Educating a Nation
In 1665 François de Laval, the first bishop of Québec, chose this site for the Séminaire de Québec. This institution would go on to educate Québec’s religious and cultural elite and become Université Laval, the first French-language university in North America. In a certain way, this gem of French architecture is also the pillar of Québec culture.
A leading institution of New France
The Séminaire de Québec was a society of Catholic priests founded in 1663 by François de Laval, who would become the first bishop of Québec. He established this society to train priests, evangelize the Aboriginals, and administer the parishes of the colony as a whole.
Two years later he opened the Petit Séminaire, a boys’ school. The site of the first building is indicated by the rectangular marking on the pavement of the inner court.
A classical education
It was Louis XIV’s wish that the Petit Séminaire educate young boys and convert the Aboriginals. But for the first 100 years, it was a boarding school for future priests who studied at the Jesuit College—very close by, where City Hall is located today—before entering the Grand Séminaire.
After the conquest of New France was formalized in 1760, the British army requisitioned the Jesuit College for use as barracks. From that point on, the Séminaire had to expand its role and become an educational institution providing a classical curriculum, as the Jesuits were expelled from the colony.
The students at the Petit Séminaire received an education based on the great European philosophers and writers, as well as French, Greek, and Latin. The purpose of this training in the classics was to mold them into full-fledged citizens, hale in mind and body, to make up the elite of Québec society. It also prepared students for the priesthood and the liberal arts—mainly law and medicine—taught at university. This curriculum was also taught at other classical colleges in Québec until the 1970s.
An eminent cultural heritage
In the course of its 200-year history, the Petit Séminaire de Québec educated many of Québec’s intellectual elite, such as the famous politician Louis-Joseph Papineau and Québec Premier Jean Lesage. It continues its educational mission under the new name, Collège François-de-Laval, managed by a private corporation.
The Séminaire de Québec is also credited with the creation of Université Laval in 1852, the first French-language university in North America.
An exceptional architectural complex
The architectural ensemble you are looking at was built between 1675 and 1868. Today it is called the Vieux Séminaire de Québec. It is modeled on French 17th-century convents and colleges. Its three buildings have features specific to French Regime construction: white plaster walls with S-shaped wall anchors, higher in certain spots to serve as a fire stop, and tin roofs with dormer windows. The buildings are arranged to form a typical inner court.
The Procure wing with its signature sundial dating from 1773 is the oldest building. It was constructed sometime around 1680, then rebuilt three times due to fire. The only parts that remain from the original building are the vaulted cellars where Monseigneur Laval’s kitchen was located. In 1692 the Séminaire commissioned a new building as a residence for priests. This wing, called “des Parloirs,” is adjacent to the Procure wing and is recognizable by its main door similar to that of its neighbouring wing.
A third building, the Congregation wing, was constructed in 1707. A carriage gate leading to the inner square is built into its facade. To this day, the door bears the monogram SME, which indicates the Séminaire de Québec’s affiliation with the Séminaire des Missions étrangères in Paris.
The tradition lives on
The three wings of the Vieux Séminaire housed the Petit Séminaire de Québec until 1987. Its educational role lives on because Université Laval’s school of architecture is now occupied these heritage buildings.