Book Review

The Sulpicians of Montreal : A History of Power and Discretion 1657-2007. Revised, translated and updated edition. Edited by Dominique Deslandres, John A. Dickinson, Ollivier Hubert. Iconographic Research by Jacques Des Rochers. Translated from the French by Steven Watt. (Wilson & Lafleur Ltée: Montréal, 2013). 705 p.

I was approached a decade ago to prepare a history of the Sulpicians. Although I was excited by the project, I was busy with the history of the eastern-rite Redemptorists and could not give the new project the time it deserved. It was given to a team of Montreal-based historians, along with a generous budget used to employ several other historians and students, some of whom prepared theses on appropriate topics. Given the short time available, this was the most sensible approach to an immense project. I proposed that I be entrusted with the translation in 2008, once the book came out in French. Instead, it was given to Steven Watt. Thus, for disclosure. Happily, aside from the occasional awkward phrase which caused me to turn to the original for understanding, the translation was competently and, in most passages and sections, beautifully done.

The three editors also wrote over 50% of the printed pages, worked with another thirteen authors and nineteen research assistants to produce the rest of the book, 48 colour plates, 161 further illustrations, 18 pages of bibliography, and 42 pages of index.

The book is organized in what I think are four main topics: History (chapters 1-7), Pastoral Work (8-12), Education (13-16), Culture (17-21). Specifically, the chapters are, in order: 1. Foundations. 2. The Sulpicians in Canada. 3. History and Memory. 4. The Sulpician Identity. 5. The Beginnings of a Sulpician Prosopography. 6. The Sulpicians and Montreal Space. 7. Seigneurs and Landowners: An ecclesiastical economic vision. 8. Pastoral Care and Preaching. 9. Charity in the City. 10. For Mary and Christ! The pious Confraternities. 11. St Patrick’s and the Irish Catholics. 12. The Sulpicians and the Religious Communities of Montreal. 13. Spreading the Gospel and Training Priests: The Sulpician Missions. 14. Sulpician Primary and Secondary Schools. 15. At the Heart of the Sulpician Vocation: The Major Seminary of Montreal. 16. Sulpician Retreats. The final five chapters are all titled Sulpician Cultural Strategies (17: Books; 18: Music, 19: Singing; 20: The Fine Arts, 21: Architecture). After a brief conclusion, the book ends with a lengthy bibliography, lists of illustrations, graphs, tables, and the important list of Sulpicians belonging to the Province of Canada.

There are also succinct sidebars with biographies (Quiblier, Carlos Ballén, Vachon de – Belmont written by Saint-Vallier in 1688 – and Patrick Dowd) and interesting miniature articles (The Society of Saint-Sulpice and the Quiet Revolution, The Theme of Religious Singing among the Historiographers of the Sulpician Missions, Sermon by Louis Jollivet following the Fall of Montreal, and Jean-Jacques Lartigue’s School of Theology).

The book definitely answers: Who were the Sulpicians? This question is highly important in Quebec historiography and was often neglected in favour of other less self-effacing religious congregations. More specifically, this book answers the question of who were the Montreal Sulpicians. It has much less information about these same Canadian Sulpicians in the United States, Japan or in Latin America, topics which I would have found fascinating, given my own research into Canadian Redemptorist history and their work in Japan and Latin America. So, there is no real comparative work in this book, although there are some sentences scattered around which assure us that the Sulpicians were (or were not) similar to or suffered (or enjoyed) various events (the Conquest, the Quiet Revolution, the Second Vatican Council) in the same way as other congregations. The chapter on the Sulpicians and other congregations could have done more but only makes the case of the Sulpicians’ importance to other congregations.

Just to describe the book is to cause awe in any potential reader. The size of the book (in French, 670 pages, compared to this even longer edition) and its lavishness dazzled everyone when it was originally presented.

I have since grown to suspect that the publication of this magnificent book in French was praised overwhelmingly but uncritically by Canadian historians specializing in religion when the book first appeared.

First, in Sudbury, Laurentian University’s libraries do not show any circulation or use whatsoever of the original French version. My own library at the University of Sudbury – which prides itself on its Catholic (and French-Canadian Jesuit) heritage and teaches courses in French – does not, either, show any use of the copy I donated in 2009. This alone, means very little. The lack of use at Sudbury’s universities may be more a reflection of the lack of interest in Canadian religious history in the general student population (something I hope to correct one day with the help of a massive donation to endow a chair in Canadian religious history or simply in Church History. Any donors? Anyone?)

Or it may be a reflection of the lack of interest in something entirely in French, although Laurentian and Sudbury both offer programmes in French and French-language students can be found in the English-language courses. Now that this book is in English, it may get some attention from English readers, but I fear that the fact that it is even heavier by 35 pages will turn away students looking for an easier book to tackle for that course-imposed book review. I have noted that books creeping up to 300 pages generally get very few if any undergraduate readers. At over 700 pages, this book will surely remain unread UNLESS librarians catalogue this book with a long (MARC 505) contents note with the titles of the chapters, each of which are short and fascinating treatises in themselves.

Most of the individual chapters do stand on their own (although the two separate chapters on music and choral singing could have been combined and a separate chapter entirely dedicated to native issues would have helped to tie together several threads in different chapters) and it is to these that we can recommend students and specialized readers without frightening them with the entire book.

Second, and more importantly to readers of this Bulletin, this English edition, although it claims it was revised and updated, has nothing to indicate where if any improvements were made and whether they were significant enough to warrant a library purchasing this edition if the French edition is already on the shelf. In comparing the two books the increased number of pages seems to be due entirely to a heavier typeface and airier page lay-out. Furthermore, students in Canadian studies or in religious history of Canada SHOULD – we hope – know enough French to tackle the original. Alas, I know I am mistaken. The lack of any true revision is a pity, given that, on careful reading, the original French edition did show some signs of being rushed, of duplicating information (especially in the first – historical – sections where similar information shows up in different chapters), and in a lack of some rigorous editing. The English edition has, however, I noted in some places, fixed accidental omissions from the French text. So, for our unilingual students (and to many professors), this book will be a valuable addition to the university library.

Thus, it is safe to recommend this book to the larger academic libraries with strong graduate programmes in religious studies, history, Catholic or Canadian studies. Since at last count there were 24 members of the Catholic Colleges and Universities Association of Canada, you have to congratulate the Sulpicians for seeing this project through, given the fact that they must have known that few institutions or individuals would actually buy it and fewer still would read it. Perhaps they thought the book would be shorter. It explains the effusions of praise on the part of the Quebec-based reviewers who knew of the generosity the Sulpicians showed in opening their archives and in financing this book.

So, the historians of the University of Montreal have done a magnificent job in a very short time and this book will take its place on some university shelves with pride. The occasional lonely researcher in the larger libraries of the world may stumble across it in the decades to come and be grateful.

Paul Laverdure, University of Sudbury

Published on: 9 April 2014
Posted by: amm098