I Found Something Worth Fighting For
As told by Laurier Saumur
THE winter air was frosty, crisp and clear. Sleighs creaked and horses snorted as they paced the logging trails winding between the spruce and hemlock. Even as we cut the timber and the teams skidded out the logs, I gave thanks to the God who made this wonderful earth.
Such were my teen-age thoughts on a typical winter day at my father’s farm in the rolling Gatineau hills of western Quebec. Life was hard, but healthy. I was one of fourteen children in a Catholic French-Canadian family.
The Catholic Church dominated life in our small French-speaking community, as it did in other parts of Quebec. I regularly attended Mass, Communion and other Catholic activities. But while I desired to serve God, something was missing.
Secular education was then under the control of the Catholic Church, not the government. And the Church policy was to restrict the education of the people, and thus make it easier for the priests to control them. As a result, many persons were illiterate, including my father and two of my brothers. This negative approach to education and the lack of books and libraries left me dissatisfied, thirsting for knowledge.
In 1939, at age eighteen, I went to Montreal to further my education. At last, libraries, books to read! Often I would read nearly all night. This led to my learning of the horrible Catholic Inquisition. I began to see the Church in a different light.
Nevertheless, through a cousin I became associated with the Catholic Action movement. This was a political group with Fascist leanings and strong anti-Semitic feelings. It met in the Catholic church under the guidance of priests. The message of Catholic Action was simple: ‘Hitler is not so bad. It is the Jews and English-speaking Protestants who are oppressing us French Catholics.’ Hearing violent proposals made me feel uneasy, and I soon withdrew from Catholic Action.
MY BROTHER’S IMPRISONMENT HELPS ME
In the spring of 1943 a friend in Montreal handed me a newspaper article, and said: “This is about a man with the same name as yours. Is it a relative?”
I read the story. Astonished, I said: “A relative—sure, it’s my own brother, Hector!” I hadn’t heard of him for years. According to the paper, he had just been given a three-month prison sentence at Timmins, Ontario, because he was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Who are Jehovah’s Witnesses?” I asked. “I’ve never heard of them.”
My friend replied: “They are a religious movement that has been banned by the government.”*
My astonishment grew. A religious movement? Hector was the most irreligious member of the family! I wrote to him to find out what was happening.
In reply, Hector sent me a Bible and some booklets of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This was the first Bible I had ever seen. Priests always said: “Don’t read the Bible—it will make you crazy!” Because of this I naïvely took my Bible to a priest to find out if it was an authentic copy. He took it on the pretext of examining it for me, then refused to give it back.
The booklets, however, so stirred my interest that I obtained another French Bible from a Catholic bookstore. Avidly I began to read. Twice during the next year I read the entire Bible. I found the life of Jesus and the missionary work of the apostles especially fascinating.
Later in 1943 I moved from Montreal to Timmins in order to learn more about Jehovah’s Witnesses, and also to learn some English. There I studied with the Witnesses, but also continued attending the Catholic Church. I discussed doctrinal subjects such as hell, Trinity and immortality of the soul with the parish priest and the bishop. One day the bishop asked where I got the points I was making. “From Jehovah’s Witnesses,” I replied. He answered, “I have no more time to talk to you.”
The next Sunday, still a dutiful Catholic, I was in church to hear the parish priest unleash a vicious diatribe against the Witnesses. The harshness of his comments and the falsity of his accusations disgusted me. I had had enough; I left the Catholic church that day, never to return. Soon my decision was made. I had found Bible truth, and was determined to spend my life fighting to uphold it, even as Christ’s early followers had done. On July 1, 1944, I was immersed in symbol of my dedication to serve Jehovah God.
QUEBEC BECOMES A BATTLEGROUND
Trouble was escalating in Quebec, with arrests and harassment of Jehovah’s people by the powerful combination of the Catholic Church and her political ally, Premier Maurice Duplessis. In June 1945 I began full-time preaching work in Montreal, a principal city in Quebec. The very first time that I went witnessing from door to door there, I was arrested. It was an indication of things to come.
The battle of Quebec was on, and what a battle! Premier Duplessis promised to drive Jehovah’s Witnesses from the province; he announced “war without mercy on the Witnesses.” The whole power of the State was arrayed against us. The province was engulfed in a tidal wave of unreasoning animosity. I personally was arrested over one hundred times.
One prominent Canadian newspaper described the persecution as the “return of the Inquisition,” and said: “The persecution of the religious sect known as Jehovah’s Witnesses, now going on in Quebec Province with enthusiastic official and judicial sanction, has taken a turn which suggests that the Inquisition has returned to French Canada.”—Toronto Globe & Mail, December 19, 1946.
When calling to speak about the Bible, I would often be greeted with a shouted tirade of the latest accusations that the householder had heard from the parish priest or had read in the French newspapers. It was not unusual to be arrested two or three times in one day, and there would be repeated and interminable court appearances. These were especially troublesome for family men who would lose many days’ work and, at times, their jobs. But if the authorities had not learned about the endurance of Jehovah’s Witnesses, they were about to have firsthand proof.
To avoid having family men arrested, I’d use diversionary tactics. When a police car arrived, I would go directly to the cruiser to engage the officers in conversation, thus giving the family men working nearby a chance to leave. Of course, my own number of arrests kept climbing.
In September 1945 there were two terrible riots at Châteauguay, a small town west of Montreal. Catholic mobs attacked meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses being held on private property, while police stood idly by. I was viciously kicked and beaten. One of the mobsters got hurt too—he hit me so hard on the back of the head that he broke his wrist. I was black and blue all over, and for a few days I walked with difficulty and pain.
We struggled to find bail money to keep out of jail; we struggled to wait at doors through tirades of false accusations, hoping at the end to make a few kind remarks and break down prejudice; we struggled to avoid mobs; we struggled to protect family heads from arrest; we struggled to keep up the spirits of our Christian brothers and sisters; we struggled to rent places to hold meetings—property owners were scared by the ‘witch hunt’; we struggled to prevent children from being expelled from school; we struggled to arrange home education for those expelled; we struggled to bury our dead, as priests, in some cases, tried to stop Jehovah’s Witnesses from being buried.
Being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses wasn’t easy in those days, but it was faith-strengthening. What a marvelous spirit of faith, love and determination was shown by all the Witnesses! Their experience was like that of the apostle Paul, who said regarding his hour of testing: “The Lord . . . infused power into me, that through me the preaching might be fully accomplished.”—2 Tim. 4:17.
Indeed, we were helped and encouraged many times, and in unexpected ways. Soon I had the refreshment of conducting twenty-two Bible studies. One was unusual.
When standing on the street corner offering The Watchtower and Awake!, I was approached by a lady. Since she was illiterate, the publications were of no help to her, so I obtained her address and arranged a return visit. A Bible study was started immediately and was conducted two or three times a week. Not only did she eagerly absorb the Bible truths, but she also learned to read. Laura Chabot became a stalwart witness of Jehovah despite the heat of persecution, and has remained one for over thirty years. Over the years she has conducted Bible studies with some forty-five persons who are now Witnesses.
QUEBEC CITY—A NEW FIELD
There was then no organized activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the city of Quebec, the capital of the province. Thus, toward the end of 1945, five of us were assigned there. The atmosphere was very different from cosmopolitan Montreal.
In Quebec City the Church was in a position of total domination; priests with their cassocks were everywhere. The very air seemed to breathe a pall of fear and oppression. The Catholic cardinal and dictatorial Duplessis both lived here. Would we find any listening ears in this fortress of Catholicism?
At first the people of Quebec City were very friendly and receptive to our house-to-house visitations. My partner, John How, and I each placed over a hundred Bible study aids during our first month there. When a meeting was arranged at the home of one interested lady, ten family members were there. The long discussion was lively and very frank. While nominally Catholic, they were really antagonistic to the Church. Before leaving I distributed a whole briefcaseful of literature, including several copies of the book Enemies. One of these was taken by Alphonse Beaudet, a brother of the householder.
A few days later someone accosted me on the street. It was the same Alphonse Beaudet. “Could I go with you to visit someone for a Bible discussion?”
“Sure, why not?” I replied. On the way he told me his story.
After my visit with his family the previous Sunday evening, Alphonse had gone home and spent all night reading the book Enemies. For three days he devoured it. When he finished reading, he gathered all the images, crucifixes and statues in his house and destroyed them outside in full view of his Catholic neighbors. But that was not all.
Next he went to the bishop and asked to have his name struck from the rolls of the Catholic Church. Then he came looking for me. Today, over thirty years later, Alphonse is still teaching the Bible in the city of Quebec, and his outstanding zeal and devotion have helped a large number of people to serve Jehovah God faithfully.
Very soon a small congregation was formed in Quebec City, and we began holding regular congregational meetings. But the peaceful conditions did not last. Soon the priests began using the pulpits and the Catholic press to blow up a storm of hatred. A series of arrests and convictions followed.
The local Recorder (Judge) Jean Mercier announced that the police were instructed to “arrest on sight every known or suspected Witness.” Suddenly, the persecution in old Quebec became coast-to-coast news. This caused a backlash from the rest of Canada, scandalized that a supposedly impartial judge would be so unjust.
During 1946 and 1947 there were so many convictions, writs, appeals and legal proceedings in Quebec City that the press called it “the battle of the writs.” All together I spent four months in prison on the usual nuisance charges of “disturbing the peace,” “peddling without a license,” and so forth.
I was invited to the ninth class of the Bible School of Gilead, but I was still in prison when it was time to register in February 1947. Thankfully, I was released on bail just in time to start the course. However, before the term was completed, the Supreme Court of Canada rejected my appeal and bail was canceled.
Sadly, I had to leave the wonderful Christian association at Gilead and return to prison in Quebec. The School’s registrar sent my examination papers to the jail, where I answered the questions and mailed them back for grading. Thus it was possible to complete the course, though I was not present on graduation day.
Even prison had its compensations. In the exercise yard I was often able to give a Bible lecture to as many as twenty prisoners. One of them later became a witness of Jehovah.
A NEW ASSIGNMENT
In the autumn of 1947 I received a new assignment as a traveling representative of Jehovah’s Witnesses, now called circuit overseer. I served Quebec Province, where there was only one circuit with perhaps a dozen congregations, mostly very small.
Meetings would frequently be held with missionary groups and one or two newly interested people. When I was sent to encourage the pioneers, as full-time kingdom proclaimers are called, their steadfastness in the face of opposition was very strengthening to me. In 1949 I married Yvette Ouellette, a faithful pioneer in Montreal, and she accompanied me in the circuit work.
The first group I visited as a circuit overseer was Ste. Germaine Station in the hills south of Quebec City. It consisted of one family, Aime Boucher, his wife and three children. They were poor, humble, lovable people living on a small, rocky farm. Brother Boucher met me at the station with a high two-wheeled cart drawn by a pair of oxen. Despite difficult circumstances, Aime Boucher was a man of courage and a very effective witness for the truth.
SUPREME COURT VICTORIES
The year 1950 was marked by the first five major legal decisions won by Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Supreme Court of Canada. The first victory was in the case of Aime Boucher. The favorable decision was a major breakthrough against the oppressive Church-State combine that controlled Quebec.
Jehovah further blunted the enemy attack by bringing one of my own cases before the Canadian Supreme Court. The favorable decision in this test case, in October of 1953, brought victory in 1,100 other cases where the same principle of religious liberty was the governing factor. This opened a new era of upbuilding the true worship of Jehovah in Quebec.
While the court decisions improved our legal standing, it still took a lot of work to overcome the fear and prejudice that had been engendered. Some hall owners were still afraid to rent their buildings to Jehovah’s Witnesses. So a kindly police officer gave me a letter on a police letterhead stating that Jehovah’s Witnesses were a lawful organization and that hall owners could feel free to rent their premises to us. After that, Protestant and Catholic school boards began to make buildings available for our circuit assemblies.
FINE RESPONSE TO KINGDOM-PREACHING
After twelve years in Quebec, in 1957 I was asked to serve all of eastern Canada as a district overseer, whose work is to visit and serve circuits of Jehovah’s Witnesses and give talks at their circuit assemblies. Then, for three years I served as district overseer in British Columbia in western Canada.
However, I never lost my love for Quebec. In fact, I was so busy urging brothers to go to Quebec where the need for Kingdom preachers was greater that I was nicknamed the “Pied Piper of Quebec.” Many persons to whom I spoke in the west did move to Quebec, learned French, and are doing good work in building up the congregations of Jehovah’s people there.
In 1969 Yvette and I returned to Quebec, where I was district overseer till 1972. At this time family responsibilities required us to settle in Montreal, where we have served as special pioneers for four years now. During this time forty-four persons with whom we have conducted Bible studies have been baptized as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In 1974 it was my privilege to go to St. Pierre and Miquelon, small French islands in the North Atlantic, with a view to opening up the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses there. The priests found out about my visit, and announced it on the radio to warn their parishioners. The announcement backfired. Many householders greeted me warmly. “Oh, Mr. Saumur, we have heard about you. Please come in.”
In a few weeks I started eight Bible studies and laid the foundation for further activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses. When I left, two missionaries from France were assigned there to continue spreading the good news of God’s kingdom.
A unique experience was encountered in 1975 when I met some of the influential members of a small French church group of about 1,500 people called “La Mission de l’Esprit Saint” (The Mission of the Holy Spirit). After a long talk with one of these men, he asked if he and some friends could come to see me. “Of course,” I said. A few days later he arrived with other members and their wives—forty in all!
In time, they locked up their church, closed their school, and all their “servants” resigned. Then they told their members to start studying with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Suddenly, a thousand people wanted Bible studies!
In a space of two months I placed 1,300 Bible study aids among them. Many of the studies ceased later, but close to a hundred of this former church group have been immersed as Jehovah’s Witnesses, and four hundred others are either studying or attending meetings at the Kingdom Halls. More are expected to be immersed shortly.
I must say, these more than thirty years in the full-time preaching work have been rich and rewarding. There have been problems. But Jehovah has backed us up and helped us to overcome every obstacle. The Bible accurately says regarding God’s servants: “Any weapon whatever that will be formed against you will have no success.”—Isa. 54:17.
How this has proved true in Quebec! Where 356 proclaimed God’s kingdom there in 1945, now over 8,000 do so. The eight Quebec congregations of 1945 have become 149. The one small circuit of 1947 has become ten circuits. Truly, ‘the spiritual desert has blossomed as the saffron.’ (Isa. 35:1) As I look back over these fascinating years, I would not change them for anything. It has been, and still is, a privilege to fight to uphold true worship.
See Awake! of June 8, 1973.
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The writer and his wife today
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Once illiterate, she has taught many persons Bible truths