The Canadian province of Québec is the only French-speaking region in North America where the official language is still French.  It is spoken by more than 80 percent of the population.  Québec is the last living bastion of the French North American Empire founded in the 17th century.  It was the realization of Catholic and Royal France at her zenith, the France of Molière, Pascal, Racine, Bossuet, Fénelon, Olier, and Louis XIV.  It was a work of colonization, and it was a work of evangelization for the native tribes.

Québec City was founded in 1608 by a generous explorer and ship captain, Samuel de Champlain, who became the first governor of the colony and collaborated closely with the Catholic Church.  The Recolet Brothers, a group of reformed Franciscans, came to the city in 1615, and the Jesuits arrived in 1625.  In 1635, the Jesuits created a college in Québec City, one year before the foundation of Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  In 1673 Blessed François de Laval was consecrated at Saint-Germain-des-Prés Abbey (Paris) as the first Roman Catholic bishop in North America.  He had established the Seminary of Québec in 1663 for the sanctification and the education of the clergy.  As the founder of the Church in Québec, he lived a simple and evangelical life with his community of priests around the seminary and the cathedral until his death in 1705.  The Ursulines, led by Blessed Marie de l’Incarnation, founded the first school for French and native girls in 1639, the same year that the Augustinian Sisters founded the first hospital in Canada, the Hôtel-Dieu of Québec City.  The eight Holy Canadian Jesuit Martyrs, known in the United States as the North American Martyrs, shed their blood in the 17th century among the native tribes for their evangelization efforts.  Montreal was founded in 1642 by members of the French Society of the Blessed Sacrament, led by Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, for the conversion of the natives and the building of a Catholic society.  Originally, the city was called Ville-Marie.

The 1763 British conquest, which followed the defeat of the French army on the Plains of Abraham (September 13, 1759), was a difficult test for the young French Catholic colony of 60,000.  The British Parliament’s Québec Act of 1774 permitted the free practice of the Roman Catholic religion, and the French community was able to survive thanks to a compromise between the English crown and the French Canadian elite, particularly the clergy.  Yet recruiting was difficult for the Canadian clergy and religious orders.  In 1773 the Jesuits were suppressed by Pope Clement XIV.  By order of the British governor, they were not allowed to recruit any novices until the death of their last member in 1800.  With the help of many priests who had been expelled from France by the anticlerical revolutionaries after 1789, the French Canadian Church launched a Catholic revival.  This gained ground after 1840 under the guidance of Bishop Ignace Bourget of Montreal, and Louis-François Laflèche of Trois-Rivières, an old city founded in 1634.  This inaugurated a period of stability for the Church and society that lasted more than 100 years (1840-1960).  It was nourished by one of the highest birthrates and one of the highest rates of religious and priestly vocations in the Western world.  Québec was then described by American and English Canadian sociologists as a “priest-ridden province.”

World War II was a critical period for the traditional way of life of the French Canadians.  A few years before, for the first time in history, a majority of French Canadians were living in an urban environment.  This posed a great challenge for the Church.  It was difficult to reach the faithful in the city among the Protestants, Jews, and nonbelievers, particularly in Montreal.  With the war also came the need for many women to work outside of their homes.  The Liberal government of Adélard Godbout granted suffrage to the women of Québec in 1940.  The traditional concept of family was in danger, according to Church leaders such as Jean-Marie-Rodrigue Cardinal Villeneuve, archbishop of Québec City.  Nearly 98 percent of French Canadians were still officially Catholic, but some new intellectuals began to criticize the Church and traditional society in the 1950’s, especially those surrounding the journal Cité Libre, led by the future Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who was a liberal Roman Catholic educated by the Jesuits at Montreal’s Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf.  (For an insightful look at this period, see The Catholic Origins of Québec’s Quiet Revolution, 1931-1970 (2005), by Michael Gauvreau.)

In 1950 the Church was still in charge of Québec’s education and healthcare systems.  The two French universities were under a pontifical charter, and the secondary-school system was controlled by the religious communities and the secular clergy.  It was an enrollment requirement at the universities to have passed through the classical college system, which was also controlled by the clergy.  Maurice Duplessis, the conservative and nationalist premier of Québec from 1936 to 1939 and again in 1944-59, was a friend of the conservative Catholic hierarchy and a defender of traditional society.  He fought socialist ideas and groups, and he was able to stop the Liberal Party in the 1950’s.  He was even able to ban Pierre Trudeau from teaching at the Université de Montréal, which was controlled by the Sulpicians.

After the death of Duplessis in 1959, the Liberals quickly won the elections of 1960 under the familiar slogan “C’est le temps que ça change!” (“It is time to change!”).  This political and social modernization was in step with the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which opened the gates to all sorts of liberal trends in the Church.  Québec changed radically in just a few years (1960-76) in this  “Quiet Revolution.”  The birthrate became one of the lowest in the Western world; French-Canadian priests left their ministry at record levels, and the Church abandoned her educational and healthcare institutions to the state.  Some sociologists call it a late modernization process of a traditional and Catholic society, similar to what happened in Portugal after Salazar (1970), Spain after Franco (1976), Ireland (1980’s), and Poland after communism (1990’s).

Québec was transformed from a Church-shepherded society to a nanny state.  Many priests became servants of the state, as bureaucrats, rectors, professors, and teachers.  Education reform after 1964 was inspired by the American high school, with its utilitarian orientation and scientific emphasis.  The old classical college, where Latin, Greek, philosophy, and French literature dominated, was abolished.

To get the support of the Church, the Liberals of the 1960’s, who were still nominally Catholic for the most part, allowed Catholic children to receive one or two lessons per week in Catholicism.  This was carried out in a generally neutral educational milieu, but it was still officially Catholic because of Article 92 of the Canadian Constitution of 1867.  These religion courses, and the schools themselves, became less and less identifiably Catholic from 1964 to 1995.  Then in 1997, the government of the Parti Québécois (PQ), a French-speaking, left-wing separatist party created in 1968, helped to pass a constitutional amendment that completely secularized the school system in Québec.  The Church in Québec officially accepted this fundamental change in order to accommodate non-Christian immigrants, who began arriving in significant numbers in the 1980’s, mostly from Muslim countries, on the Island of Montreal.  In September 2008 the Liberal government of Québec, with the support of the PQ and the Québec Church, imposed a multicultural course that taught six different religions to all students, in grades one through twelve.  With church attendance at less than five percent of the population, it seems the final nail has been hammered into the coffin of a once-Christian nation.