Skip to main content

CURÉ FRANÇOIS-XAVIER ANTOINE LABELLE (1833-1891): LE ROI DU NORD

Version imprimableVersion imprimable

After Champlain and the first Europeans appeared in the New World some 400 years ago, the Algonquins became embroiled in the fur trade and in the bitter British-French-Indian wars of the seventeenth century.In 1653, the Iroquois drove the hunters of the “Petite Nation” into a corner on the shores of Le Petit-Lac-Nominingue where they, with their families, were massacred. A little more than a hundred years later, loyalist refugees and soldiers fleeing the American Revolution in 1776 fetched up in the lower Laurentians where they began farming. Scottish settlers joined them when the federal government urged Britain to encourage emigration to Canada.

In the 1840s, a large number of Swiss Protestants emigrated to the area, a development the Catholic Church in Quebec viewed with alarm. Early settlers, Sainte-Agathe area. (Photo - Skiing Legends...)

As a result, the Church called on French Canadians to settle in the Laurentians north of St-Jérôme (incorporated in 1834) so that as many Catholic parishes as possible could be established. So in the 1840s, many Catholics, answering the summons of their church and of their elites, settled between St-Jérôme and Ste-Agathe to try their hand at farming. A decade later, they were joined by a wave of Irish and other immigrants.

From the outset, farming was back-breaking work. One historian of the period describes farming in “the back country” around Morin Heights: “Frequently a settler cleared only ten or fifteen acres after as many years on the land; on this small clearing whether Irishman or French-Canadian, he grew an acre or two of wheat – growing season permitting – two or three acres of oats, perhaps one acre of potatoes and peas and another of barley and rye. Almost always he had one cow and two or three pigs and often a horse and a small flock of sheep.”Sawmill, Laurentians. (Photo - Skiing Legends...)

To give the hard-pressed farmers a hand was the aim of one of the early Laurentian legends. Augustin-Norbert Morin was a founder of Laval University, a leading politician and the man who launched the famous newspaper, La Minerve. He established the first parish in Ste-Adèle, and many places in the Laurentians, such as Val-Morin and Lac-Morin (later Lake Manitou) were named for him.In 1852, while in the government of Lower Canada and in order to stimulate agriculture in the north, Morin set up an experimental potato farm in Ste-Adèle. The experiment fizzled because the soil in the region, devastated by the moving glaciers, was too thin and anaemic to sustain much in the way of crops and cattle. So during the next decade, the homesteaders turned from the farm to the forest.

At this time, Britain, with a vast empire to protect, was devouring wood the way a lion devours lesser breeds, a welcome development for Laurentian farmers who increasingly looked to the pine tree for a livelihood. In the 1850s, the demand for wood from the saw mills outstripped the need for squared logs so communities like Shawbridge (incorporated in 1840) began to grow as the mills strung along the Rivière-du-Nord (the waterway spine of the Laurentians) shipped their output downstream to the Ottawa River and on to Hawkesbury where the Hamilton Company was among the largest producers of cut lumber in North America. Still, even by the mid-1860s, when logging and lumbering reached their peak, the population between St-Jérôme and Ste-Agathe was as thin as the soil. Fortunately, one of the greatest of all the Laurentian legends was about to change that.Antoine Labelle.

Curé François-Xavier Antoine Labelle was born in 1833 in Ste-Rose, the son of a shoemaker. He was ordained a priest for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal in 1856 and two years later was appointed to a wealthy parish in St-Jérôme. The appointment was no accident. For some time, Curé Labelle had been concerned about the loss of French Catholic homesteaders in the north to the mills and factories of the New England states and he often spoke of his concern with his superior, Bishop Ignace Bourget.

When he arrived at his new parish, Curé Labelle, more than six feet tall and tipping the scales at 300 pounds, was an energetic, imposing figure, an ingratiating mixture of authority and charm. His parishioners and others regarded him with awe. From his first days in St-Jérôme, Curé Labelle proclaimed his dream of developing a chain of parishes from St-Jérôme through the mountains and valleys along the Rivière-du-Nord, past the Ontario border and beyond the Red River valley in Manitoba. He would people these parishes in this thousand-mile corridor with French-speaking Catholics.One of Labelle's many expeditions into the bush. (Photo - Skiing Legends...)

And the Curé had a second dream. He went on many a hunting and fishing trip with his friends to the Valley of the Devil’s River, north of Ste-Agathe. So rugged was the terrain that they called it “La Repousse”. But Curé Labelle saw beyond the hardships to the spectacular beauty of the Laurentians and their potential as a recreation region: “Cars full of tourists will be seen arriving here,” he wrote after one of his many trips to Tremblant. Sometimes, he would stand beside his tent in the evening, gazing at the soft, mysterious shape of the mountains themselves, at the dark vastness of the forests and the purple pools of light enveloping the meadows and colouring the distant lakes like a priestly stole. But Curé Labelle knew that if his people were to come to this magnificent playground, they would need transport.

In 1868, the train from Montreal did not go even as far as St-Jérôme. An attempt to resurface the “corduroy” road to St-Jérôme was opposed by Montreal’s politicians on the grounds that it would cost too much. However, the exceptionally severe winter of 1871-72 provided the Curé with the leverage he needed. There was a shortage of firewood in Montreal which led to much hardship and illness. Curé Labelle seized on this to demonstrate to Montrealers how much they would benefit from easy access to the Laurentians. He organized a bee to collect firewood and a jingling caravan of eighty sleighs took it to hundreds of Montreal families who desperately needed this fuel for cooking and heating. Curé Labelle had a natural flair for good public relations. He organized a second “wood train”, this time with a hundred sleighs led by a brass band and a team of six magnificent horses caparisoned with red pompoms pulling the vehicle, draped with a large tricolour flag, from which the Curé and M. Villemure, the mayor of St-Jérôme, waved to the applauding crowds on Montreal’s streets. In the next few years, through their taxes, grateful Montrealers contributed more than a million dollars to the first stage of the Curé’s dream, extending the railroad to St-Jérôme.

Not to be outdone, the man who charmed politicians both in Ottawa and Quebec City and was now called “Le Roi du Nord”, was able to get a National Lottery approved so as to further his dreams for the Laurentians. One of only four lotteries authorized in the province in the nineteenth century, the tickets cost a dollar apiece for a grand prize of $10,000, an immense sum in those days. Celebrations in Saint-Jérôme in 1876. (Photo - Skiing Legends)

So in 1876, wreathed in a cloud of whistling steam, the first engine pulling “Le P’tit Train du Nord” rumbled into the St-Jérôme station to cheers that echoed through the hills. Curé Labelle’s dream of the Laurentians as a tourist playground was coming true. Actually, as early as the 1870s, some wealthy Montrealers, travelling by horse and buggy on roads that were not much more than wagon tracks, were buying recreational properties around Lake Manitou, a few miles north of Ste-Agathe.

One of the first was Philip Durnford, member of a distinguished British military family.As a boy, Philip Durnford had lived in the province while his father was directing the construction of the Citadel in Quebec City. Philip returned to Canada in 1835 and ten years later settled in Montreal where he was appointed the federal Collector of Inland Revenue. He often explored the Laurentians as far north as Lac-Cornu near Nantel, a two-day journey by horse and buggy with a stopover in St-Jérôme. In 1871, he bought a block of lots just north of Lake Manitou for which he paid the princely sum of $155.10. This estate, eventually numbering some 2,000 acres, stayed in the Durnford family for a hundred years and is now the Valdurn development. Philip Durnford… thus became one of the first owners of a holiday property in the Laurentians.

By the 1880s, the area between Shawbridge and Ste-Agathe and beyond was attracting miners, loggers, wranglers, lumberjacks, hunters and vacationers. Throw in some hard drinkers, a few loose women and frequent fist fights, it was little wonder this incendiary mix led staid Montrealers to view the upper Laurentians as “the wild west of the French world”. The coming of the railroads in the 1890s changed the mix for good because it also marked the beginning of the fulfillment of Curé Labelle’s dream of the Laurentians as one of this country’s premier recreation regions.Snow train to the Laurentians. (Photo - Skiing Legends...)

In 1888, one of the Curé’s fishing companions, Honoré Mercier, the Premier of Quebec, appointed him deputy minister in the new Department of Agriculture and Colonization, probably the first time in North America that a priest had held so important a public office. In 1890, the train came to Shawbridge, to Ste-Adèle the next year, and on a warm September day in 1892, to Ste-Agathe, where a large group of politicians and other dignitaries, suitably solemn in their shiny black frock coats, top hats and walrus moustaches, stood by the tracks to cheer it on. Sadly, there was a gaping hole in that august assembly. The man who had been the driving force behind rail and road development, and who had done more than anyone to excite people to pitch tents in his beloved Laurentians, was not there to see his dream come true. Curé Labelle, the father of colonization, “le Roi du Nord”, had died the year before, aged fifty-eight, following a hernia operation.