The Catholic Church

[ Église Sainte-Marie, Pointe-de-L'Église ]

St. Mary's Church, Church Point, Fabien Caron,

The importance of the Catholic Church in the lives of Acadians in the 19th and early 20th Centuries cannot be exaggerated. When the Acadians returned to the Maritimes after the Deportation, they found themselves with literally nothing. In this deplorable situation, the Acadians turned to the only institution they had any hope of controlling, the Catholic Church.

Though somewhat embryonic before the Deportation, the Catholic Church had at all times provided moral and spiritual support to the population. Furthermore, both before and after the Deportation, the Church offered social structures and guidelines for behaviour, and above all, took care of recording births, marriages and deaths. It therefore provided essential services. After 1850, the number of priests and nuns in the Maritimes increased, especially those coming from Quebec and directly from France, and religious communities got to work developing French-language Acadian educational institutions.

During Jerome’s time, priests had great influence over the Acadian population, notably because they were often the only educated people in the small communities they served. Additionally, the Church was the only French-language institution there was, at a time when the governments of the Maritime provinces were controlled by Anglo-Protestants. During this period, the latter were often openly hostile toward the Acadians, setting policies that were discriminatory and assimilationist. The influence of the priests was therefore free to determine the shape of Acadian society. Catholic doctrine and tradition imposed a series of rituals, behaviours and beliefs from which one was not supposed to deviate.

Among other things, these rules of behaviour dictated that on certain days you had to fast, on Fridays you could not eat meat, at Easter you had to go to confession and take communion, and once a year you had to pay a tithe. These rules also determined the roles of men and women, including behaviour during marriage and sexual relations. Not to be baptized was to have one’s soul condemned to Limbo. A couple that lived together outside of marriage was certain to go to hell. Being buried in unconsecrated ground or without a funeral meant damnation for the soul of the deceased. The lives of the Acadians among whom Jerome lived were punctuated by Catholic sacraments that accompanied people from birth to death.

In Nova Scotia, the shift toward strict Catholic morality was accomplished with the encouragement of missionary priests from France, the best-known of whom was Jean-Mandé Sigogne. Arriving in St. Mary’s Bay in 1799, he was shocked by the behaviour of the Acadians, who had lived without the influence of a resident priest for over thirty years. To ensure that the behaviour of Acadians in the Bay and the Cap Sable area to the South would henceforth be both correct and moral, he composed a “Regulation” comprising 28 rules establishing an ad hoc system of local government and justice. Every head of a family in the region took an oath on the Bible, solemnly pledging to obey these rules. From then on, Catholic morality was central to the lives of Nova Scotian Acadians. They lived in constant fear of falling into sin. In sum, while Acadian society was rebuilt thanks to religious institutions, it was also completely transformed by the Catholic doctrine that it embraced in the 19th Century.

The importance of the Catholic Church extended beyond its day-to-day influence. With the reconstruction of Acadian society largely completed, starting in the 1880s the elites of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia (who were among the first generation of educated Acadians) strove to consolidate the community in every domain. Historians call this period, from 1880 to 1930, the Acadian Renaissance. A “renaissance” is a period in which a society or community experiences a sociocultural renewal. In the case of Acadians, the Renaissance was a process by which society modernized and became more complex: Acadians became a nation. Every aspect of Acadian society was affected, and again the Catholic Church was at the centre of these changes.

Starting in the 1880s, the Acadian elites organized enormous congresses that brought together representatives from every corner of the Maritimes: the Conventions nationales acadiennes (Acadian National Conventions). The principal goal of the first two Conventions, in 1881 and 1884, was to provide the Acadian people with national symbols. The symbols chosen were fundamentally Catholic. For the Acadian national holiday, they chose the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on August 15. As a national anthem, they chose Ave Maris Stella, an ode in Latin to the star of Mary. Lastly, the Acadian elites chose as their flag the French Tricolour, but since that was a revolutionary flag they Christianized it by inserting the star of Mary in the blue section. At the same time, the Acadian elites began to demand that the upper hierarchy of the Catholic Church of the Maritimes be Acadianized, in other words that the proportion of Acadians in it be increased. In effect, at around 1880 the bishops of the Maritimes were English-speaking to a man, and they found the demands of French-speaking Acadians bothersome indeed. Many would have preferred that they assimilate. But the efforts of Acadian nationalists were not in vain, and the first Acadian bishop was named in 1912.

Further Reading

Daigle, Jean, dir. L’Acadie des Maritimes. Moncton: Chair d’Études acadiennes/Université de Moncton, 1993.

Ross, Sally and J. Alphonse Deveau. Les Acadiens de la Nouvelle-Écosse, hier et aujourd’hui. Halifax: Nimbus Press, 2001.