- The Sulpicians of Montreal: A History of Power and Discretion 1657–2007 Edited by Dominique Deslandres, John A. Dickenson, and Ollivier Hubert
Visitors to Montreal are often surprised to find that its cathedral does not lie in the city center, the usual location in a traditionally Catholic city. Instead, at the heart of Old Montreal, stands the much better-known and -loved Notre Dame Basilica. This anomaly is a concrete example of the Sulpician power and discretion that are the subject of this book. The members of the society now known as the Priests of Saint Sulpice were involved with Montreal even before their arrival in the tiny settlement in 1657; their founder Jean-Jacques Olier had been one of the leading members of the Société de Notre-Dame de Montréal responsible for the founding of the missionary colony in 1642. The twenty-one chapters of this book by thirteen historians show something of the extent of their influence on the life and development of Montreal during the subsequent 350 years. [End Page 170]
The historians responsible for this study were given free access to the immensely rich store of documents in the Sulpician archives in Montreal, an unprecedented opportunity because of the recent organization and classification of those archives. They have also made use of many recently published articles and unpublished dissertations. The editors begin with an overview of the history of the Sulpicians, which, they point out, reflects the history of the Catholic Church in the West over the last three centuries. The study discusses the work of the Sulpicians in the formation of priests from its origins in seventeenth-century France through its development in North America, where they founded Saint Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore in 1793, to the engagement of the Canadian province in Japan and Colombia. It casts light on their role in the specifically religious life of Montreal as pastors, chaplains, and educators and their support for the work of Montreal’s other religious communities. Their work with nineteenth-century Irish immigrants is the subject of one chapter. A further feature of nineteenth-century history was the conflict between the Sulpicians and Montreal’s first two bishops that led to the anomaly mentioned at the beginning of this review. Later chapters deal with Sulpician influence on Montreal’s cultural and artistic life through books, music, singing, architecture, and the fine arts. The discussion of the financial affairs of the Sulpicians should dispel the widely held belief that they are “rich.” A wide variety of illustrations, expertly annotated and including many colored plates, supports the text.
The challenge of translating such a large work by so many different authors must have been immense, and Steven Watt has met that challenge admirably—even, at times, clarifying what was obscure in the French. There are some surprising archaisms: “discrete” rather than “discreet” for the French “discrète” and “almoner” rather than “chaplain” for the French “aumônier.” If, at times, the language sounds like that of sociology rather than theology (pastors “manage” rather than “serve” parishioners), this is an accurate translation of the French. The editors of this book make no claim to be exhaustive. They draw attention in conclusion to all the work still to be done on the Sulpicians’ remarkable history, indicating some of the directions this might take. Any such work will find an excellent foundation in this impressive study.