Ismael Bruneau wanted a biblical family, one child for each of the 12 tribes of Israel. His wife Ida didn’t share that ambition, but still, they had 10. When one of her daughters was getting married she asked her mother what she could do to prevent the arrival of so many children and Ida answered, “If I knew, do you think I would have had all of you?”
Ida herself came from a very large family. She was born in 1862 in Les Convers, Switzerland, to Gustave Girod and Sophie Balmer, the sixth of 16 children. Her favourite aunt, Celine Balmer was teaching at a private girl’s school in Baltimore, Maryland and arranged a job for Ida at the same school. In 1882 Ida sailed to the United States for the teaching position.
After a particularly bad year, with many deaths in the family, her parents decided to emigrate to America. Another son tragically died on the voyage and was buried at sea. The Girods were farmers and settled in the French community of Kankakee, Illinois. When Ida went to visit, she met the Minister, Ismael Bruneau. He was taken with her and they were soon married.
Ismael and Ida then lived in Green Bay Wisconsin where their first three children, Edgar, Beatrice and Hermonie were born. A French Protestant minister moved frequently and the next charge was in Holyoke Massachusetts, where Helvetia was born. Next was a move back to Canada. Sydney, Fernand, and Edmee were born in Quebec City and Renee, Herbert and Gerald in Montreal. All the children survived except Fernand. My Grandmother Beatrice said it was his name that killed him but we didn’t understand why as we thought the other siblings had stranger names. They played funeral with him and pulled him around in a wagon covered with flowers.
Although a minister’s salary was meagre the family survived and flourished. The first two sons went to McGill. One became a doctor and the other a lawyer. All the girls finished high school, went to Normal school and became teachers except Renee who attended Business school. The two youngest boys were still at home when their father died. There wasn’t the money to send them to university but they both became successful businessmen.
Ismael’s death was a shock to Ida. He had preached at an earlier service in Portneuf and ran uphill from the station in Quebec City, as the train was 50 minutes late. He arrived at the end of the service and died of a heart attack. Her heart was broken, “ I must realize that my dear husband of nearly 32 years has left me forever.” She moved to her daughter Helvetia’s home in Lachute, a town Ismael had felt would be a good place to retire. She went back to Switzerland because her aunt Celine had returned, but Celine was suffering from dementia and with all other friends and family gone Ida decided her life was in Canada.
One of her husband’s brothers-in-law, Emilien Frechette, whose wife Emilina Marie Bruneau had died, proposed that as they were both alone they get married. He had built himself a large house in Iberville south of Montreal and wanted company. My Aunt Aline remembered hating her mother’s visits to Iberville because she would come back with large baskets of gooseberries, red and black currents, which had to be cleaned for jam and pies. Aline’s other memory of her grandmother Ida was teaching her to play rummy and seven up. Aline said, “ She liked the little games they played and thought the ‘Devil’s plaything’ was a misnomer.” It was fine to play cards, just not on Sunday.
Ida developed cancer and spent her last days in the Montreal General Hospital. She was buried in Mount Royal Cemetery in the Frechette plot with Emilien’s first wife Marie. After Ida’s death in 1927, he married Emilie Beauchamp Bruneau, the widow of Napoleon Bruneau, Ismael’s brother. Emilien certainly looked after the women in the Bruneau family. My mother remembered him as a nice old man. She didn’t remember her grandmother who died when she was five but she did remember visiting Monsieur Frechette in Iberville, going to the toilet and thinking, “My grandmother sat here!”
Bruneau, Ida. A Short History of the Bruneau – Girod Families. 1993.
Bruneau, Ida. letter to Mes Frere et Soeur. February 5, 1918. Quebec City, Quebec. A copy in the author’s possession.
Aline Raguin Allchurch. Letter to Mary Sutherland. 2002. Author’s possession.
Dorothy Raguin Sutherland’s Stories. Personal interview. 1998.
Ancestry.com. Quebec, Canada, Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1968 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2008. Original data: Gabriel Drouin, comp. Drouin Collection. Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Institut Généalogique Drouin.
He arrived when the service was almost over. He walked to the pulpit and announced the last hymn “Seigneur Tu donne Ta Grace.” As the organ played he collapsed to the floor. So ended the life of Ismael Bruneau, my great grandfather.
His life began in 1852 as Ismaer Bruneau in St-Constant Quebec, just south of Montreal. Ismaer was the eleventh of thirteen children and the youngest son of Barnabé Bruneau and Sophie Prudhomme. He attended the French Protestant school in Pointe aux Trembles and one summer went to West Randolph, Vermont to work in the mills. He spent a lot of time thinking about his future. He had written for advice to the principal of the school, Dr. Tanner who encouraged him to return to his studies and take the classes for those considering the ministry.
He was not sure of that path. One day he was out walking in the woods and climbed to the top of a hill. He sat facing Canada and prayed to God about the decisions he must make. As he reported, there was a dark cloud on the horizon and a voice spoke to him as if from the sky, telling him to return home and study, then travel and spread the gospel.
Ismaer continued his studies at Pointe aux Trembles and was then admitted to the Presbyterian College in Montreal, which had begun teaching subjects in French. At this time he changed his name from Ismaer to Ismael which he thought was more biblical and added Prudhomme as a middle name in honour of his mother.
After graduating, he was sent to Saint-Anne’s Kankakee County, Illinois to work with Father Chiniquy. Father Chiniquy was a Catholic priest who had left Quebec in the wake of several scandals. His zeal for God remained intense but not his feelings for the Catholic Church, which he renounced. He made his beliefs known to his congregation and they all chose to follow him and convert to Protestantism.
One family living in Kankakee was the Girods, who had recently immigrated from Switzerland. When their daughter Ida, a teacher in Baltimore came to visit, she was introduced to their minister. Ismael had been very homesick and often wrote letters home. He began writing about the lovely woman he had met. Then in one letter, he wrote to his sister Anais, “ Wouldn’t you like to come out after the harvest and see my wife. It would be worth it for without a doubt she is one of the beauties of the world in my eyes.” Ismael and Ida were married June 12, 1886.
The Bruneaus had three children in Green Bay, Wisconsin, one in Holyoke, Massachusetts, three in Quebec City and the last three in Montreal. Ismael had wanted a biblical family, a child for each of the 12 tribes of Israel but in the end had only 10. Nine of the children survived. He continued moving and preaching, taking a charge in Cornwall, Ontario and finally in 1917 back to Quebec City.
In Quebec, he had a church in the Old City as well as a congregation in Portneuf. He would conduct the morning service, catch the train to Portneuf for an afternoon service and be back in Quebec City in time for the evening service. On January 27, 1918 the train was delayed because of a troop train. Arriving late in Quebec City he ran up the hill from the station. He entered the church before the service ended but while his spirit was still willing his heart was weak. His family suffered financial hardships after his death as there were no pensions and the Presbyterian Church sent his widow one cheque for the days he had worked that month and nothing more.
Bruneau, Ida. A Short History of the Bruneau – Girod Families. 1993.
Duclos, Rieul P. Histoire Du Protestantisme Français Au Canada Et Aux États-Unis. Montreal, Canada: 1912. Print
Villard, Paul. Up to the Light: The Story of French Protestantism in Canada. Toronto: Issued for the Board of Home Missions of the United Church of Canada by the Committee on Literature, General Publicity and Missionary Education of the United Church of Canada, 1928. Print.