St. François de Laval and the Grand Séminaire of Quebec, Canada

Speaking at a dinner in his honour at the Windsor Hotel in Montréal in 1881, the writer Samuel L. Clemens, better known to the world as Mark Twain, famously commented that "this is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn't throw a brick without breaking a church window." While he was speaking of this in the context of the city of Montréal, it does point to the depth of history of the church within Québec more generally. I thought that it might be of interest to consider some of the history and architecture of Catholic Québec in a series of posts, and I can think of no better place to start than with St. François de Laval, the first bishop of Quebec, and the Grand Séminaire.

Let us begin with a very brief account of the founding history of the Archdiocese of Québec itself which sets out some of the broader context:
The first phase of the Church’s installation in New France dates back to 1615 with the arrival of the Jesuit community, who were followed by the Recollets in 1625. Both communities permanently established themselves in Québec City in order to serve the new colony and to evangelize the Amerindians.

Named as an official missionary territory by Rome, Québec was erected as vicariate apostolic by a Propaganda decree approved by Pope Alexander VII on April 11, 1658. The same decree named François de Laval bishop of Pétré and vicar apostolic of Canada in Northern America. The bulls of the new bishop of Pétré were given in Rome on June 3 of the same year.

Sixteen years later, the apostolic mission was raised to the level of a diocese, appointed directly by The Holy See. Clement X signed the Bull of erection of the new bishopric on October 1, 1674. Thus Mgr. de Laval became the first bishop of Québec.

The aforementioned Bishop Laval was born in France in 1623 to a family descended of French nobility. Educated under the Jesuits, he was ordained at twenty four and consecrated a bishop in 1658 in the Abbey of St-Germain-des-Près de Paris. He came to Québec City in June of 1659 and founded various institutions.

Blessed François was known for his missionary spirit and was a bishop very close to his people, inclusive of visiting the sick and his priests. He died in 1708.

The Great Seminary of Quebec, located in old Quebec City, is located on the site chosen in 1665 by Bishop Laval and was founded in 1663. Attached to the Grand Séminaire is the Petite Séminaire, a boys school rooted in the classical liberal arts tradition, studying the great Western philosophers as well as French, Greek and Latin, intended to mold future clerics as well as future civic leaders into an intellectual elite to lead society within New France. 

Architecturally, the seminary is an impressive and stately structure situated within some of the very best of the French architectural tradition. Indeed, one might be forgiven if they mistook this for a building located within Paris. 

The city of Quebec itself provides the following architectural history and description:
The architectural ensemble you are looking at was built between 1675 and 1868. Today it is called the Vieux Séminaire de Québec. It is modeled on French 17th-century convents and colleges. Its three buildings have features specific to French Regime construction: white plaster walls with S-shaped wall anchors, higher in certain spots to serve as a fire stop, and tin roofs with dormer windows. The buildings are arranged to form a typical inner court.

The Procure wing with its signature sundial dating from 1773 is the oldest building. It was constructed sometime around 1680, then rebuilt three times due to fire. The only parts that remain from the original building are the vaulted cellars where Monseigneur Laval’s kitchen was located. In 1692 the Séminaire commissioned a new building as a residence for priests. This wing, called “des Parloirs,” is adjacent to the Procure wing and is recognizable by its main door similar to that of its neighbouring wing.

A third building, the Congregation wing, was constructed in 1707. A carriage gate leading to the inner square is built into its facade. To this day, the door bears the monogram SME, which indicates the Séminaire de Québec’s affiliation with the Séminaire des Missions étrangères in Paris.
The "lanterne"

As far as the interior is concerned, here is a historical view of the chapel as it stood within the 19th century:

And a slightly more modern view will reveal a now-stripped high altar, but at very least shows some of the colours as well as the mezzanine level of the chapel -- an architectural feature seen elsewhere in Quebec ecclesiastical architecture. 

Here are a few other details as well a painting featuring one of the entrances of the seminary showing a Quebec priest in his typically French influenced clerical attire:

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.