The Roman Catholic Church was a powerful element in colonial society. Although France had many Protestants at the time, its official religion was Roman Catholicism, and this was the form of Christianity that France desired to spread in North America. Thus Protestants were prohibited from settling in New France, and Roman Catholic religious organizations were charged with maintaining and spreading the Catholic faith. The first religious organization to send missionaries to New France was the Franciscan Récollet group, who arrived in 1615. In 1633 they were replaced by the richer, better-organized Society of Jesus, or Jesuits. As the church gradually reoriented itself to serving the settler community, members of the Ursulines, an organization of nuns (women devoted to the religious life) came in 1639 to start schools for girls. Sulpician priests, who ran seminaries to educate future priests, arrived in 1657. Bishop François de Laval, who had led the colonial church since 1659, established the Diocese of Québec in 1674. It was supported by mandatory tithes, which took the form of taxes levied on the farmers’ produce. Religious bodies ran hospitals and schools and often owned large estates called seigneuries. New France, however, was never abundantly supplied with clergy. Though the people were overwhelmingly Catholic, rural communities might see a priest only a few times a year.
New France developed as a largely rural society, as farmers cleared land along the St. Lawrence and adjacent rivers. These farmers, called habitants, held their land under the seignorial system. Land in New France was granted in the form of seigneuries to large landlords, or seigneurs, who in turn granted acreages to farming families. In return the farmers had to pay annual dues to the seigneur in the form of produce, labor, or sometimes money.
New France’s farm families lacked export markets—they were hundreds of miles from the ocean—and so they produced mainly for themselves rather than for sale. The members of large farm families worked together to raise wheat, vegetables, and livestock. As younger family members grew up and married, they cleared new land. The farmers had little opportunity for formal education, but they lived better than did most peasants in France at the time.
Seignorial lands usually brought little income to their owners, and owning seigneuries did not confer noble status. However, land ownership was another sign of prestige for the colonial elite. Few seigneurs lived on their estates or gave them close attention. Most seigneurs lived in the towns, and many had careers as military officers. Encarta "Canada" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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