The "rental of pews" (vente des bancs) at St.François-Xavier de Madawaska chapel, 1847-1857


About "pew rentals" at St.François church

In the Catholic church in New Brunswick and the United States in the 19th century, one of the ways in which parishes raised funds was by "renting pews," or in French, "la vente des bancs" (literally, "the sale of pews"). In effect, each family "rented" a particular pew in the church, pledging a set amount of money to the parish each year.

Here is the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1908 on ways in which parishes could raise funds:

The principal methods of obtaining money for the support of the clergy and church institutions, have been already touched on. We may summarize the main ones here. For England the Second Provincial Council of Westminster (viii, De. bon. eccl.) enumerates: pew-rent, collections during Mass, seat money, alms contributed on the occasion of a sermon by a distinguished preacher, and house-to-house collections. In the United States, the same methods are employed. In some parts of Canada, tithes are payable, and the Third Provincial Council of Quebec (No. ix) decreed for Upper Canada that a certain sum should be required of each of the faithful, to be computed on the basis of the civil assessment roll. [source: "Church Maintenance: WAYS AND MEANS," from The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III. Published 1908. New York: Robert Appleton Company.]

The parish of St.François de Madawaska was established as a mission parish of Ste.Luce in Oct 1846. A chapel was constructed, and was dedicated and blessed in February 1847. Following the blessing, Father Dionne conducted the rental of pews. The document transcribed here is not titled, but at the top of the first page Father Dionne has written, in French, "The pews of the Church of St.François Xavier have been sold on 14 February 1847, after the blessing of the chapel."

In the case of St.François, what we see is that in the first year, 1847, families paid amounts ranging between 15 shillings and 9 shillings 6 pence for pew rent. In the second year, Father Dionne notes, the members of the parish decided to pay only 2 shillings and 6 pence, pledging to pay 5 shillings per year afterwards.

The total pew-rent calculated by Father Dionne at the end of the document, for the entire period, is £ 141 . 10 . 6 (141 pounds, 10 shillings, 6 pence).

In addition to the pew rent, families also paid tithes to the parish, which are not listed in this document (more on tithes in a future document).

This document raises a few questions. First, the pledges were made in pounds and shillings even though the parishioners were all still members of Ste-Luce parish, on the Maine side of the international border, and even though at least half of them live in the US. Indeed, the pledges, tithes and other accounting of the Ste Luce parish in this period were all calculated in British currency. This is in large part because the upper St.John valley was economically part of New Brunswick. The rest of Maine was very far away and very difficult to reach, while the only route to the outside world was via New Brunswick. Thus the accounts of these parishes were in terms of British currency, which was the currency used in this community.

The second question has to do with British currency. In this period, one pound sterling (£) was made up of 20 shillings (S.). Each shilling was made up of 20 pence (d.). These amounts were written in different ways. When the amounts in question were in terms of shillings and pence -- as they were with the annual pew rents at St.François -- they were written this way: 2/6, meaning 2 shillings, 6 pence. This was half of 5 shillings, which would be written thus: 5 or 5/ .

In the total for all of the years, the notation is somewhat different, since it also includes pounds. In this case, the amounts are written 2  17  0, which means two pounds, seventeen shillings, and zero pence.

The figures in this document are thus all in pounds, shillings and pence. The figures under each year are in terms of shillings and pence; the total figures at the end of each line are in terms of pounds, shillings, and pence.

The next question is the value of the pound in this era. Officially, the exchange rate throughout the late 1840s and 1850s ranged between $4.79 and $4.91 for £1. Thus, the payment of 5 shillings, which was equal to 1/4 of a pound, was equal to about $1.20 in 1850s dollars. Of course the dollar's value in real terms was quite different. One calculation that translates British pounds from that era into the current dollar values gives the figure of about $90. Five shillings was thus worth about $22 in current dollars.

Father Dionne appears to have compiled this document as part of his response to charges against him that he had misused parish funds. This list is part of the documents that Father Dionne brought with him when he left the parish in 1860. He donated these and other papers to his alma mater, the Collège de Ste-Anne, in La Pocatière, Québec. This document is currently located in the Archives de la Côte-du-Sud et du Collège de Sainte-Anne, in the Fond Henri Dionne, Box 34 (1), document XLII. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the Archives director François Taillon. Special thanks to archivist Pierrette Maurais, who was extremely helpful to me during my time at the archives.


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Last revised 10 Jun 2007
©2007 C.Gagnon