The Silent Struggle at Laval

Out of a tiny Quebec seminary grew the greatest French university in the New World. Now, as Laval celebrates its first century, a behind-the-scenes battle is raging between the Church and the State to decide finally who is going to rule the roost

ROGER LEMELIN August 1 1952

The Silent Struggle at Laval

Out of a tiny Quebec seminary grew the greatest French university in the New World. Now, as Laval celebrates its first century, a behind-the-scenes battle is raging between the Church and the State to decide finally who is going to rule the roost

ROGER LEMELIN August 1 1952

The Silent Struggle at Laval

Out of a tiny Quebec seminary grew the greatest French university in the New World. Now, as Laval celebrates its first century, a behind-the-scenes battle is raging between the Church and the State to decide finally who is going to rule the roost


ONE EVENING last February ten thousand festive alumni of Laval University invaded Quebec City’s handsome Coliseum to see Laval’s red-and-gold hockey players in action and to elect their campus queen from a list of candidates that included the granddaughter of Louis St. Laurent. Before the game began Monsignor Ferdinand Vandry, rector of the university, came on the ice to throw out the starting puck. An old priest sitting next to me sighed. “Times have certainly changed,” he said sadly. “Women are now accepted at the university and the rector engages in sport. Young men are losing their interest in the priesthood as a vocation. Fifty years ago the priesthood was considered an interesting career. But today when a young priest sees a former co-student earning fifteen thousand dollars a year as an engineer it disheartens him.”

This melancholy observation symbolizes the profound changes now altering the face of old Quebec. In the midst of an unprecedented industrial expansion the laymen’s voice is heard ever more loudly demanding the reform of an educational system that aims primarily at turning out priests, doctors and lawyers rather than engineers or scientists. And the provincial government itself is locked in a great and silent struggle with the Quebec clergy to wrest control of university teaching from the clerical grasp.

There’s no better illustration of this modern upheaval in Quebec than Laval University which celebrates its centenary this year—a unique institution, controlled by priests, where a man must lee a Greek scholar before he can study medicine and professors earn so little that some must sell insurance and Fuller brushes on the side.

The priests who control Laval no longer have enough money to meet the needs of the university. On the other hand the provincial government, which can easily afford to give Laval the grants it needs, would like to have a firmer voice in Laval’s policies. The clergy, which tends to distrust modern scientific doctrines, is astonished at the meteoric growth of the faculty of sciences. Many of its members are alarmed. For a long time the priests set the university’s tone. Today ninety-two percent of its staff is made up of laymen.

French Canada is served by two great Catholic universities—Montreal and Laval. Both were founded by priests and both operate not only under a civil charter but under a charter from the Pope as well, which grants them the right to confer degrees in theology. Both were founded to teach laymen, even though grands séminaires (upper seminaries) designed to turn out priests are part and parcel of each. The U. of M. is the younger and larger, but Laval has more prestige. The U. of M. is controlled, financially and politically, by the Union Nationale government. Laval isn’t. Laval is the oldest French university on the

continent and one of eight great French Catholic universities in the world. From under its old pointed roofs atop the rocky cliff of Quebec have emerged the province’s first doctors and lawyers. It was Laval that gave an élite to the handful of colonists defeated in 1760 and produced Louis St. Laurent almost two hundred years later. In 1920 Laval had only five hundred students attending four faculties, today its thirty-five hundred students are scattered in ten faculties. Most students at Laval have BA degrees in classics, an entrance requirement in most faculties of Canadien universities in Quebec. The thirteen thousand students currently studying for this necessary BA are attending schools and classical colleges affiliated with Laval or Montreal but scattered through the province.

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Laval is considered a fortress of humanistic culture in America, and every year hundreds of students from South America and the U. S. apply for entrance in its famous faculties of theology and philosophy. At the crossroads of two great cultures. Laval is still the greatest educati mal force in French Canada. This year seventy-two international congresses will have been held in Quebec City in honor of the Laval centenary. About fifty thousand delegates from all over the world will see the red-and-gold university banners fly atop most of the ancient capital's important buildings.

And yet this influential institution is administered like a comer grocery

For almost a century Rome has awaited proof of a major miracle to set into motion beatification proceedings for Msgr. François de Montmorency-Laval, the mercurial French bishop who gave his name to the university and held dictatorial swayover New France for fifty years. But French Canada’s greatest miracle has been the very survival and growth of the university itself.

Laval doesn't even have a bank account. It is morally, financiallyand physically controlled by a handful of priests whose predecessors in 1S52 obtained a royal charter from Queen Victoria, granting them permission to found a university'. These priests pride themselves in their absolute power over Laval. And to date they've successfullyprevented the Duplessis Government from sharing this power with them. Who are these priests?

Beside the university stands the old classical collège of the old Séminaire de Québec, founded in 166S by Bishop Laval. Since it was founded the seminary's purpose has been to train priests. But in order to teach future laymen the Quebec Seminary priests agreed to found Laval University and be whollyresponsible for financing it. Since then they've always considered the universityas their property.

All the university's revenues (from student fees and provincial grants; go into the seminary's coffers. Because there is not enough to finance the universitythe priests underwrite a deficit every year. Laval's salarycheques and administrative expenses are paid by the procureur ipurveyor priest) of Quebec Seminary, Canon Roch Rochette. Until recently the universityprofessors had to go to this priest's office where they were paid their salaries in cash. In his old creaky-floored office he sighs as he patiently enters expenditures in a onecolumn ledger, revenue in another. Atyear's end the seminary council meets, the procureur subtracts total revenue from total expenditures and the seminarypriests, now as in the past hundred y-ears. silently lower their heads as they hear the word déficit. The 1951 deficit amounted to six hundred thousand dollars. The seminary has spent ten millions on its university since 1852.

Why do the priests of the Quebec Seminaryexercise absolute control over the university and where did they get the monev to foot a ten-million-dollar bill?

The Catholic priests of France were among the first to become interested in Canada. Bishop Laval, a friend of Louis XIV and the first bishop of Quebec, took far-reaching steps to ensure that Canada would remain first and foremost a religious possession. A far-seeing businessman as well as a staunch mystic, in 1668 he founded a religious and civil corporation under

the chartered name Le Séminaire de Québec, which banded together the colony's priests, and owned lands, farms, woodlands and business concerns. Thus the Quebec Seminary is a commercial enterprise with revenues and expenditures. Each priest-member pledged himself to bequeath all his worldly goods to this chartered companv when he died. Laval sank his whole fortune into the venture and bought for a song the seignioryof Beaupré, an immense forest north of Quebec City which yields in cutting rights an average of one hundred thousand dollars a year. Anglo-Canadian Pulp and Paper Mills Ltd., a Britishbacked company which operates a large paper mill in Quebec City, buy-s much of its wood from the seminary.

The seminary's revenue was put aside for the upkeep of its classical collège. As the seminary's lands and income were tax-free its fortune never could be exactly assessed and the very' priests who own it don't know its full extent. Two years ago experts got to work in the seminary archives to determine the company's present business position. They're still trying.

The defeat of 1760 left the Canadiens impoverished and shattered. Education was at a deplorable low. Lawyers, doctors and notaries could learn their profession only by apprenticeship. The bishops, alarmed at the low educational level, decided to found a university.

Because of its wealth and influence the seminary was chosen for this task. On Dec. 8. 1852. Queen Victoria signed the royal charter of Laval. The university began with fifteen first-year students. The first buildings were built right next to the seminary and the priests began paying its debts. Now. a hundred years later, the seminarysees itself threatened by the looming shadow of its offspring. The priests are struggling to rid themselves of this financial burden even though its exact value isn't known the Quebec Seminaryfortune isn't large enough to keep on financing deficits that may soon reach the million-dollar-a-year mark but. at the same time, they want to retain their control over teaching at Laval.

The royal charter stipulated that the rector of the university would always and automatically become Father Superior of Quebec Seminary and that the university chancellor, always the Bishop of Quebec, would have absolute veto power over the university council.

Moreover. Quebec Seminarywas appointed administrator of the university-. The handful of lay members of the Laval council has never suggested any move that might go against the seminary’s rigid clerical principles.

The priests smiled indulgentlya few years ago when some layteachers, annoyed by what they considered the priests' stranglehold on the university-, started a campaign to elect a layrector. They were given free copies of the university charter, and that was the end of that. Quebec’s Premier, Maurice Duplessis, who has managed to control the University of Montreal, also discovered that it isn't easy to make the seminary priests let go of Laval. Recentlyhe tried to persuade Laval to fire Father Georges-Henri Lévesque, dean of the faculty of social sciences, whose teachings condemn some of the more autocratic legislation of the provincial government. This time the priests didn't laugh, for Duplessis deliberatelydelayed granting money he'd already promised the university. This greatlyupset Msgr. Ferdinand Yandry. Laval's mild-mannered and peace-loving rector, who was little used to shrewd political manoeuvres. But the resultant publicitycaused the rector to hold his ground, morallysustained by the commanding spirit of Bishop Laval whose remains rest under the seminary chapel. Laval had his own way of dealing with governors of the French regime who didn't get along with him: he simplyhad them recalled to France by his good friend Louis XIV. But these days there’s no one to recall the prime minister of the province of Quebec except the voters. Duplessis is powerful and. while Lévesque hasn't yet been fired outright, he has been losing ground. He hasn't been officially re-elected dean of the faculty of social sciences, a post he still occupies.

Several faculty members, government officials and businessmen are growing impatient at the priests' stubborn determination to keep the universitytied to their cassocks. On the other hand, many other staff members fear government interference in universitymanagement. for they say Laval would free itself from one autocracy to be enslaved by another. They remember that the Union Nationale party "adsed" two Laval scientists. Drs. Roger Potvin and Albert Cholette, to end their campaign for electric furnaces in

Quebec. (The scientists claim the furnaces could process L’ngava iron ore within the province.) “At that price,” say-s one eminent science professor, “God preserve us from State patronage; church patronage is a hundred times better!” Some of his colleagues don’t agree. “We suffer from both autocratic regimes now anyway,” they say. “One would be quite enough. Let's choose the State because it, at least, can afford

Duplessis can’t amend the university charter without first being requested to do so by the seminary priests—and he certainly won’t be. But actually, money—or the lack of it—may succeed where all else has failed. 'A Quefcec businessman recently told a Duplessis minister, ""Why fuss and fret about trying to control Laval? Just show a little patience: it will soon fall into your hands like a ripe plum.”

Here's why-: For a long time the

priests considered their university a sort of side line compared with their real interest—the seminary where to-* morrow's priests are being trained. But the side line has grown into an increasinglyunmanageable giant.

In 1920 Laval had no more than five hundred and seventeen students taking courses in four faculties. Today it has ten faculties and must herd thirty-five hundred students into small stifling classrooms. For lack of space hundreds of prospective students are turned down everyyear. So in 1948 Laval launched a huge fund-raising campaign to erect the first buildings on a proposed one-square-mile campus, total cost of which would reach a hundred million dollars. The campaign collected eleven million dollars and another four millions were voted by the provincial government, which to date has actually given onlytwo millions Seven million dollars of the campaign funds have been spent to buy land and a full three millions is literally buried underground — in a maze of tunnels, pipes and conduits. To date only two buildings have been erected, the schools of commerce and forestryengineering. Funds for these came from special appeals and the coffers are now empty. The priests will also control the new campus and will be wholly responsible for its finances. Obviously, without heavy support from outside sources, they’ll have difficultyin meeting the administrative expenses of a town worth a hundred millions.

The hundred and thirty full-time professors earn an average of thirty-five hundred dollars a y-ear—less than manyprimary-school teachers. Manyof them are outstanding scholars but, because of the need to supplement their incomes, cannot give their entire attention to universitywork. One eminent professor is a part-time Fuller brush man and another, a talented engineer, sells insurance in the evenings.

The seminarypriests are in a difficult position. They dare not appeal directly to the federal government, for Duplessis is ticklish on the question of provincial autonomy. On the other hand he isn’t ready to solve the university’s financial problems unless he can control it indirectly.

Should the government come into control many of the priests fear that men like Lévesque would be told their services are no longer needed, that faculty members would be appointed on the basis of political loyalty rather than competence, and that in some faculties—as happened at the U. of M. —teaching tending to criticize the government would be greatly diluted. The priests fear, too. that the humanistic tradition of which Laval is so proud would become a thing of the past. The clergy, for sentimental as

well as practical reasons, doesn’t want to abdicate.

Quebec’s ancient system of education is so organized that the universities favor those students who aim for priesthood or professions. Of the four kinds of primary and secondary education available to Quebec youngsters, only one—the classical course—leads to all faculties at Laval. In this course, combining college and high - school training, six years of Latin and four or five of Greek are compulsory. A child must start this course after Grade Six. If he doesn’t go to classical college but stays on at parish school he can’t be a lawyer, doctor or priest. He can get his doctorate in biology but won’t be able to enter first-year medicine because he has no Greek. If he takes an ordinary high-school education—as most must—a laborer’s son cannot go to university except to take science or social science.

This diffusion of educational ends and methods is a root cause of the deep gulf between the working and the middle classes in French Canada. Quebec is the last remaining area in the world where these ancient teaching methods are still adhered to. In France the system was streamlined in 1902.

Until recently the very first thing seminary students were told at the opening of the academic vear was. “Quebec Seminary is dedicated to shielding from corruption the vouth of the century.” The seminary priests would like this motto to be extended to the university. Bv “corruption” thev mean the state of mind prevalent in France since 1789 with all its revolutionary and democratic implications. What they fear above all else is the invasion of modern scientific doctrines. They view this approaching juggernaut as an old calèche would a bulldozer.

Thomist Has Ten Kids

When Vincent Auriol, President of France, was welcomed at Laval’s convocation hall in the spring of 1951 the rector Vandry stated Laval had retained from France only its best traditions— its “pre-1789 traditions”—and that it would always go on honoring the true God and keeping alive the flame of classicism in the heart of the Canadian nation. Auriol appeared surprised at this allusion to materialistic France and he replied somewhat drily that France nevertheless did keep alive the flame of classicism which it had inherited from a Greece that worshipped the gods of Mount Olympus.

Many Laval priests consider science a modern evil one must put up with as one must sometimes put up with Duplessis. Lawyers, doctors, notaries, who all must take years of Latin and Greek, get very little grounding in business, science or mathematics.

After 1930 Laval was subjected to increasingly strong pressures for the creation of a faculty of sciences. In 1935 the seminary priests gave their answer: they set up a faculty of canon law and a faculty of philosophy. As a result only twelve Canadiens could then be found on the list of twenty-six hundred mining engineers in Canada. It was not until 1937 that the faculty of sciences was finally organized. Today it has more than five hundred students. The faculty of social sciences was not inaugurated until 1943. A silent rivalry exists between the old faculties and these two young marvels. At the faculty of arts they say the young scientists haven’t invented anything yet; at the faculty of sciences they say the faculty of arts has yet to produce one good contemporary author.

Nevertheless the priests are very proud of the faculty of philosophy which has an enviable reputation in


North America. Its Flemish dean is the internationally known Thomist philosopher Charles de Köninck. He's an expert on the cult of the Virgin Mary; Pius XII consulted him on the occasion of the dogma of the Assumption. Yet Charles de Köninck doesn’t pattern his life on the rigorous ways of seminary priests. He has ten children (whom he christened with philosophers’ names' and one of his daughters is swimming champion of Quebec. As he writes his learned tomes on the cult of the Holy Virgin he frequently quenches his thirst from T case of beer sitting by his desk.

But, however important the faculty of philosophy may be, the science staff insists it won’t be St. Thomas Aquinas who'll develop Quebec’s natural resources. Fifteen years ago the faculty of theology — or Grand Séminaire—was attended by twice as many students as the faculty of sciences. Today the science faculty is attended by more students (five hundred and fifty) than all three faculties where the humanities properare taught—theology (a hundred and twenty-five future priests!, philosophy and arts. These total only four hundred and sixty-seven students.

Every day increasingly pressing voices rise in chorus including that of Dr. Adrien Pouliot, dean of the faculty of sciences—to demand reform of the curriculum which would make it possible for Canadien youth to prepare themselves better and more quickly for a science course by substituting mathematics for Greek, which is now compulsory in the classical course Pouliot is the most picturesque faculty member of Laval. Short, exuberant, nervous, he continually hops and grimaces as he talks and he has often punctuated « witty phrase with a resounding slap on the back of some bishop or monsignor. A mathematician of note, he is the main organizing genius behind the enlarged faculty of sciences (It was founded, paradoxically enough, by a cleric, chemist Msgr. Vachon, who today is Archbishop of Ottawa.)

Pouliot is perhaps the most absentminded man in Canada. His wife finally persuaded him to sell his car soon after the day he came back from a motor trip by train—he’d forgotten both his car and his wife in Montreal. In buses he is always working on crossword puzzles or studying German. Spanish or Chinese. He often gets mixed up between lectures he must give, sometimes delivering a fourthyear lecture to first-year students and vice versa. He’s also been seen arriving at the university with a telephone directory under his arm instead of some learned scientific treatise. A lively conversationalist, Pouliot frequently forgets himself and resumes a sentence in Latin or Spanish.

Another dilemma, in addition to the one provided by the sciences, faces the seminary priests. For generations they succeeded in casting the university into their mold. Now the bulging university threatens to cl a re them.

The case of Msgr. F'erdinand Vandry. the present rector, illustrates this. Vandry, the son of a well-known Quebec business family, was fatherdirector of the seminary. A saintly priest who cherished above ail the solitude of his cell he preoccupied himself only with clerical vocations and religious problems. Preferring meditation to worldliness, he embodied the continuance of the tradition of ascetism started by Bishop Laval, who slept on planks, wore haircloth and ate decaying meat. Then suddenly Vandry was snatched from his cell and made superior of the seminary and rector of the university.

In his maiden speech to the seminary

Staff he said, “Remember we are priests and we must not mix with the laymen.” Seminary regulations stipulate its priests may accept an invitation to dinner only when it’s extended by the lieutenant-governor or the archbishop. Yet today Vandry is called upon to attend more dinners than most cabinet ministers and as many cocktail parties as an ambassador. How then to reproach the seminary priests who follow his example and patronize the best restaurants in town when invited there by friends?

The greatest difficulty Vandry ever had to cope with is that created by the progressive spirit of the faculty of social sciences headed by the dynamic Lévesque. From the onset this faculty tackled problems Laval had always shunned, like the labor problem. Learned and militant young labor leaders produced by this faculty include Jean Marchand, who has completely revolutionized the framework and policy of Catholic labor unions. At thirty-three Marchand is secretarygeneral of syndicates which today unite one hundred thousand Canadiens. His svndicates are the ones management respects most, for they brandish Papal encyclicals. In the spring of 1949 the famous Asbestos strike broke out at the Canadian Johns-Manville plant there. The Catholic syndicates fought vigorously against both the management and the Duplessis Government. Several professors of Laval’s faculty of social sciences made speeches at Asbestos backing the strikers. Duplessis turned his wrath on the faculty of social sciences and Lévesque. This greatly disturbed Vandry. Relations between himself and Lévesque were decidedly chilly for several months and the rector even refused to lend the convocation hall for the ceremony when Lévesque was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. But the storm has since subsided.

The seminary priests are trying to adapt themselves to the changes at Laval. Twenty-five years ago the rector would have choked with indignation at the mere suggestion that a woman should have thought of registering at the university; today, coeds are common on the campus and among the one thousand students attending summer classes at Laval are some colored girls.

To cope with this revolution Laval has a group of young priests who did not choose religious life as a career with an interesting income, but as a vocation, both apostolic and intellectual. Among them is the skilled administrator of Laval, vice-rector Msgr. Alphonse-Marie Parent. Rather short and plump, he faces difficulties with twinkling eyes buried in his rubicund face. A professor of philosophy, trained at Louvain University in Belgium, he is also a matchless organizer. He knows the importance of the faculty of sciences and is irs selfelected protector. He helped reconcile Vandry and Lévesque. He talks softly and never makes speeches, but his voice is the strongest when the university council has an important decision to make. Thanks to him the universitystood its ground before the Duplessis onslaught. Lay professors love and respect him. An indefatigable worker he organized the famous French summer classes.

Laval University’s classical teaching is responsible for one of the most attractive features of the Quebecer's personality, the originality and charm that Anglo-Saxons of a more utilitarian training are first to notice. Quebec’s professional men usually display a remarkable finesse and sense of humor, and they manipulate ideas with ease and grace. Quebec’s élite is more

interested in literature and the theatre than in the Ungava ore deposits. Quebec’s doctors have married the best in French clinical tradition with the best in progressive American techniques. All this stems from the tradition of a humanistic education.

Because of the religious patronage that has presided over Laval many former students have remained active members of •* vast university family. Quebec's most eminent lawyers and doctors teach there and the attention they give to their lectures (at five dollars each) takes priority over their most flourishing enterprises.

Antoine Rivard, one of the protectors of the university in the present provincial administration, is one of the greatest criminal lawyers Canada has ever known. Today solicitorgeneral in the Duplessis Government, he attends to his Laval students and follows their progress as though they" were his only care in the world. Louis St. Laurent, just before he became minister of justice, regularly lectured in commercial law" at Laval.

But times change and Laval may" find it impossible to remain a family affair or a sentimental institution. If

Laval wants to serve its centenary slogan—“French culture serving the Canadian nation”—it must face contemporary progress and learn to live with it. That, at any rate, is the thesis of Laval’s lay teachers.

If the clergy" should lose its leadership of the university to a lay administration, or if teaching should become more liberal, would Laval go on justifying the motto emblazoned on its crest. Deo favente, haud pluribus impar By the grace of God, inferior to none i?

Lay-men may think of asking that question. But not the Laval priests. They seem quite convinced that priests will still be there to organize celebrations in 2052.

And it's beginning to look as though the priests will be proved right for help has come through the intervention of a former Laval student and professor. Louis St. Laurent. The Prime Minister recently persuaded Duplessis to accept federal aid for Quebec universities, as other provinces do. Although Duplessis has refused to commit himself beyond this year the money has been passed along to the universities where it has been used mostly for raises for the hard-pressed professors.

One priest with whom I was discussing these matters first looked at me with wide eyes and then shrugged ■’You laymen . . . always making mountains out of molehills! The Church has lived two thousand years, and she’s tackled much bigger problems than this one. Don't you worry, we’re not losing any sleep over it. What we have, we hold.” ★