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The body or the soul? Religion and culture in a rural Quebec parish, St-Joseph de Beauce, 1736-1901

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Thesis type
(Thesis) Ph.D.
Date created
During the second half of the nineteenth century, French-speaking Québécois are said to have become increasingly submissive to the hegemony of the Catholic Church. Their transformation, as evidenced by greater numbers of people attending mass and receiving communion at Easter, has been attributed to the defeat of the Rebellions of 1837-38 and resulting assimilationist threats, the rise of ultramontane religiosity, the extension of the Church’s administrative apparatus, and increased religious vocations. By exploring the social history of culture in the rural parish of St-Joseph de Beauce during the period 1736-1901, with emphasis on the post-1850 period, this dissertation reinterprets prevailing arguments about the Church’s purported hegemony over the rural French-Canadian majority. In challenging the view that the Church extended its tutelage over a passive people, I argue that ordinary Catholics exercised more agency inside and outside church than is usually assumed. My examination of the long-term interrelationship between religion and popular customs in one rural parish, suggests that the degree of change has been overstressed, while continuity with the past has been downplayed. In this parish, Catholicism occupied an important place in people’s lives before the 1850s, as it still did by the turn of the twentieth century. But the habitants also demonstrated an independent spirit of and a vigourous popular culture; the resulting tensions underlined the clergy’s sense of its powerlessness to control people’s behaviour. To explore the interrelated factors in the encounter between Catholicism and Québec popular culture, this microhistorical study draws upon the curés’ detailed annual reports to the Archbishop of Québec, St-Joseph’s parish registers, contemporary accounts, government censuses, and other statistical data. It also makes use of the rich but largely unexplored (by historians at least) oral testimony about rural life and culture in Beauce County from the Archives de folklore at Université Laval. Although St-Joseph is only one parish, this close examination of local religion and society in a long-settled, religiously and culturally homogeneous community in the conservative rural Beauce region contributes to our understanding of the place of Catholicism in Quebec culture.
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Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Little, Jack
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