The Organization of New France

Care Of Body And Soul


The importance of religion in the lives of the people of this period should not be underestimated. It was absolutely essential to have chaplains for the troops, if only to administer the last sacraments. Even the toughest officers and soldiers could be driven to despair if they became seriously ill or injured far from religious ministrations. In the seventeenth century, the religious needs of soldiers were attended to mostly by Jesuit missionaries and lay priests. However in March 1692, the king designated the Recollects, a minor order of Franciscans which is now defunct, to be "chaplains to [his] troops" 74 in New France. They could be found in garrison towns as well as large forts such as Detroit or Niagara. In a way, the Recollects formed the first military chaplain corps in Canada. They became very popular in New France and, by the mid-eighteenth century, three-quarters of their priests in the colony were born in Canada. Sworn to poverty, they subsisted on small royal grants and alms. They were fed and lodged for free wherever they offered their services. They dressed in rough homespun cassocks, wore wooden sandals in the summer, and "affected great poverty, their crosses made simply of wood." 75

Chaplains recited the daily prayers and said Mass on Sunday mornings and holidays. Some soldiers and doubtless all cadets were required to study the catechism. Vespers were said on Sunday afternoons. Chaplains also heard confessions and administered the last rites to dying soldiers, when surgeons called on their services.

At a time when religious observances were considered not only important but mandatory, regardless of one's depth of conviction, ceremonies were held before battles to maintain the morale of the troops. If the battle was relatively conventional, such as a siege for example, the chaplain would pronounce a short but powerful exhortation and give a general benediction, before retiring to the infirmary to comfort the wounded and administer the last rites to the dying. Military chaplains accompanied the troops on some expeditions as well.