Julie Tourville (née Bélisle) (1827-1912)


Post Office Montreal, 1870, Canadian Illustrated News, BANQ, Cote: ID A 11, No de notice 0002724060

Sometimes you happen to discover information on your ancestors in documents in which you never thought you would. Well, I have to thank Marie-Claude Leclaire for this one!

Julie Roture dite Bélisle was born on April 29, 1827, in Ste-Anne-des-Plaines from the marriage of Pierre Roture and Angélique Truchon dite Léveillé and was baptized on the same day under the name of Angélique. She married Prosper Tourville, son of Michel Tourville and Josephte Cantin, at Notre-Dame Catholic Church in Montréal, on August 25, 1845.

Julie’s life was probably not an easy one. Her husband passed away at age 46, on May 21, 1867, in Montréal. According to her obituary, she bore thirteen children (I found only eleven), six of them having passed away before the age of three. When Prosper died, she had with her Julie, age 13; Napoléon, age 11; Magloire, age 7; and Marie-Louise, age 2. And a few months later, on October 30, 1867, she gave birth to the youngest, David.

In those days, how would a mother cope to raise five children, much too young to work and help her support the family? Relatives? The Church?

Well, an Act adopted in 1870 at the Québec Legislative Assembly gave me a hint.

In the middle of the 19th century, insurance coverage was a kind of expense the working class could hardly afford. For a $400 insurance, one had to pay about $14 a year. Fraternal organizations became very popular among French Canadians because of their low-cost policy. With a monthly contribution of $0.25 to $0.35 plus special contributions and initial fees, the annual cost was about $3 to $4 per year. (1)

Moreover, fraternal organizations would pay for the funeral of their members (up to $20), would give a small amount for the orphans and the widows would be granted a weekly allowance of $1.50. If the widow would not remarry and survived long enough her husband, in a little more than five years, she would have received as much as $400 which was the equivalent of an insurance policy from the Société de bienfaisance de l’Amérique britannique. (2)

How do we know that Prosper was a member of a fraternal organization, namely L’Union St-Jacques, and that Julie received a pension therefrom? Well, remember that Act I mentioned earlier?

In 1870, L’Union Saint-Jacques was struggling financially. With the increasing number of widows it had to support, the organization could not afford anymore to pay the weekly allowance of $1.50. So it called upon the government of the Province of Québec to rule so that it may be granted the right to cap the pension to $200 per life. Hence the adoption of An Act to Relieve L’Union St. Jacques de Montreal (Provincial Act, 33 Victoria, chapter 58):

“Whereas there exists in the City of Montreal a benefit and benevolent society, duly incorporated, under the name of L’Union St. Jacques de Montreal; whereas the contributions levied on the members of such society are too limited and the benefits, especially those granted to the widows of deceased members, are far too high; […]:

I. The said society, “The Union St. Jacques of Montreal,” is hereby authorized to convert, in the ordinary manner and forms of its proceedings, the benefits of the said two widows, to wit: Dame Elizabeth Brunet, widow of the late Albert Tessier, and Dame Julie Belisle, widow of the late Prosper Tourville, into the sum of $200 to be once paid to each and all of them.

II. If the said two widows, or one of them, refuse to accept such sum, instead of their of her prior benefit, it shall be lawful for the said society to keep such sum or sums in trust, and they shall only be bound to pay the said widows, for all the benefits to which they were previously entitled, the legal interest on the said sum of $200, that is to say, $12 to each of them, the said interest payable monthly and in advance up to their re-marriage or till their death, if they remain in a state of widowhood; it shall, nevertheless, be lawful for the said windows to draw the said allowance of $200 each, provided, of course, that they shall ask for it while in a state of widowhood.”

III. But if the said association, “L’Union St. Jacques de Montreal” sees its condition improve, and becomes possessed of assets, amounting to $10,000 in real estate, or in savings deposited in banks or otherwise invested, it shall be permissible to the two widows above named to demand from the said association the same contribution as heretofore (7s. 6d. per week), and also all arrears from this date, after deduction has been made of the $200 and the interest received by them on the same.”

But wait, there is much more to this story as we reach the point where it took such an amazing twist. Julie Bélisle challenged that law. And this matter went as far as becoming a constitutional case before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain, at that time the court of last resort for the colonies of the British Empire, including Canada (the equivalent of the Supreme Court today). It was the first time that the Committee delivered a decision including a detailed analysis of a constitutional division of powers between the Canadian federal government and a province since the 1867 Confederation.

Tombstone of Julie Bélisle, wife of Prosper Tourville, Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, Montréal. Photo : Marie-Claude Leclaire

Tombstone of Julie Bélisle, wife of Prosper Tourville, Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, Montréal. Photo: Marie-Claude Leclaire

As it was decided that the Act was constitutional, I wonder how Julie managed to survive without the money. And I doubt that L’Union St. Jacques was still in existence for a long time after such a long court process. In any event, Julie’s life would have turned out very differently if she would have received the weekly allowance of $1.50 until her death as had originally been foreseen… because she died in 1912! Well, who knows, her son-in-law was working at Metropolitan Life, maybe she had a good life insurance!

Death of an Octogenarian

Mrs. Julie Tourville, Widow, Passed Away Yesterday in Hochelaga

Mrs. Julie Tourville, widow of Prosper Tourville, passed away yesterday at her daughter’s home, Mrs. Godfroy Demers, 91 Rue Cuvillier, Hochelaga, at the age of 86 years and 9 months. She gave birth to thirteen children and is survived by four of them: Napoléon, from Brandon, Manitoba; Magloire, from Lethbridge, Alberta; Julie (Mrs. J. Bérubé), from Augusta, Montana; and Marie-Louise (Mrs. Godfroy Demers), of Metropolitan Life. She furthermore leaves in the mourning 19 grandchildren and 14 grand-grandchildren.

The funeral will be held tomorrow, Wednesday, at 8:00 a.m. at Saint-Pierre Church. ~ La Presse, 30 janvier 1912 (Translation: Danielle Tourville).


(1) Petitclerc, Martin, Une forme d’entraide populaire : Histoire des sociétés québécoises de secours mutuels au 19e siècle, thèse de doctorat en histoire, Université du Québec à Montréal, 2004, p. 127 et 135-136
(2) Ibid., p. 137

To read about the case: