Our Lady of Victories: Religious Violence and Liturgical Revolution in New France

By Thomas Lecaque

The Age of Revolutions was born from religious violence and religious violence remained one of the most common characteristics of each revolutionary wave. Anti-papist stories surrounded the 1688 Glorious Revolution, and that rhetoric would continue to affect how the English colonies discussed ecclesiastical conflicts up to the American Revolution.[1] Anti-Catholic sentiment and anti-Semitism permeated English colonial history in the Americas and persisted through the New Republic. French Catholic priests led counter-revolutionary violence in the Vendée, and a counter-revolutionary crusade against the revolutionaries led to the Terror in the 1790s.[2] The Haitian Revolution, too, resulted, in part, from the Bois-Caïman Vodou rituals in 1791. Catholic priests defended planters and worked towards abolition during the Haitian Revolution.[3] If we recognize that religious violence remains a vital feature of the revolutionary era, then why not extend our temporal definitions of the period back into the seventeenth century? Religion was and remains malleable when facing turmoil. In this essay, I explore how religious communities recast their traditions to mitigate imperial tensions and how they reinvented themselves in the process—even revolutionizing the role of religion in modern society and shaping future revolutions to come.  

Take New France in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, for example. Bronwen McShea has brilliantly studied the territory in her work on the Jesuit Relations. McShea explores how texts edited and published by the Jesuit Order explained their missionary activities for French readers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These texts tell the story of New France and the front of a holy war, between the Jesuits and the Indigenous population, but especially against the Iroquois.[4] While developing a new project on holy war in colonial America, I fell upon a specific set of festivals—the feast day of Notre-Dame de la Victoire, proclaimed in 1694 to celebrate the miraculous victory against the “heretical British” led by William Phips in 1690. Both these festivals and the documents that McShea analyzes tell a story of religious change, even religious revolution.

Every regional Christian feast day is a story—a religious story of universal importance, but it is also a local story. The feast day of Notre Dame des Victoires, established by the Bishop Jean-Baptiste de la Croix de Chevrières de Saint-Vallier, is a celebration of the victory against the Phips’ Expedition four years earlier. William Phips, better remembered as royal Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay and his association with the Salem Witch Trials, served as a Major General in King William’s War.[5] He led the capture of Port Royal in May 1690—marked by the plundering of the town—and then led half of a two-part expedition in the fall against Montreal and Quebec. The Montreal mission failed due to disease and supply issues, and his failure at Quebec was catastrophic.[6]

In the late nineteenth century, Henri Tètu and the Abbé Charles-Octave Gagnon, librarian for the archepiscopal library of Quebec, edited the official documents of the bishops of Quebec in an eight-volume series entitled the Mandements, Lettres Pastorales et Circulaires des Évêques de Québec. In the first volume, there is a record ofthe Bishop establishing the feast of Our Lady of Victories on September 19, 1694. He wrote:

Jean, by the grace of God and of the Holy Apostolic Seat, Bishop of Quebec, greetings and benediction.

Since the year 1690 when the city of Quebec was besieged by an army of heretical English, and delivered by the very special protection of the Virgin Mother of God, we have ordained that in thanksgiving for such a great blessing, there will be every year in perpetuity a procession, a great mass and sermon at the church that has taken the name of Notre Dame de la Victoire and which is in the lower city of Quebec. But still not being content with these tokens of remembrance, of gratitude and of worship of our divine Protectress, Patroness and Liberator; we wish that every year, the Sunday closest to the 22nd of October, that we make in all of our diocese the Feast of Our Lady of the Victory, because that was the day that our defeated enemies lifted the siege. We enjoin all secular priests and other peoples obliged to say the breviary, to do that same Sunday the proper office of Our Lady of the Victory under the rite of a great double, and other priests to say the proper mass, having examined and approved one and the other, as it is marked after this letter.[7]

It sets up a specific office, taken from Our Lady of Snows from August 5, with material also taken from the Octave of the Nativity of the Virgin and from the Feast of Name of Mary—a fully fleshed out feast day liturgy to celebrate a victory against the “heretical British.” 

The Quebecois continued to celebrate this feast, but the date of the feast was never fixed due to consistent imperial tensions in the region between the French and the British. In 1711, the Walker Expedition during Queen Anne’s War concluded with a disastrous defeat, with some 850 soldiers drowned in a wreck.[8] The feast day was celebrated again. Father Joseph de la Colombiere delivered the sermon in the Church of Notre-Dame de la Victoire.[9]The celebrating of Te Deums associated with the feast day, for instance were sung throughout October.[10] The holiday remained through the fall of Quebec in 1759. In the aftermath of the conquest, Jean-Olivier Briand, the new Bishop, would issue new guidance for the diocese in a November 1, 1767. Most of the letter maintained previously existing liturgical forms, or standardized local practices. The only major change is point number 8, slightly modifying the feast of Saint Louis, and, more meaningfully, changing the announcement for the feast of Our Lady of the Victory to this:

We thank on this day the Very Saintly Virgin for the help that she never ceases to obtain for us from Her Son Our Lord Jesus Christ, for rendering us victorious over the enemies of our salvation: the world, the demons and the passions; and we pray to her to continue her mighty protection with God, and in particular in this country the protectress of the Catholic Faith, to obtain for us the grace to conserve in all its purity and to live in a manner that responds to the holiness of its maxims.[11]

The feast is completely stripped of the imperial warfare from which it was born to reflect the new British dominion of the region. All that is left is the name, much like La Conquistadora in New Mexico—a militant Virgin Mary who, once New Mexico was conquered by the United States, remained only as a historical curiosity to be examined further.[12]

It would be easy to read this transition as evidence of the decline of religious authority in the face of secular power, but religion and religious communities persevere and adapt. When contextualized against the religious and imperial power politics in the region, the feast and sermon can equally be read as a liturgical revolution, orchestrated to lobby for the rights of the Catholics under their new Protestant empire, which was cast into imperial law in the 1770s and drove Quebecois Catholics to defend British interests during the American Revolution. Religious violence is never deep beneath the surface of the early colonial Americas. And it is not just in the militant sermons of religious officials—although those are of fundamental value for early America and the Age of Revolutions. Religious violence also colors the language of official records, calendars, and even feast days and liturgies.[13]


Thomas Lecaque is an Associate Professor of History at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, located on Baxoje, Meskwaki and Sauk lands. His primary research area is on the crusades and apocalypticism in the High Middle Ages, but he teaches broadly in medieval world, vast early America, and video games and history courses. He can also be found @tlecaque

Title Image: French batteries of Quebec City fire at British squadrons. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Further Readings:

Gaposchkin, Cecilia. Invisible Weapons: Liturgy and the Making of Crusade Ideology. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 2017.

McShea, Bronwen. Apostles of Empire: The Jesuits and New France. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019.

Juster, Susan. Sacred Violence in Early America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania press, 2016.

Remensnyder, Amy. La Conquistadora: The Virgin Mary at War and Peace in the Old and New Worlds. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014.

Tetu, H. and l’abbé C.-O. Gagnon. Mandements, lettres pastorales et circulaires des évêques de Québec. Vol. 1. Québec : Imprimerie Générale A. Coté et cie, 1887.

Endnotes:

[1] J. Logan Tomlin, “Papal Plots and Muslim Mischief: Religious Fear and Democratic Sensibilities in Early America, ” PhD diss., University of Tennessee, 2018. https://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_graddiss/4988.

[2] Glauco Schettini, “An Eighteenth-Century Crusade: The War Against Revolutionary France and the Origins of Modern Catholicism, 1789-99,” Age of Revolutions (online journal), December 11, 2019, https://ageofrevolutions.com/2019/12/11/an-eighteenth-century-crusade-the-war-against-revolutionary-france-and-the-origins-of-modern-catholicism-1789-99/.

[3] Erica R. Johnson, Philanthropy and Race in the Haitian Revolution (London and New York: Palgrave MacMillan,  2018).

[4] Bronwen McShea, Apostles of Empire: The Jesuits and New France​ (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019), ch. 5 especially.

[5] Emerson W. Baker and John G. Reid, The New England Knight: Sir William Phips, 1651-1695 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998) for his biography.

[6] Ernest Myrand, 1690. Sir William Phips devant Québec. Histoire d’un Siége (Quebec: Imprimerie de L.-J. Demers & Frere, 1893) collects the primary documents concerning the siege.

[7] H. Tetu and l’abbé C.-O. Gagnon, Mandements, lettres pastorales et circulaires des évêques de Québec, vol. 1 (Québec : Imprimerie Générale A. Coté et cie, 1887), p. 342. French text: “JEAN, par la grâce de Dieu et du Saint-Siège Apostolique, Evêque de Québec, Salut et Bénédiction.

« Dès l’année mil six cent quatre-vingt-dix que la ville de Québec fut assiégée par une armée d’hérétiques Anglais, et délivrée par une très spéciale qu’en action de grâces d’un si grand bienfait protection de la Vierge Mère de Dieu, Nous avons ordonné qu’en action de grâces d’un si grand bienfait, il y aurait tous les ans à perpétuité, procession, grand’messe et sermon à l’Eglise qui en a pris le nom de Notre-Dame de la Victoire et qui est à la Basse-Ville du dit Québec. Mais n’étant pas encore content de ces marques de souvenir, de reconnaissance et de culte envers notre divine Protectrice, Patronne et Libératrice ; Nous voulons que toutes les années, le dimanche le plus proche du vingt-deuxième d’octobre, on fasse dans tout notre Diocèse la Fête de Notre-Dame de la Victoire, parce que ce fut proprement ce jour-là que nos ennemis vaincus levèrent le siège. Nous enjoignons à tous Prêtres séculiers et autres personnes obliges à dire le bréviaire, de faire ce même dimanche l’office propre de Notre-Dame de la Victoire sous le rite d’un grand double, et aux Prêtres d’en dire la messe propre, ayant examiné et approuvé l’un et l’autre, ainsi qu’il est marqué après ce mandement. » Translation mine.

[8] Admiral Sir Hovenden Walker, The Walker Expedition to Quebec, 1711, ed Gerald S. Graham, The Publications of the Champlain Society Volume 32 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013); see the manuscript version, RCIN 1047088, in the Royal Collection Trust: https://www.rct.uk/collection/1047088/sir-hovenden-walkers-expedition-1711.

[9] Ernest Myrand, M. de la Colombière, Orateur, Historique d’un sermon Célèbre (Montréal : Cadieux & Derome Éditeurs, 1898) for the text of the sermon.

[10] Colin M. Coates, “Statues in Time: Canadian Days and Holidays,” Acadiensis 48, no. 2 (Autumn/ automne 2019): 247-8

[11] Tetu and Gagnon, Mandements, vol. 2, p. 206. French text : « Nous remercierons en ce jour la Très Sainte Vierge des secours qu’elle me cesse de nous obtenir par son Fils Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, pour nous rendre victorieux des ennemis de notre salut : le monde, le démon et les passions ; et nous la prierons de nous continuer sa puissante protection auprès de Dieu, et en particulier d’être en ce pays la protectrice de la Foi Catholique, de nous obtenir la grâce de la conserver dans toute sa puretè et de vivre d’une manière qui réponde à la sainteté de ses maximes. » Translation mine.

[12] Amy Remensnyder, La Conquistadora: The Virgin Mary at War and Peace in the Old and New Worlds (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014).

[13] See Cecilia Gaposchkin’s magisterial survey of the liturgy in crusade ideology, especially the Feast of the Capture of Jerusalem and the way it changes after Saladin’s reconquest of the city—Invisible Weapons: Liturgy and the Making of Crusade Ideology (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 2017).

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