Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscans
Francis came from a wealthy family. Like all young men of his time, he had various experiences: parties, pranks and even war, during which he was taken prisoner and became deathly ill. While he was recovering, he realized he was profoundly dissatisfied with his life.
One day, as he was listening to a gospel passage, he suddenly understood the importance of loving. He changed his way of life, became poor, and was seized with an urgent need to proclaim the messages of joy, hope and love found in the Bible, and to bring peace to people and to all creation.
The Origins of the Order
This is how the Franciscans came to be. (Their official name is the Order of Friars Minor; they are also called the First Order.) In the winter of 1206–1207, Francesco Bernardone, a young man of Assisi, publicly renounced his own father and said that from now on, God was his only Father. He gave up the life he had been leading (wealth, parties, popularity, and so on) and began to care for lepers. He also spent time with the rejects and marginalized people of his time. For two years, he lived as a mendicant, restoring three dilapidated churches in the area of Assisi: San Damiano, San Pietro and Santa Maria degli Angeli.
In the early days, many people found him eccentric; some even thought he was mad, but gradually, men began to join him and embrace his lifestyle of poverty and prayer. The first was a rich and influential man named Bernard of Quintavalle. Sometime later, Peter Catani joined them. Before long, another nine came to be part of the “folly” of Assisi. They became the 12 “penitents” of Assisi, with no home or property. At the beginning, a few rules for living given by Francis were enough, but as the group grew bigger, a more specific rule for living was needed. In 1208, the Pope authorized the founding of the little community (verbally, at first); later, Francis wrote the Rule of the Order of Friars Minor, which was approved in 1223.
The First Missionaries
The sons of Francis of Assisi have used various names over the centuries: Franciscans, Capuchins, Conventuals, Observants, Reformed, Discalced, Alcantarins, and Recollects. This last name in the list leads us into the origins of the Franciscans in Canada.
From 1615 to 1629
The Recollects arrived in Quebec with Champlain in 1615. They stayed there 14 years, until the conquest of Quebec by the Kirke brothers in 1629.
From 1670 to 1848
After an absence of 40 years, the Recollects returned in 1670, and resided in the lower town of Quebec; today, the General Hospital stands as a witness to their presence. At Cap Diamant they built a convent, which was later destroyed by fire. The convent was situated between what is now the Chateau Frontenac and the rue du Trésor. A monument to the Recollects is found there today.
The Recollects worked in the Gaspé, Newfoundland and Montreal areas. Brother Didace Pelletier, a master carpenter, built chapels in several places, notably in Trois-Rivières (the site of an Anglican church), in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, and on Bonaventure Island, across from Percé.
There were around 370 Recollects at this time. They worked as chaplains in the forts, as well as in more than 100 parishes along the St. Lawrence River. Octave Crémazie wrote his famous poem “Ô Carillon” (O Bells) in honour of the sons of St. Francis. But the English conquerors of 1759 did not allow religious communities with European origins to recruit new members; around 1830, the last Recollect friar in Quebec passed away.
From 1890 to today
The Franciscans’ return to Canada was a result of the efforts of the Secular Franciscans and of Father Frédéric Janssoone, who had come to Canada in 1881. The Franciscans arrived in Montreal in 1890, living near what is now Atwater and René-Lévesque Boulevard, where the first convent was built. From that point on, they spread throughout Canada, living out the Franciscan charism.
The Québec Franciscans
As Franciscan Friars Minor, we have kept the flame of the Franciscan charism alive in this corner of the country. Not alone, of course, but with others – our Capuchin brothers, the Poor Clares and the Secular Franciscans. Through their dedication, hundreds of brothers gave and continue to give their lives – their unique life – for the coming of the Kingdom of God.
A past filled with presence and service (1890–1990)
Odoric Bouffard wrote in the book La Province Saint-Joseph, “I can’t see you as you are now without remembering: all the time I spent with you, beginning in 1923, when you appeared to me, on feast days, under the guise of the chubby Father Jean-Joseph… You sometimes put on airs: a Franciscan bishop was visiting us (Bishop Dreyer or Hiral); a scholar was passing through: Father Éphrem Longpré, for example. He was one of ours, too. He spoke to us of a group of confreres, cloistered, like him, with their old Franciscan books in Quaracchi, near Florence… That was how we came to feel at ease with this family that couldn’t care less about borders. You were in China, in Japan. You seemed to be everywhere. …”
This is the sense one has when reading the two volumes of C’était mon frère [He was my brother], on the deceased friars of our Province: “You seemed to be everywhere.” The first impression is therefore that of an obvious nomadism, as well as a presence that seemed to multiply like bread. On almost every page, we find the names of those who spent 15, 25, 45 years in the Holy Land, Japan, China, Peru or Rome, not to mention the four corners of Canada or our houses throughout Quebec. These two books also describe the many types of presence in the secular world. The brothers seem to have been everywhere. This is no doubt the Canadian interpretation of chapter 6 of our Rule, which is entitled “Pilgrims and strangers in the world.”
We can sense, just from reading these obituaries, a real openness to the world and an impressive international approach. And yet, most of the brothers were here, in Canada, working in their own communities. Every day, these brothers benefited from each other’s services, which were essential to a group like ours. They were the hidden part of the iceberg. Over the past hundred years, many brothers had to serve their brothers each day in the areas of formation, government, and essential services, to ensure first of all a quality of Franciscan life with its label of authenticity. Above all, the brothers, even the most active ones, had to live together and find ways to survive, in all respects. A Province of 600 brothers, as ours was in 1958, has had, in the past 100 years, 25 Provincials and as many Custodians, who exercised the ministry of unity and charity. In legal terms, the Rule stipulates that they hold functions of government. If we add, through the years, the number of their assistants and the members of their Definatory (Council), that would make hundreds more. To that number we must add 200 brothers who are in charge of leading our communities (Guardians), and another 200 who offer formation for young brothers and who are studying.
Roland Bonenfant, o.f.m.