PROULX, JEAN-BAPTISTE, roman catholic priest and missionary

PROULX, JEAN-BAPTISTE, roman catholic priest and missionary

April 2nd, 2014 0 By Florian Proulx

PROULX, JEAN-BAPTISTE, roman Catholic priest and missionary; b. 8 May 1808 in Lachine, Lower Canada, son of Louis-Basile Proulx, a farmer, and Marie-Thaïs Foisy; d. 25 March 1881 in Terrebonne, Que.

Little is known of Jean-Baptiste Proulx’s early life. He entered the Séminaire de Saint-Hyacinthe in 1825, attended the Petit Séminaire de Montréal in 1829–30, and began his theological studies in 1831. Ordained priest on 26 July 1835 by Bishop Jean-Jacques Lartigue and Bishop Rémi Gaulin in Montreal, he was sent to La Prairie on 26 September. The following month, however, he was transferred to the diocese of Kingston in Upper Canada; its coadjustor bishop, Gaulin, intended to send him to Penetanguishene, which in the 17th century had been an area of Catholic missionary endeavour.

Significant demographic and administrative changes were taking place in Upper Canada as Proulx began his mission at Penetanguishene in early November 1835. Immigration had greatly increased the Roman Catholic population of the province, necessitating expansion of the church’s activities. As its strength grew, the church resumed its missionary work among the Indians and was eventually able to provide the Indians of the Coldwater-Penetanguishene area with the French-speaking priest they had requested in 1833. These ecclesiastical developments were paralleled by important changes in the policy and administration of the Indian Department. The reserve system which had emerged by the 1830s, based as it was on the goal of cultural assimilation, emphasized physical isolation, education, and religion in the “civilizing” of the Indians. This policy, and the wrong-headed enthusiasm of Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Bond Head, had resulted in the choice of Manitoulin Island as a reserve for the entire Indian population of Upper Canada. The island was ceded by treaty to the Indians in 1836 but the plan for the island would eventually prove unsuccessful.

Proulx was to be affected still further by these changes for he was transferred to the mission station on the island in 1837. The following year the Church of England also established a mission there, manned at first by the Reverend Charles Crosbie Brough and after 1841 by Frederick Augustus O’Meara. The relationship between the two missions exacerbated differences which already existed among the Indians of Manitoulin Island. Manitowaning, where the Indian Department established its headquarters in 1837–38 under the direction of experienced Superintendent Thomas Gummersall Anderson, remained the centre of the Anglican-oriented “official” community: Roman Catholic and dissident Indians withdrew to the village of Wikwemikong where they formed a loose local “counter-culture.” Proulx’s mission became one of the focal points for this second community.

There was frequent wrangling between the communities of Wikwemikong and Manitowaning. The Indian Department wanted to create model agricultural communities; the Anglican mission acceded to these wishes, but enjoyed only a marginal existence. The Roman Catholic mission, however, encouraged a sense of independence from the government establishment and the Wikwemikong band combined limited cultivation with a traditional life based on hunting and fishing. The bitterness engendered in Manitowaning by Proulx’s ignoring many of Superintendent Anderson’s directives was increased by the growth and success of Wikwemikong. Relations between the Catholic missionary on the one side, and the Manitowaning office of the Indian Department and the Irish evangelical Anglican clergy on the other, varied from cool to hostile.

In addition to these political and administrative difficulties, Proulx faced the usual ones of severe winters and cultural barriers created by the variety of Indian dialects. He persisted despite these problems and seemed to enjoy greater success than his Church of England counterparts in winning the affection of his people. Even Brough acknowledged the zeal and energy of the “laborious enterprising Roman Catholic priest.” Proulx was successful as a missionary for two reasons. The Roman Catholic Church was more flexible than the Church of England in its expectations about the way Christians should live, stressing participation in the visible life of the church rather than a complete change in life-style as the sign of conversion. Secondly, by establishing himself at Wikwemikong, Proulx demonstrated his independence of Manitowaning, and Indians with misgivings about the plans of that centre were drawn to the Catholic rather than the Anglican mission.

On 19 Dec. 1846 Michael Power, Roman Catholic bishop of Toronto, in whose diocese Manitoulin Island was then situated, appointed the veteran missionary to Newmarket with responsibility for surrounding townships in York and Simcoe counties. In 1848 Proulx was transferred to Oshawa. Although he had expressed the desire to minister to the Indians of Red River (Man.), the shortage of priests in the diocese prevented his leaving; instead, Proulx found himself travelling through most of Ontario County for the next 12 years, meeting the needs of its pioneer Catholic community. He supervised the building and enlargement of churches in Highland Creek and Oshawa, established a separate school in the latter, and purchased land for presbyteries and other churches. In 1860 he was called to Toronto; after a brief stay at St Michael’s Cathedral he was named chaplain to the garrison. He was appointed assistant to John Walsh at St Mary’s parish in 1862 and became its pastor in 1867. His effectiveness as a counsellor and an administrator was recognized in 1870 when Bishop John Joseph Lynch made him dean of St Michael’s. Proulx held this position until his death. In 1879 he was further honoured by being named a domestic prelate. Two years later he died unexpectedly while visiting his brother in Terrebonne.

Jean-Baptiste Proulx’s career illustrates some important but often overlooked themes in Ontario’s history. The difficulties of administering the Indian reserve policy are clearly seen in his Penetanguishene and Manitoulin years, and the impact of large numbers of immigrants upon religious structures can be observed through his work in the diocese of Toronto. Proulx’s life spanned the period during which the pioneer community of Upper Canada became the settled province of Ontario, and a study of his career provides a helpful perspective on that development.

Douglas Leighton, “PROULX, JEAN-BAPTISTE (1808-81),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 14, 2018,