Charles Chiniquy is by far one of the most controversial figures in Canadian Christian history. A Roman Catholic priest turned Presbyterian minister, his biography is brimmed with controversy. In this and the following blog post, I hope to summarize and highlight some of the controversies and important events in his life.
Charles Chiniquy was born on July 30, 1809 in Kamouraska, Lower Canada. His father died at an early age and Chiniquy was put under the care of his uncle, Amable Dionne. Under the watchful eye of his uncle, Chiniquy studied at the Séminaire de Nicolet. He was regarded as a very gifted speaker and a pious man. The factors would lead him to pursue ordination in the Roman Catholic Church,
Chiniquy was ordained in Quebec City in 1833 by Bishop Signay. Now he was officially Father Chiniquy. After being bounced around several parishes he eventually was able to settle down in the St. Roch parish where he served from 1834 – 1838. It was his time here, specifically his labours in the Quebec Marine Hospital, that encouraged him to take up the cause of the Temperance Movement. A Protestant physician by the name of Dr. James Douglas laboured at this hospital and he gave Chiniquy numerous pamphlets on the subject of temperance. Chiniquy eventually became convinced that “many of the ills he saw at the hospital could be traced to drink.”
It is here that something quite surprising occurred. Jan Noel writes,
Between 1848 and 1851 thousands of French-speaking Catholics in the Province of Canada came forward in their parish churches to take the temperance pledge. . . . For several decades evangelical Protestants had laboured long and hard to eradicate drunkenness; and now a Catholic priest was securing more converts in a single day than these earlier works had won with years of steady efforts.
Part of the reason that this radical change started happening in French Canada was due to the eloquence of Chiniquy. As already mentioned, he was regarded as an exceptionally gifted speaker. Yet, as Jan Noel points out, this is not something that is just due to the charisma of Chiniquy. Rather, during this time in French Canadian history, there is a dramatic return on the part of the parishioners back to traditionalism and submission to the authority of the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church. This, of course, is the result of the ultramontane movement lead by Bishop Bourget. The growing image of the Church as an institute of both social reform and social authority gave its charismatic leaders (in this case, Chiniquy) much authority and persuasion. Chiniquy also reinforced this ultramontane nationalist spirit by preaching that temperance was the only way that French Canadians could retain their national identity in the face of a rise of Irish immigrants in Quebec and a growing number of French Canadians moving to the United States. His success and popularity are evidenced by some 200,000 adherents to temperance.
Chiniquy, in his early years, was a strongly committed Catholic. This is evidenced by the multiple opportunities (which he seemingly gladly took up) to engage in Anti-Protestantism. This fiery preacher of reform engaged with a group of Protestant radicals who published a newspaper called the L’Avenir. In his letters to this newspaper, “he defended the church, the papacy, and the clergy’s right to intervene in public affairs, condemned annexation to the United States, and examined the question of emigration to that country.” These letters prompted a growth in anti-clerical violence and at Montreal, he strongly preached against the French Protestants who were known as “The Swiss.” With his fiery rhetoric he “incited laity to minor violence against his opponents.”
This rather violent Anti-Protestantism was a result of Charles Chiniquy’s firm beliefs. He wrote in his autobiography that,
‘Out of the Church of Rome there is no salvation,’ [and that it] is one of the doctrines which the priests of Rome have to believe and teach to the people. That dogma, once accepted, caused me to devote all my energies to the conversion of Protestants.
It seems that Bishop Bourget tacitly supported Chiniquy’s behaviour, for there is no evidence that he condemned it. However, Chiniquy was running into trouble due to other issues. In 1851 he was suspended from his clerical office due to a charge of sexual harassment. The validity of the charge is difficult to establish. Chiniquy himself denied any guilt and would later argue that the woman made up the allegation. However, it appears that Chiniquy was involved in other scandals than just this one. In 1846 he was “admitted by the Oblates at the request of the archbishop of Quebec to atone there for a transgression” committed during his time at Saint-Pascal. He also needed to be cleared of a claim by a woman in Kamouraska in 1848.
This suspension and Chiniquy’s questionable reputation prompted Bishop Bourget to ask him to leave his diocese. Chiniquy, desirous to preserve the faith of the French Canadian community in Illinois requested appointment there from Bourget. Roby writes that this enabled Bourget to offer “Chiniquy the opportunity for a fresh start.” Bourget also regarded as a solution to a difficult problem: that of finding somebody suitable to minister to the French Canadians in Illinois. Chiniquy was in many ways the right person for the job because he “was familiar with the problems of the Canadians who had emigrated to the United States, since his temperance crusade had taken him among them.”
Thus, in 1851 Chiniquy moved to St. Anne, Illinois as a colonizing priest. It was in Illinois that Chiniquy began to run into administration and doctrinal issues with the Roman Catholic Church. This is primarily due to his American, Irish, and even French clerical colleagues becoming jealous of his massive success among the French Canadian emigrants. They “censured him, and spoke ill of him to the bishops of Lower Canada and Chicago.” The Bishop of Chicago eventually got involved and blamed Chiniquy for all the dissension and disunity that was being stirred among the clergy and even among the laity. Chiniquy, not being one who took criticism lightly, went on the defensive and criticized and made accusations himself.
Yet amidst an almost constant string of argument and lawsuits, Chiniquy maintained his anti-Protestantism, again supporting armed resistance against Protestants. He wrote in an American Catholic newspaper,
The morning after, two corpses of well-known Orangemen were found lying on the broken columns [of the Catholic church, which they had been desecrating]. I do not [have] to tell you that since that day the Catholics of Kingston have been left in peace. I will then say bravo!
Chiniquy was eventually sued by a land speculator named Peter Spink for slander. Chiniquy had accused Spink of lying to his clients regarding land sales (even though Chiniquy had often bought land from Spink for use by the church). In this famous set of trials in which Abraham Lincoln defended Chiniquy, Chiniquy accused Bishop Anthony O’Regan of financial corruption. Due both to this accusation and the fact that Chiniquy would not move away from the St. Anne parish after the Bishop ordered him to, he was once again suspended from the priesthood. Chiniquy, in his typical rebellious fashion, refused to move stating that “the bishop wanted to seize his church and appoint an Irish priest (prompting many of his parishioners to support him).” This open rebellion and the fact that Chiniquy had “wickedly presumed to exercise the functions of the sacred ministry, to preach, administer sacraments and say mass” prompted his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church on September 3, 1856.
To be continued….