forty-two years after the first voyage to the New World of Christopher Columbus, when the celebrated explorer Jacques Cartier landed on what came to be known as the Gaspé Peninsula, had a Mass said and planted a cross, claiming the territory he had discovered and the lands beyond for his sovereign, François I, King of France. This was the chief event on the first of three exploratory voyages Cartier made to Canada, which was not yet called by that name. On the second he sailed up the St. Lawrence River (which he named on August 10, 1535) to the site of the future Québec City, and then beyond to where Montréal now stands. He wintered there, but did not succeed in founding a colony either at that time or during his third and last voyage.

There were attempts by the French during the second half of the 16th century to organize settlements in Acadia (now Nova Scotia), and the settlers included missionaries and secular priests. These first colonizing efforts ended in failure due to divisions among the settlers and interference from the Protestant English, who had begun to project their power beyond the confines of their little island.

Successful French colonization began in 1608. That was when Samuel de Champlain, after several earlier voyages to Canada, established the settlement that would become Québec City.

Champlain was an extraordinary man, as we would expect the founder of a nation to be. Born the son of a mariner in 1570, in a village in the province of Saintonge, he accompanied his father on a number of voyages while still a boy. At twenty he enlisted in the service of Marshal d’Aumont, one of the principal commanders of the Catholic army then fighting the Huguenots, France’s Protestants, for political mastery of the Church’s eldest daughter.

In our day, France’s Wars of Religion are never recalled except as an example of the horrors that result when men hold so strongly to their religious beliefs that they are willing to fight for them. In other words, they are seen as an expression of what is, in the modern secular-liberal view, practically the only unpardonable sin: intolerance, formerly known by Christians as righteousness. It is certainly true that frightful things transpired during those years, but we may wonder if the history books we are accustomed to reading in the English-speaking world would dwell on them as much as they do had the Wars of Religion ended differently. As it was, France was at least spared from becoming Protestant when Catholic forces prevailed.

That mattered to Samuel de Champlain, who finally became a sailor and explorer, a navigator, after his time as a soldier. Listen to his explanation of why he adopted the career he did. The lily, the fleur de lis, to which he refers was the symbol of the French monarchy and, therefore, of France herself.

“Navigation has always seemed to me to occupy the first place. By this art we obtain a knowledge of different countries, regions, and realms. By it we attract and bring to our own land all kinds of riches; by it the idolatry of paganism is overthrown, and Christianity proclaimed throughout all the regions of the earth. This is the art which led me to explore the coasts of a portion of America, especially those of New France, where I have always desired to see the lily flourish, together with the only religion, Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman.”

That bears underlining: “the only religion.” There is simply no way to understand Champlain and what drove him, as he labored to lay the foundations of the nation we know as Canada, without understanding the devotion he was bound to feel to the religion he held to be the only one. This even as we cannot comprehend the revered founders of our own liberal republic and what drove them, without understanding their devotion, not to Christianity, but to the ideas of the Enlightenment.

During the long and strenuous years of his labor (he would die in Québec on Christmas Day, 1635), Champlain never thought of “Canada.” As far as he was concerned, he was building New France. When it was chartered as a royal colony by King Louis XIV in 1663, that was the name officially given to the territory where Champlain wished to see the lily and the only religion flourish. By 1663, thanks largely to the activities of private fur-trading companies and missionary priests (Recollects and Jesuits), its frontiers were rapidly extending north, west, and south. At the beginning of the 18th century they would reach to Hudson Bay and the Arctic in the one direction, and west and south to incorporate most of what is now the U.S. Midwest, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. To the west, within the boundaries of today’s U.S., lay Spanish territory (as also along much of the Gulf coast, including all of Florida). Hugging the seaboard north of Spanish territory and east of New France were England’s more recently-established American colonies, which were decades from thinking of independence and whose inhabitants would not start dreaming of westward “manifest destiny” until after that. (Tragically for French Canada, they did desire northward expansion. At least the Puritan New Englanders did.)

The long period of French rule over much of what is now the U.S. is memorialized by very many still-remaining place names. Detroit, Prairie du Chien, Des Moines, St. Louis, Ste. Genevieve, Baton Rouge, and New (Nouvelle) Orleans are but a few. Other places were founded by the French, but have non-French names, including, for instance, Mobile, Alabama, and Biloxi, Mississippi. Still others were founded by French-speakers, but after New France had ceased to exist. An example is St. Paul, Minnesota, which began its life as a fur-trading post as late as the 1830s.

Why or how did New France cease to exist? We shall come to that soon. Before then it is desirable to discuss briefly a decree signed by King Louis XIII in 1627. Therein His Majesty commanded that no one but Catholics be permitted to settle permanently in the territory that would become officially a royal colony thirty-six years later. What did the decree reflect? And what was its intent?

Let us recall what Champlain wrote. He said that navigation made it possible for Christianity to be “proclaimed throughout all the regions of the earth.” The statement supposes the existence of peoples to whom the Faith could be proclaimed. The implication is clear that those peoples, or at least some of them, would be converted by the proclamation; that was what was desired. In other words, the king’s decree reflected the missionary spirit of Catholicism and at the same time was meant as a defense of evangelism’s fruits. That is, you don’t convert a land and then let it be exposed to the influence of something other than the only religion, be it a recrudescence of paganism or a false version of Christianity. That does not make sense. It is not rational, and the French are nothing if not rational.

It needs to be noted that the Spanish, also being Catholic, were imbued with the same missionary spirit as the French. So it was that by 1625, two years before Louis XIII’s decree, in the city of Santa Fe, founded by the Spanish in 1609 in what is now New Mexico, there were forty-three churches serving a population of 34,000 Catholic Native Americans – converts all.

The situation, in 1625, of native peoples in French and Spanish America can be contrasted with what existed in New England where the so-called Pilgrims had landed five years before. They (and those who followed them from England) were not proclaiming Christianity, not even their false Puritanical version of it, to the Indians they encountered. They were displacing them, and worse. (In a few more years, in the 1630s, they began the systematic burning of Pequot villages. Many hundreds of the Indians were killed and the survivors sold into slavery. And, yes, slavery existed in New England. In fact, in 1830, when its abolition failed in the Virginia legislature by only one vote, it was still legal in Massachusetts.) One hundred and fifty-six years after the arrival of the Mayflower, spiritual descendants of the Puritan colonizers, if not their literal ones, could not make more clear the feeling they had for America’s original inhabitants. This was when, in their Declaration of Independence, they justified their revolt from the rule of King George III, in part, on the grounds of his supposedly “bringing on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” A century after that, the outcome of the War Between the States having precluded any potential political opposition to it (the defeated Confederacy and several important Indian nations, notably the Cherokee, were allies during the war), the U.S. felt finally free to eliminate the “Savages” once and for all, and attempted to do so. In the words of a general of the day, it undertook the “final solution” to the problem of America’s native peoples continuing to occupy territory where manifest destiny wanted to build railroads, dig mines, erect factories, and string barbed-wire fences. The “final solution” was attempted extermination. We know the effort as the Indian Wars.

These wars were as alien to the Catholic spirit when it was still strong as would be today’s effort to spread all over the world, even by force of arms, the liberal conception of freedom and democracy. The French in the days of New France could no more have sought to exterminate the Indians than the first Catholic missionaries in Gaul would have wanted to see its inhabitants dead instead of Christian, and that was as soon as the arrival of such disciples of our Lord as Sts. Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. Men who think in terms, first, of saving souls instead of exploitation do not seek to exterminate potential converts. They accept that there will be – indeed, they seek out – peoples to whom to proclaim the Faith. Further, if resources are to be exploited, and they will be (for men need to live), who more logically to help than those who already know the country, its natives? So, the French in North America sought to baptize the Indians and then to enlist them as associates in the building of New France, which is to say, to integrate them into that Western Christian civilization that is today so disparaged in our universities by the popular culture – the irrelevant achievement of “dead white males.”

In truth, as sage as the Indians could be, as refined on certain points as their culture was, as superior even as often was their knowledge of the ways of nature, the level of civilization opened to them by baptism and catechesis was as much higher than what they had known as is the music of Bach to hip hop, or Shakespeare to any installment of Desperate Housewives. Indeed, it was so high that the aim of its educators was to lead men to prefer Bach and Shakespeare or, more exactly (if we speak of French educators), Lully and Moliére.

But we are drifting from our question: Why or how did New France cease to exist? What caused its demise? The answer can be summarized in one awful word: England. That word can be followed by two more: New England.

England was not always what she became in the 16th century when she disgraced herself for all history by apostatizing. Her defection from Christendom was the more scandalous on account of her past. It was one thing for the Scandinavians and Germans in such places as the future Prussia to abandon the Faith. They had never enjoyed the civilizing benefits of life in the ancient Roman Empire, the political instrument chosen by God for the first broadcast of the only religion and of which our Lord Himself was born a subject in His Incarnation. England did enjoy them. The fact made her the only former province of the Empire to go Protestant.

Before she did, she had a role that was never as great as that of some others in the rise and defense of Christendom, but was nonetheless real. (Think of King Richard the Lion-Hearted, Crusader.) If her larger greatness in the world came only after her apostasy – in the 19th century she would become the first worldwide hegemonic superpower – it was nothing but a demonstration of the advantages that typically accrue, for a time, to alliance with the one our Lord named “the prince of this world.”

If readers of this article include an Anglophile Catholic, let him deny that to abandon the only religion for a false one is to become an ally of Satan, and ultimately his subject. At the same time, let no other readers suppose that recognition of the historical evil that is post-Reformation England is a warrant for hating individual Englishmen, not unless they are active enemies of God and the only religion. Most are not. Most today could not care less about religion in any sense. Indeed, they take nothing seriously, except their games of course. This very quality in modern Englishmen, reflected in their readiness to say something biting about almost anything, can make them delightful company – at least to those with a taste for wit that is usually called irreverent, but would be better understood as simply flippant.

As her eventual attainment of hegemony over much of the world would suggest, England set herself against the Catholic nations of Europe beginning as soon as she defected from their ranks. In terms of national policy, she would do whatever she felt necessary and expedient to prevent any single European power from becoming sufficiently dominant as to command the rest of the continent, the only candidates for that role being Catholic in those days. From her point of view as at first the only Protestant nation that much mattered, pursuit of this policy was really necessary for survival. However, she would persist in it even as the ideas of the Enlightenment, many of which originated with Englishmen, spread across Europe, producing the Revolution that began to unfold in France in 1789, and, with the unfolding, a continent that in our day is no more Christian than England herself. This explains her leading role alongside Catholic Austria as well as Protestant Prussia in the effort to crush Napoleon, about whom there was nothing Catholic, at the beginning of the 19th century. In the 20th century the same policy resulted in two catastrophic world wars.

English policy also had its tragic consequences far from Europe and long before World Wars I and II. Having broken from Europe, and thus unable to play any role there beyond that of spoiler (nevertheless, as ambitious for greatness as she was bereft of moral stature), the island nation looked overseas to the acquisition of an empire for the wealth and power that many, besides Englishmen, crave outside of that inexhaustible treasure, power, and happiness that can only be found by a people who are right with God.

England’s ambition would soon have her deeply engaged in India, other places in Asia, parts of Africa and what we now call the Middle East, and, very early on, the Caribbean and North America.

The trouble was that realization of England’s imperial ambition was impossible to the extent that France and Spain already ruled much overseas territory needed by her for her empire, if she was to have one at all. This was the case in North America. If it was to be made English (or as the English preferred to say, British) then New France, and Hispanidad, north of today’s Mexico, had to be eliminated. The means of elimination would be war. It was waged mainly in Europe, but also had a North American theater. In Europe, history came to know it as the Seven Years’ War. We know it as the French and Indian War. On the one side were Protestant Great Britain, Prussia, and Hanover (whose ruler, known as the Elector, was King George II of England). On the other were Catholic France, Spain, Austria, Saxony, and Christian (albeit schismatic) Russia.

The war began in North America in 1754 and in Europe two years later. Here in America, besides its being incidentally the occasion of a young George Washington’s first military experience (as an aide to the commander of British forces in North America), the conflict was disastrous for the French and Indians, which is to say, New France. Worse, recovery from the disaster was impossible on account of the defeat in Europe of the Catholic powers. Under the terms of a peace treaty signed in 1763, France had the choice of ceding to England lands she possessed on the North American continent or islands she had settled in the Caribbean, notably Guadeloupe. She chose to cede New France. The choice seems hugely mistaken today, but, at the time it was made, sugar produced in Guadeloupe was worth a very great deal more on the world market than furs, the only commodity then being exported out of New France in an appreciable quantity.

We do not want to get bogged down in military history, but if we speak of the war that made Canada English, mention must be made of its decisive battle. It was fought just outside Montréal, on a plateau called the Plains of Abraham, on September 13, 1759. Both of the commanders in the field, James Wolfe for England and the gallant Marquis de Montcalm for France, were killed, but it was the French who surrendered. Had the battle gone the other way, it is possible and perhaps even probable that New France, in some form, would not have ceased to exist despite the defeat of the Catholic powers in Europe. As it was, there was afterward no serious obstacle to the realization of England’s imperial ambitions in North America, or much of the rest of the world.

(Note: Spain had already proven no match for English aggression. For instance, back in 1655 England had successfully driven from Jamaica all of that island’s original European settlers, Spaniards. Of course, even before then, at the time of the destruction of the Armada in 1588, Spain’s Philip II had failed to secure his rights as the widower of England’s legitimate queen, Mary Tudor, “Bloody Mary,” as English Protestants have the effrontery to call her. Philip was acting to secure his rights against the pretensions of Henry VIII’s bastard daughter by Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I.)

We said New France might have continued to exist in “some form.” We put it like that because continued existence would have been without the portion of French America that was its best part at the time, and out of whose disappearance arises a sorrowful memory of what was, and an equally regretful thought of what might have been, not simply in Canada but elsewhere in America. We speak now of le grand dérangement to which we have already referred. It came early in the war, in 1755. This was when the Brits, acting in conjunction with the Puritan New Englanders, drove its French inhabitants from their homeland of Acadia – as earlier the Spaniards were driven from Jamaica. Apart from the death, destruction, and permanent exile visited upon the French, the dérangement, we are saying, is especially tragic because in terms of the Acadian French and native Indians working together harmoniously to form a unique and almost Edenic Catholic society in America, it obliterated what would have been an ideal model for the development of this continent, had the development gone forward under the inspiration and guidance of men like the ones who formed the society. But the Brits, not to speak of the Puritan New Englanders with their pinched souls, gray lives, wretched cooking, and pursed-mouthed abstemiousness, just could not let it be. The Acadians “attempted to foster peace,” but had pitted against them “those who out of hatred and fear, jealousy and greed, pursued the ways of war.”

The words we have quoted are drawn from a recently-published book, A Great and Noble Scheme, by John Mack Faragher (W.W. Norton, 592 pp., $28.95). The work is likely to stand as the definitive one on the dérangement. The author, a Yale historian whose earlier books, Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer (1992) and The American West: A New Interpretive History (2000) won numerous awards, means his title to be ironic. That is clear from his subtitle: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from Their American Homeland. Apart from its being definitive, Faragher’s book is especially valuable to Catholics because he is far from being one of us. He is a secularist through and through. He would never see the teachings of a belief system, much less of the only religion, as the very basis of any society. Economics, politics, and other forces will always weigh more to a scholar like him. Thus, he may write, “Catholicism was important, but it was by no means the foundation of Acadian culture,” yet, by the very exhaustiveness of the history he tells, it becomes evident to the reader that nothing else was. For example, he quotes an Acadian lady remembering, after her expulsion from her homeland, how New England soldiers “wanted to make us give up our religion and take theirs, but we did not want to.” The Yankees attempted to force such apostasy by leveling their guns at the Acadians. “We were on our knees, our faces prostrate against the ground, offering our lives to God while waiting for the firing of the guns.”

We also hear how the Acadians, being pushed and prodded on board the ships that would carry them away, sang: “Let us bear the cross / Without choice, without regret, without complaint / Let us bear the cross / However bitter and hard.”

French settlement of Acadia had begun in the days of Champlain. By the time of the dérangement, what had grown from that beginning was without parallel anywhere in North America, then, or since. Doubtless the excellence of French Acadian life was owed first and foremost to that genius for living well, which has always characterized the French, and that Anglo-Saxons, unwittingly exposing their envy, often mock or contemn as effete. What the Protestant Anglo-Saxon is likely to miss, and a modern Frenchman to ignore, is the close connection between the traditional French way of life and the Catholic Faith.

Take French wine and bread. Everybody in the world knows there are none better anywhere. Why? Obviously climate, soil, and the skill of French vintners and bakers have their role, but we ought to reflect that wine and bread are sacramentals. When the Faith matters to you, as once it did to the French, you do not want to produce for the altar goods that are less than first-rate.

Beyond the genius of the French for good living, the success of their settlement of Acadia is explained by a factor that was absent everywhere in that part of North America in which the English became ensconced. We have already touched on it. It was the readiness of the French, born of their Catholic sense of all men possessing souls precious to God, not simply to tolerate the native people into whose country they were moving, but to recognize that it was their country first, and if they, the French, were to add something to it, it was best done not by destroying and supplanting, expedient as that might be, but by bringing the natives to an appreciation of all that was superior in the Catholic and French way of life, while adapting themselves, when it was fitting, to native ways.

The natives in Acadia were the Mikmaq, and during the course of a century and a half, the French and Mikmaq together turned themselves into Acadians with a culture that could never have developed from the conflict and conquest that prevailed in English America. It sprang, to use modern sociological language, from accommodation and interaction. The interaction entailed more than trading between the two peoples on mutually beneficial terms. With the conversion of many Mikmaq to the only religion, it also meant marrying and the begetting of children – integration in the fullest sense. The very name of the region, Acadia, was a fruit of it. It was a combination of l’Acadie, the French version of “Arcadia,” the name given the area in 1524 by the navigator Giovanni da Verrazano (who sailed for François I ) and the suffix akadie, or “place of abundance” in the Mikmaq language.

If the Acadians proved that genocide did not have to result from the European colonization of America, what did their little nation look like (it is easy to think of it as a little nation) before the Brits and New Englanders wiped it off the map? Visitors in 1750 would have found a population of about 18,000 working on lush farms surrounding neat little settlements reminiscent of the villages that still dot the Norman countryside. The farms supported large herds of cattle and produced bountiful crops of wheat and other agricultural goods so that the diet of the Acadians was “rich in protein and fat as well as stone-ground whole grains, and included plenty of cabbage, turnips, and fresh fruit and vegetables in season.” We are quoting Faragher again.

He emphasizes the diet because probably nothing except the Faith was more important in Acadian social life than eating and drinking. Clubs devoted to them, like L’Ordre de Bon-Temps (Order of a Good Time) at one of the chief trading posts, were a common feature of settlement life; and where there was eating and drinking there was also music and dancing.

Faragher describes a traveler’s account of a visit to Acadia as “rich in the colors of hedonism, with a hint of bacchanal, his image of the feasting among the colonists of l’Acadie making a striking contrast to the drab piety of the New England Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony.”

The marvelous thing was that the French gourmandizing and merry-making were perfectly in keeping with Mikmaq traditional feasting. Still, as the secularist Faragher is obliged to acknowledge, the Acadians, loving a good time as much as they did, never failed to provide the means for priests to man their churches and say Mass for them.

To the Puritan New Englanders, who lusted for the Acadians’ farmlands anyway, it was too much. The eating and drinking and dancing were obviously sinful, and the presence of the priests a proof of Catholic hypocrisy. Inevitably, then, Puritan ministers preached on the moral depravity of the neighboring people just to the north. As Faragher tells us, they “filled their sermons with the rhetoric of anti-Catholicism.” Inevitably, also, when invading New England troops finally marched into Acadia, it was “to the accompaniment of shrill anti-Catholic cant.”

The present writer suspects that the record Faragher presents of the New Englanders’ role in the dérangement will be eye-opening to very many readers. Beginning with Longfellow’s famous long poem Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie, the uprooting, killing, and expulsion of the Acadians has always been presented to Americans as purely British doing. Faragher, however, makes it incontrovertibly clear that in most important respects “it was a Yankee operation.” In doing so, he hopes to compel today’s Americans to acknowledge “the dark side of our past, the evil means men used to pursue the end of continental expansion,” and that “ethnic cleansing [is] a part of America’s founding history.”

Some of us have long understood it to be so in relation to the Native American peoples and such events as the Trail of Tears, which killed perhaps as much as thirty percent of the population of the Cherokee Nation. Now we can see that it all began with the forced dislocation of a French-speaking Catholic people, and that the history of our continent could have been profoundly different if everything destroyed in Acadia had been taken instead as a model. Perhaps that became impossible the moment Henry VIII conceived the notion of setting up his own rump church, but there is a kind of melancholy pleasure, a feeling close to nostalgia, in dreaming of what might have been except for him and the national apostasy that followed his.

Once the Acadians were driven from their country and it was renamed Nova Scotia, thousands of Yankee farmers were invited in, as was planned, to occupy the farms that had been confiscated by the British. A few hundred Acadians were allowed to return, but as laborers to repair and maintain the elaborate system of dikes they had earlier constructed for the irrigation of their lands. However, most of the expelled were scattered, dumped in small groups with countless families broken up forever, to English colonies along the Eastern seaboard and even as far away as the Falkland Islands. (In most of these places they might have been welcomed more warmly had they been carrying the plague with them.) A few succeeded in getting to Europe and made new homes in France. About four thousand resettled within British-occupied Canada, mainly in New Brunswick

Four thousand more eventually were able to make their way to another area that had been settled by Frenchmen: southern Louisiana. In the bayou country west of New Orleans they attempted to live again the life they had back in Acadia, and were successful enough to remain distinctive in the Old South and elsewhere in the U.S. today. We have come to know the refugees’ descendants – as famous as their forefathers for their fine eating, hearty drinking, lively music, general love of a good time, and Catholicism stubbornly clung to in a Baptist sea – as the “Cajuns.”

When the present lines were written, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the amount of destruction and suffering caused in Cajun country by the storms was unknown (the television news cameras having stayed focused largely on the plight of the blacks of New Orleans), but one may hope that a people who have managed to survive, if only as a remnant and in exile, the worst that other men can do will somehow get through the effects of a natural disaster, however devastating.

As for what remained of French and Catholic culture in Canada once the British took over, and since this article has concerned itself with English perfidy, it is right and just to observe that the survival was owed first of all to the Brits. Not that they were moved by Christian charity. Quite simply, they soon realized that the French who remained in Canada had to be conciliated. It was that or face a future something like the situation of today’s Israelis in occupied Palestine. Accordingly, in 1774, Parliament in London passed the Québec Act. It allowed the French in Canada, or at least Québec, to continue to speak their language and to worship as Catholics.

Alas, colonists in the thirteen British colonies along the lower Eastern seaboard found that intolerable. In fact, though the dwindling number of Americans who know any U.S. history now generally think only of the Stamp Act as being one of the “Intolerable Acts” leading to the Revolution we date from 1776, the Québec Act loomed larger at the time. That His Majesty’s Government would officially tolerate the practice of Catholicism, which would continue to be legally oppressed in England herself until 1829, was a betrayal as far as the colonists were concerned.

Within Québec there was still enough feeling for what had formerly been that you could get an Abbé Casgrain writing as he did in 1864. Early in the 20th century the feeling developed into a real nationalism, one whose partisans began to agitate for independence for Québec, and this nationalism was decidedly Catholic in spirit. It remained so right up to the early 1960s, when the Québec provincial parliament voted to drop the designation Province of Québec, substituting Etat (State) de Québec, and adopted a new flag, one of the loveliest in the world. It shows a white cross and four fleurs de lis of the same color on a blue field. Blue and white, of course, are the colors of our Lady.

Could a Catholic nation on the northern border of the U.S. finally have resulted from Catholic Québeçois nationalism? Who can say? Even as the movement toward independence was intensifying, Vatican II promulgated its “Declaration on Religious Liberty,” which seemed to say that the Church, along with the rest of the world, now saw pluralistic and multicultural societies as preferable in modern conditions to Catholic ones such as had existed in the past. It was said early in this article that it would not be concerned with ecclesiastical developments of recent decades, but as if to underline the Declaration’s apparent message, the Church in the sixties began visibly to distance herself from the handful of governments that were still somewhat Catholic – those of Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, and a few others.

The apparent change in Church teaching produced a change in Québeçois nationalism as well as Québeçois Catholicism. As quickly as the Catholic people of Québec stopped having babies and attending Mass and the province’s seminaries and convents emptied, Québeçois nationalism veered sharply leftward. The Church herself, as well as capitalism, came under attack from the new political radicals.

Nothing manifested the change more dramatically than the kidnapping, in 1970, of James R. Cross, a British diplomat, and Pierre Laporte, a minister in the provincial government, by young Marxist separatists. Cross would live, but Laporte was murdered by his captors – strangled to death with the chain of the holy medal he wore around his neck.

Since those days a couple of referenda on the question of Québec independence have taken place. They were defeated, the last by a wider margin than previously. With the ethnic French and Catholic population now in decline, but the numbers of various immigrant groups growing, and with the post-Vatican II Church generally no longer trying to convert anyone because either it is felt to be positively wrong or simply in bad taste, it seems unlikely that a future referendum will pass, or even take place. There is a language law that gives primacy to French within the province, but its enforcement is increasingly problematic since most of the new immigrants prefer English when they are not speaking their own tongue. In a word, if Québec can no longer be regarded as Catholic, even her future as the heartland of French language and culture in Canada, not to speak of her as the most important vestige of l’Amérique française, looks dim.

That is for now. Men in our age do not want to recognize – they will even deny – that religious belief and practice form the basis of every society, and also mirror a society as an integral part of its culture. However, we can see that they do so, right here in the U.S., where historical religion, including the only religion properly speaking, is giving way to the new one of “spirituality.” This “spirituality,” a hodgepodge of tenets and practices (especially some form of meditation) cobbled together from a variety of belief systems by an individual according to his personal taste, was bound to replace the only religion, as well as Protestant sects, once Catholics stopped believing membership in the Mystical Body of Christ to be necessary for salvation, or stopped believing it strongly enough to live and act on the belief. More to our point, with its promise of emotional uplift or even euphoria (not to speak of “inner peace”) flowing from an immediate experience of some kind of God, or Force, or Presence, the new “spirituality” could not be better suited to a people who have come to expect instant gratification of their desires and overnight success from whatever they undertake as a nation: war, programs to end poverty, the effort to find a cure for AIDS.

However, remaining Catholics, the ones who still believe their Faith is necessary for the salvation of souls, which is to say, do not agree it is possible to be a Christian without knowing it, also do not suppose that the “only religion” will remain forever (or even for very much longer) in its present state. That is, its present decline as an influence in the lives of men could continue only for so long before it completely ceased to exist. Therefore the Church shall rise again, for it can never cease to exist; nay, rather, it will be victorious over every infernal force now raised against her – “the gates of hell shall not prevail.” As for the shorter term, if we have much sense of the forces at play in the world today, we must agree with André Malraux, who had no religion – but was not without a profound understanding of important things – that the 21st century will be the century of religion, or it will not be at all.

The aim of this article with its brief account of some historical facts was meant to evoke the Catholic America that was intended by the continent’s original European settlers, the French and Spanish. It was about what might have been – what certainly would have been – except for a historical accident: the intrusion of the Protestant English. Now the English are no longer Protestant, and neither are we Americans, not really, not anymore. The present situation in that regard is as Abbé Casgrain forecast. It was inevitable. The Protestants were never given a mandate for eternity.

Abbé Casgrain did not foresee that, before his prophecy could be fulfilled in its entirety, the Church would become, for a time, less than fully herself. As that no longer remains the case, as she begins to regain herself (and already we now have a pope, Benedict XVI, sufficiently stalwart to denounce multiculturalism as “an abandonment and denial of that which is one’s own”), the vision of what might have been will be transformed into the expectation of what will yet be: America, diverted for a couple of centuries by historical accident, finally fulfilling her Christian destiny. She will do that, if she does it, though it result in the end of the United States, or at least of this United States that would not have been founded without the destruction first of a Catholic (and ultimately rival) society, the little nation of Acadia.

[1] The Italian equivalent of Emeric. St. Emeric was the son of St. Stephen of Hungary.