Looking Back at Father Fenelon (June 2017)

An excerpt from the research done by Arlene Colman for the Canada 150 Celebration in Fenelon Falls.

François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon (1641-1679)  “ Father Fenelon”

 Screen Shot 2017-05-28 at 8.47.22 AMHe was a Sulpician missionary and explorer in New France. He is sometimes confused with his younger half-brother of the same name who became celebrated as the Archbishop of Cambrai, in France.

Portrait of his half brother the Archbishop of Cambrai, France at left. (Perhaps there is a family resemblance)

He was ten years older than his half-brother. They both had the same father, Pons de Salignac de la Mothe Fenelon (1601-1663). Missionary Francois’ mother was Isabelle d’Esparbes de Lussan and the Archbishop’s mother was Louise de la Cropte. He came of ancient family of noble birth but small means.

Little is known of François’ early years beyond his birth in Château de Fénelon in Périgord. His mother, Isabelle d’Esparbes de Lussan died in 1645 and his father remarried in 1647. He had several brothers and sisters and two half-brothers. In 1665 he entered the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, France to pursue a religious life, a long standing family tradition. In 1666 he was so eager to devote himself to the missions in New France that he obtained permission to leave after spending only 15 months in the seminary in Paris. He set sail January 30, 1667 and arrived at Quebec on 27 June. Bishop Laval ordained him a priest on 11 June 1668.

He and Claude Trouvé left almost immediately to establish a mission (village of Cayugas) for the Iroquois near the Bay of Quinte on Lake Ontario. On 28 Oct. 1668 they reached the village of Kenté and spent the winter there.

Dollier de Casson appended to his Histoire du Montréal a  long letter written by Father  Trouvé, which is a résumé of the history of the Kenté mission. One can glimpse in it the great daring and stamina which characterized these athletic young missionaries who propelled their birch-bark canoes through rapids and ice floes as they travelled from Lake Ontario to Montreal and Quebec, wintering in the woods where at times they got lost, eating sagamité and pumpkin, and succeeding only in baptizing children or a few adults on the point of death.

This was the first Sulpician mission among the Iroquois and was abandoned in 1680. Below is a picture of an Ontario Heritage Plaque honouring the occasion. Screen Shot 2017-05-28 at 8.48.07 AM

Father Fenelon spent the winter of 1669/70 at Ganatsekwyagon, (meaning “break in the cliffs” or “opening in the sand hills”) an Iroquoian village at the mouth of the Rouge River (near present day Port Hope). This resulted in the nearby Frenchman’s Bay being named for him.

Father Fenelon spent a winter, the exact date cannot be ascertained, living with the Indians in the area of Fenelon Falls. The Village was subsequently named for him. A school for Indian children was established at three islands in Lac Saint-Louis (above Lachine) and given the name Gentilly.

Father Fénelon was summoned there , as he had experience of Indian life. On that occasion Governor Buade de Frontenac wrote, 9 January 1673: “ The great zeal that Sieur Abbé de Fénelon has exhibited for several years in the propagation of Christianity in this colony, and the devotion that he has displayed in His Majesty’s service, constrain us to seek every kind of means of recognizing them and of pressing him to keep up the zeal he has shown up to the present; a zeal whose ardour has prompted him to abandon all the substantial establishments that his birth and merit might have entitled him to expect in France, in order to devote himself entirely to the conversion and education of the Indians.”

By 1674 Father Fenelon had been in New France for 7 years and accomplished much. However 1674 turned out to be the end of his Canadian adventures. The Governor-General of New France Buade Louis Frontenac (1622-1698) and Francois-Marie Perrot (1644-1691) Governor of Montreal were both competitors in the fur trade and used their authority to further these enterprises. Frontenac had Perrot arrested under rather dubious circumstances and charged with defying the authority of the Governor-General.

Portrait of Buade de Frontenac - artist unknown.

Portrait of Buade de Frontenac – artist unknown.

Father Fenelon incurred Governor Frontenac’s displeasure by his opposition to the arrest of Perrot. To further inflame matters on 25 March 1674 Father Fenelon spoke out from the pulpit in criticism of Frontenac’s actions and he too was arrested. Despite the great pressure that Frontenac brought to bear on the members of the Conseil Souverain they finally concluded that the issues involved were beyond their jurisdiction; they ordered that the cases should be referred to the King and that Perrot and the Abbé Fénelon should be sent to France to answer the charges laid against them.

His fellow clerics distanced themselves from him and Frontenac called for his expulsion. Frontenac took a very high and mighty attitude and requested the Sulpician Superior to expel Father Fénelon from the Society.

On arriving in France Perrot was shut up in the Bastille for some time and then sent back to his governor’s duties at Montreal. King Louis XIV (1638-1715) concluded that all concerned had been at fault, especially Frontenac who was severely censured for his actions and his attitude towards Father Fenelon. Frontenac returned to his duties as Governor with his authority curbed, limited to military matters and supervising but not interfering with officials.

As for Father Fénelon, he did not escape unscathed he was reprimanded by his religious superior Bretonvilliers for interfering in worldly matters, just as he had been in Montreal. He was forbidden to return to Canada. He withdrew from the Society of Saint-Sulpice and died at 38 years of age in 1679. Not even a trace remains of the mission he founded at Kente.

While his time in Canada was short his footprints can be found today as his name lingers on as follows:

  • Father Fénelon Catholic School Pickering, Ontario, named after an educator who gave up a life of wealth and comfort to become a priest and missionary.
  • Fenelon Boulevard in Dorval, Quebec
  • Ontario Provincial Heritage plaque
  • Frenchman’s Bay

His half-brother the celebrated Archbishop of Cambrai ran afoul of both the King and the Pope for his writings and controversial views. He was confined within the boundaries of the Archdiocese of Cambrai in his later years and died 7 January 1715 at 64 years of age.

Sources: W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. II, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 411p., p. 327; Historical document “Salignac de La Mothe-Fenelon by Jean de Chanleiac; Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Catholic Encyclopedia and miscellaneous websites.


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