November 24, 2010

Fr. Jean-Baptiste Thibault

Jean-Baptiste Thibault (14 December 1810 – 4 April 1879) son of Jean-Baptiste Thibault and Charlotte Carrier; d. 4 April 1879 at Saint-Denis-de-la-Bouteillerie (Kamouraska County), Quebec was a Roman Catholic priest and missionary noted for his role in negotiating on behalf of the Government of Canada during the Red River Rebellion of 1869 – 1870. He also established the first Roman Catholic mission in what would become Alberta, at Lac Sainte Anne in 1842.  Jean-Baptiste was a decendant of Francois Thibault and Elisabeth Levebvre. 

Jean-Baptiste Thibault, a farmer’s son, received his classical and theological education at the seminary of Quebec, where on 31 March 1833 he was admitted into the subdiaconate. On 28 April he set out for the North-West. Contrary to several of his predecessors, he had no debt to pay before his departure. Yet the Thibault family was scarcely well-to-do, if the sums of money that the bishopric subsequently sent rather often to his father are an indication.

During the voyage, the missionary was frequently shocked by the behaviour of the crew. Unable to quiet them, or to ensure the use of more acceptable language, he complained to the captain. He was sturdy, but, hampered by his timidity, he was unable to enforce respect from those who provoked him. This timidity was to be construed as pride when Thibault, feeling ill at ease with the employees, later refused the hospitality offered at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s trading posts. He arrived at Saint-Boniface in June 1833, and began to study the Cree and Chippewa languages. On 8 September he was ordained priest by Bishop Joseph-Norbert Provencher.

Two years later, in the bishop’s absence, Thibault showed himself to be a wise and skilful administrator of the western missions. The building of the cathedral at Saint-Boniface progressed, and the yield from the farm belonging to the mission increased. Thibault proved to be a good preacher, without being too verbose. Above all, he was good at expounding; this quality was appreciated by Bishop Provencher, who considered that Christianity should be brought to the Indians by persuasion, and not “in the Protestant fashion” by gifts. In such a manner the ministers of the different faiths accused each other of trading in souls.

In 1842, therefore, at the request of the Indians and Métis, Bishop Provencher sent Thibault as a missionary across the prairies to the Rocky Mountains. The bishop made this decision unknown to the HBC, which had refused to approve his plan; Thibault, however, met the preference of the company for Canadian rather than French missionaries. His first journey lasted six months, during which, prudently, he travelled on horseback across the plains as far as Edmonton House – the first Catholic or Protestant missionary to adopt this form of transportation. Delighted with the politeness and cordial welcome extended to him by the commandants of the company’s forts, he preached the gospel to all the Canadiens, Indians, and Métis who came to him. He welcomed the Blackfeet, whom he described thus: “These Indians . . . are very clean, and very well-disposed towards the whites; but their number, their warlike qualities, and particularly their rapacity make them the terror of their redskin enemies. They have only a very imperfect idea of the divinity.” This journey, the prelude to the diffusion of Catholicism throughout the American northwest, bore fruit: Thibault conducted 353 baptisms and celebrated 20 marriages, in addition to acquiring a better knowledge of the religious needs of this vast region.

For 10 years the missionary worked discreetly, without displaying excessive zeal, and visited the meeting-places of the Indians and Métis. Thibault was probably the first Catholic missionary to make his way to several of the HBC posts and to several places where the Oblates were later to establish missions [see Eynard; Reynard]. However, only one foundation is acknowledged unanimously as his, the Lake St Anne mission. Crees were accustomed to stay in this spot, which they called Devil’s Lake; Thibault substituted the name of St Anne. He stayed there in 1842 and 1843, but it was only in the summer of 1844 that a house was built for the missionary.

In 1852, acting on Thibault’s request to return to Quebec, Bishop Provencher recalled him to Red River. When Thibault reached Saint-Boniface, however, Provencher asked him to stay there, as there was no one to minister to the region. Thibault did so, and did not return to the diocese of Quebec until 1868.

While at Quebec in the autumn of 1869, Thibault was visited by Hector-Louis Langevin, who asked him to go to Red River as a representative of the Canadian government. Thibault was believed to have a great influence over the Métis. Some of them had just refused to allow William McDougall, who had been appointed lieutenant governor of the North-West Territories by the Canadian government, to enter the settlement. By this action the Métis and their leader, Louis Riel, meant to force the federal government to negotiate with them the terms of their union with Canada. Conjointly with Charles-René-Léonidas d’Irumberry de Salaberry, Thibault was to reassure them that Ottawa intended to respect their rights and not to treat them as a conquered people, and to convince them to lay down their arms [see Sir John Young]. A third delegate, Donald Alexander Smith, was for his part to set at rest the minds of the company’s directors, and to discuss with all “the people of Red River” the conditions of their entry into the dominion. The prime minister, John A. Macdonald, judging Thibault to be “a sensible old French Canadian” and “a shrewd and at the same time a kindly old gentleman,” was of the opinion that, if he accomplished nothing in particular, at least he would not commit any blunders since he knew the region and supported the Canadian government. A reserved and prudent man, Thibault was content to remain in the background, and this was where circumstances kept him during his governmental mission.

Salaberry having remained at Pembina, Thibault, on 25 December, arrived in the west alone. By order of the recently proclaimed provisional government, Thibault was escorted to the bishop’s palace at Saint-Boniface, where he was kept under surveillance so that he would not meddle in political affairs. On 6 Jan. 1870 Louis Riel and his council received Thibault and also Salaberry, who had just arrived. “Immediately we communicated our instructions to the president [Riel] and his council,” Thibault recounted, “and they took them under consideration.” However, no comment was received, and four days later Thibault wrote to the provisional government to ask about the conditions required by the colony in the event of its union with Canada, “in order that we can submit them,” he said, “to the examination of the government that sent us.” The next day the council replied to him that the documents Thibault and Salaberry had submitted did not confer on them the necessary powers to conclude an agreement. On 13 January the council expressed this opinion to Thibault and Salaberry by word of mouth. According to the commissioner D. A. Smith, Thibault ceased to be useful from then on. In general, historians agree that he had no influence on the course of events. But Smith wrote that had it not been for the steps Thibault took during the night of 19–20 January, he himself would have succeeded in settling everything at this time. During that night, as Smith has it, Thibault contributed to a closing of the ranks of the demonstrators, who that day had held public meetings which Smith’s money and promises had managed to break up. Subsequently Riel’s position grew stronger, and he became formally president of the provisional government, whose bases were enlarged. Then delegates were sent to Ottawa to negotiate the entry of the Red River colony into confederation [see John Black]. Was Thibault partly responsible for this sudden change? In his report, he said that he had had “to reason with the leaders, and with the people; always, however, by conversations with single individuals, as that seemed to me the best . . . way of effecting any good result.”

Thibault stayed two more years at Red River, ministering to the parish of Saint-François-Xavier; then in 1871 he accepted the post of vicar general of the diocese. The following autumn he returned to the east for good, and was successively in charge of the parishes of Sainte-Louise (L’Islet County) and Saint-Denis-de-la-Bouteillerie.

Jean-Baptist is our 4th cousin 5x removed.

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