What do you do with a historical document – or a family history anecdote – that you really, really, really want to believe, but for which you can find no confirmation? Any historian wants to find something new, but no reputable historian wants to publish something extraordinary without sufficient verification.
Following the 1882 death of Victor Jouanneault, one of the Salt Lake newspapers printed this obituary, republished from a respectable midwestern newspaper:
Victor Jouanneault, who has been a resident of Janesville, Wisconsin, since 1849, died suddenly there this morning. He was born in France in 1808, and was graduated from the University of France in1827. He was tutor in the family of the King of Belgium for three years, then professor of French in the Stonehurst College, England, and afterward professor of languages in Tuam College, Ireland. He was ordained priest in the Catholic church in New Orleans about 1841, and soon after came to the diocese of Wisconsin, and settled in Mineral Point, but owing to some trouble in the church he left the priesthood. He entered the family of Brigham Young, at Nauvoo, about 1845, and was tutor to his children for some time. He had kept a fancy store in Janesville for nearly thirty years. He never married, always lived alone, and leaves a nephew – Victor Barbour of Chicago.
It’s an intriguing bit of biographical detail for someone interested in both Brigham Young and early connections between Catholicism and Mormonism. In the five or more years since finding this article, I have asked a number of scholars of the Nauvoo era whether they had heard of this priest, or the presence of any priest in the family of Brigham Young; none have. I’m much less familiar with the records of Nauvoo than of later Mormonism so I easily could have missed something, but my poking around has never turned up anything relevant either.
Since I couldn’t verify the story by approaching it from the Brigham Young connection, I turned to non-Mormon sources to evaluate how generally accurate – or inaccurate – the obituary might be.
The first source I turned to was the U.S. census: the clipping asserts a number of facts that should be reflected in the data recorded on the census.
Almost too easily (and it would have been too easy had not the name “Jouanneault” given fits to the poor souls who indexed the census), I located Jouanneault exactly where the obituary claimed he would be: in Janesville, Rock County, Wisconsin, in 1850:
The census also consistently reports his birthplace as France, and although there is some variation in his reported age, the variation is no greater than you often find in that source, and is approximately right. In addition, his reported occupation in each year is consistent with the “fancy store” reported in the obituary. Jouanneault is consistently listed as a single man as asserted by the obituary. He is always the sole member of his household.
Although illustrations and full details won’t be posted here, I also tracked Jouanneault’s nephew through the years. Victor Barbour did live in Chicago in 1880; in earlier years he lived with his mother, named in the census variously as Clothilde and Catherine, who was a contemporary of Jouanneault and was also born in France.
Passenger records indicate that Victor Jouanneault arrived in the U.S. through the port of New York in 1839 – sufficient time for him to settle on New Orleans and to become associated with the Catholic clergy there by “about 1841” as claimed by the obituary.
The Catholic archives at the University of Notre Dame contain a calendar of documents related to the church based at New Orleans during the early- to mid-1800s. Letters summarized on that calendar, and bits of data culled from websites of other organizations, confirm that Father Jouanneault was active in the region during the first half of the 1840s:
17 August 1840: A letter from Father John Audizio of Thibodeaux Ville, Louisiana, to Bishop Anthony Blanc of New Orleans mentions Audizio had met “a certain Victor Joinaux” at the seminary; “he speaks good English and would be ideal for the Americans of Thibodeaux.”
9 November 1840: Father Jouanneault writes to Bishop Blanc. There is trouble in Thibodeaux. Audizio, who “fears a revelation of his faults,” according to Jouanneault, no longer wants Jouanneault as an assistant and refuses to pay him for the two months work Jouanneault has already performed.
9 November 1840 – a second letter in one day!: Jouanneault describes himself as a “martyr” for having to stay at Thibodeaux, when there is so much trouble between the two priests that Audizio has left the presbytery and taken up residence elsewhere. Jouanneault asks “Is there not some place where [he] could earn his bread without being under someone? He begs Blanc to help him.”
9 November 1840 – a third letter!: More calmly now, Jouanneault explains that Audizio is often drunk, never reads a prayer book – or any other books; marries people who are too closely related; and “confides his secrets only to his Negroes and opens his heart to old Rosalie.” Jouanneault will remain where he is stationed as long as possible, awaiting a decision on his request that Audizio be removed.
22 January 1841: The new year finds Jouanneault still in Thibodeaux with Audizio, but despite Audizio’s unjust claim to fees paid for marriages and funerals, the two have worked out a satisfactory arrangement in regards to sharing payments for baptisms. Jouanneault would like to take a mission to Houma, a place he has heard of that is looking for a priest, a place where the parishioners “could subscribe a salary of 2 or 300 piastres for the priest who would come to say Mass from time to time” while they are working to build a proper church. He must leave Thibodeaux, Jouanneault says; “to live in peace here [he] has to endure many humiliations” at the hands of Audizio.
8 February 1841: Jouanneault writes to Father Auguste Jeanjean at New Orleans. He is still hoping to go to Houma; all that is stopping him, he says, is Audizio’s fear that he will have to do his parish duties on foot while Jouanneault is absent with the parish horses.
2 March 1841: Jouanneault has been to Houma and reports his mission to Bishop Blanc. “The success exceeding all his expectations. He baptized 75 persons. Many also talked of having their marriages blessed. Several Americans came to ask him to preach in English last Sunday. He promised to do so on his next trip. Could Jouanneault not demand half of these fees from Father Audizio?” The people of Houma are building a church and rectory, and assure him “that they would subscribe two piastres a month for the services of a resident priest.” His “consolation” rather than his “interest” is what draws him to Houma, though, he assures his bishop. He seeks advice from Bishop Blanc on a number of matters, and promises that he “will be more docile than he is to Audizio.”
And so it goes through mid-1843: disputes about fees not only with Audizio but with Blanc, and Jeanjean, and others. If these disputes continued, would this not correspond to the obituary’s statement that “owing to some trouble in the church he left the priesthood”?
These internal discussions about money do not constitute Father Jouanneault’s full career as a priest, however. St. Peter Catholic Church at Covington, Louisiana, dates its founding to “1843 by Benedictine Abbot Jouanneau, at the request of Achbishop Antoine Blanc of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.” (His missing given name and incorrectly spelled surname suggest to me that they have few records mentioning Jouanneault and that he may not have served the parish there long after founding it.) The “Letters Descriptive of Western Trip 1844″ by the Rev. Adelbert Inama record a visit to Mineral Point, Wisconsin, noting that “their stone church is nearing completion, and lately a Frenchman was appointed as their pastor” (the published letters include the editorial information that this “church was blessed on December 7, 1845. it was completed mainly through the efforts of the Rev. Victor Jouanneault, who became resident pastor from the beginning of October, 1845.” An 1893 history of education in Wisconsin notes that at an imprecisely dated time, Mineral Point was served by a “Roman Catholic ‘sisters’‘ school, of St. Paul’s church, which was started by Rev. Victor Jouanneault, a French priest in charge of the mission, and taught by himself, until some Dominican sisters of Sinsinawa Mound were procured.”
Finally, Victor Jouanneault’s obituary was published in Salt Lake City without editorial comment. That suggests to me the obituary was published because it would interest the Mormon people, many of whom – including members of Brigham Young’s own family – would easily have recalled events of less than 40 years earlier and known immediately if the story were true or false. While there is no followup in any of the Salt Lake papers confirming the story, I think it is more relevant that no one wrote against the claim – to my mind, people are far more likely to complain about a false story than to bother affirming a true one.
So I’m left in the peculiar position of having found objective evidence for the lion’s share of details in the obituary – not, however, for the European career of Father Jouanneault, and not for the detail that is most important to me: his connection to Brigham Young. I have confirmed a number of the obituary’s details and have been able to disprove none of them. But does this really mean that a Catholic priest did live in the household of Brigham Young for a time, probably in 1845, tutoring his children? Which children could he have tutored? Elizabeth Young, the oldest child, was already married; her sister Vilate, 15 in 1845, could conceivably have received tutoring, perhaps in French. The next two Young children were John W., 10, and Brigham, Jr., 8 – Was either old enough to benefit from Jouanneault’s instruction?
For my own reasons, I want very much to believe that Jouanneault was there.
But was he?