BORN: Montreal, Quebec • 2 November 1883
DIED: Alhambra, California • 17 January 1947
His Eminence, the Cardinal, invites the parish priests to do all that they can to facilitate to the maximum degree possible national registration… with exactness and submission, of all which is required of them by the public authorities.” In August 1940 national registration was considered by many Quebecois to be a prelude to conscription for yet another British war.
For Cardinal Villeneuve to use his authority to urge compliance with the government’s demand was seen as extraordinary, a sign of his support for the war. In religious Quebec, this was critical.The son of a hatmaker, Villeneuve joined the Oblate Order in 1902 and was ordained in 1907.
He taught at the University of Ottawa, then took doctor¬ ates in philosophy, theology, and canon law. He served as dean of theology at Ottawa until 1930, when he was made bishop of Gravelbourg, Saskatchewan. He was on the Prairies for only a brief period. In 1931 Rome recalled him to the east as archbishop of Quebec, and in 1933 the pope appointed him a cardinal.
Rodrigue Cardinal Villeneuve took command of the Quebec church in the depths of the Depression. Episcopal revenues had collapsed just as the demands on the church increased with rising labour unrest and poverty.
A smooth diplomat, a lover of lavish cere¬ mony, and a clerical conservative, Villeneuve led his flock with skill, pushing Catholic Action as a way of associ¬ ating laymen and professionals with the church’s urban social work and, at the same time, resisting demands for Quebec women to receive the vote in provincial elections. “
A feisty, brilliant and grandstanding figure,” as Conrad Black labelled him, Villeneuve was perceived as a nationalist, suspicious of what he saw as the anti-clericalist tinge of the Liberal Taschereau government and a supporter of Maurice Duplessis’ efforts to topple it.
In early 1936, in fact, the cardinal had to fend off Premier Taschereau’s complaints that he had permitted his priests to play an active political role in the election campaign. Duplessis soon was in charge, smashing communists and denouncing Ottawa at every turn.
Villeneuve did not seem to disagree, but he was not pleased when the Union Nationale resisted his efforts to consolidate church control over French and English Catholic education.When war came, Ottawa sent a Cabinet minister to Villeneuve to plead for his support.
Perhaps to Mackenzie King’s surprise, the hitherto nationalist cardinal threw in his lot with the government and the war effort.Although many of his cures and bishops supported neutrality and opposed the war, with a good number sympathetic to fascism in Italy and Spain and forthright in their anti-Semitism, Villeneuve clearly saw that Hitler was an enemy of the church and Canada; he could also understand that to oppose a war that was widely supported in English Canada would do Catholics in Quebec no good at all.
Even so, Villeneuve’s efforts were extraordinary. He held huge masses in support of the army; called for prayers, penitence, and fasts in support of Allied victory; presided at the dedication of air bases; and encouraged the faithful to subscribe to Victory bonds. He even allowed himself to be photographed at the wheel of an army truck.
His priests may have grumbled, but Villeneuve ruled with a rod of iron, and no one, not even the fascist-sympathizing historian Abbe Groulx, dared oppose him too openly. The church’s position, as stated by the cardinal, was that “French Canada will solemnly swear never to set down arms nor relax efforts on the internal front until the triumph of the democratic ideal over the Axis powers is secure.”
Nonetheless, when the nationalist Duplessis returned to power in 1944, Villeneuve cheerfully renewed his alliance with the Union Nationale premier. Duplessis clearly was more sympathetic to the church than the provincial Liberals,in power since 1939 under Adelard Godbout, had been. Had Godbout not given women the vote in 1940, threatening family solidarity and feminine modesty?
Felled by a heart attack in 1946 after a gruelling inspec¬ tion of Oblate missions in the north, Villeneuve died the next year in a church rest home in California. A vain, imperious man who liked to proceed through the streets of Quebec City in a sedan chair and revelled in extravagant clerical jewellery, Villeneuve had ruled Quebec through a tumultuous period.
Quebec’s war effort was substantially greater than in the Great War, and much of that support must be attributed to his influence. The cardinal doubtless realized that his flock had not unanimously followed his devotion to the cause, but the results had shown that not every Quebecois was isola¬ tionist.
Nonetheless, his support for Duplessis and for the repression ofwomen and radicalism undoubtedly contributed to the backlash that exploded in the Quiet Revolution little more than a decade after his death.