As an undergraduate at the University of Ottawa I passed by the Pavillion Vachon many times without ever knowing the fascinating story of Archbishop Alexandre Vachon, the chemist and priest after whom it was named. Originally written in French in 2009, André Vachon's tribute to his distant relative is the most comprehensive biography ever written on any bishop of the 170 year old Archdiocese of Ottawa. Vachon, the writer, is not a professional historian, nor does he follow the format of most biographies in this genre. The text is a labor of love, and the author has skillfully and energetically mined numerous archival deposits, local newspapers, personal journals, and family collections to produce this thorough chronicle of Alexandre Vachon's life and work.
Alexandre Vachon was born in 1885 in the small rural community of Down River, in the parish of St. Raymond, just outside of Quebec City. He was the thirteenth child of Jean Alexandre Vachon and Mary Davidson, an anglophone of Scots-Irish descent who converted to Catholicism upon her marriage to Vachon. This "mixed" marriage may have been one of the most important foundations of young Alexandre's life; he spoke English as a first language, but with his surname and rapid acquisition of French as a second language, he became an important linguistic and cultural bridge between Canada's "four solitudes of his life time: English-French-Protestant-Roman Catholic. What is remarkable throughout his career as a scientist, scholar, cleric, and public servant was how he easily moved through the linguistic and cultural divides of his country, and won the confidence of politicians, clerics, and scientists from across Canada's ethno-religious spectrum.
Vachon's numerous public and private commitments and the pace at which he lived his life was simply dizzying. Trained in theology and chemistry, he taught [End Page 373] chemistry, mineralogy, and geology at Laval University beginning in 1912, and quickly became an advocate for more French Canadian youth to engage in science. He founded biological field stations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and was actively engaged in Canadian and international scientific associations. In the process he upgraded his qualifications by attending summer schools at MIT and Harvard, though he never became a doctor of chemistry. Vachon held numerous prestigious appointments within the Church, Laval University, national scientific councils, and international scientific congresses. He crisscrossed the continent and traveled to Europe numerous times to attend meetings, address conferences, make public speeches in both English and French, and visit his siblings and nieces and nephews who lived across North America. Andre Vachon documents each of Vachon's responsibilities in detail, every trip, every speech, every family visit, every balancing act undertaken by the future bishop. It is little wonder that Bishop Vachon suffered from lengthy bouts of illness and chronic fatigue.
Vachon's appointment as Archbishop of Ottawa, in 1940, marked a resumption of his numerous church responsibilities, globetrotting, and his exhausting pace. There are times when the biography itself appears to be more of a travelogue and detailed itinerary than an analysis of the salient features of Vachon's career. The author might have elected to use case studies from the bishop's life to combine many themes, instead of a high paced narrative of Vachon's activities. The Marian Congress of 1947, a pinnacle in Vachon's career, is a case in point. In this congress dedicated to Mary, Queen of Peace, the author could have interwoven themes of the bishop's deep Marian piety, his ability to harness the energies of both French- and English-speaking Catholics in a historically fractured diocese, the Church's frontal assault on international communism through Mary, and the growing rapprochement of Protestant and Catholic Canadians as embodied by ministerial and civil co-operation with the event. It should also have been pointed out by the author that the debt incurred by the Congress may have helped to cripple Vachon's subsequent projects like the diocesan seminary. Episodes like...