Chronicles of America 

Jesuit Priests in New France

Nearly all that was distinctive in the life of old Canada links itself in one way or another with the Catholic religion. From first to last in the history of New France the most pervading trait was the loyalty of its people to the church of their fathers. Intendants might come and governors abode their destined hour and went their way; but the apostles of the ancient faith never for one moment released their grip upon the hearts and minds of the Canadians. During two centuries the political life of the colony ran its varied rounds; the habits of the people were transformed with the coming of material prosperity: but the Church went on unchanged, unchanging. One may praise the steadfastness with which the Church fought for what its bishops believed to be right, or one may, on the other hand, decry the arrogance of its pretensions to civil power and its hampering conservatism; but as the great central fact in the history of New France, the hegemony of Catholicism cannot be ignored.

When Frenchmen began the work of founding a dominion in the New World, their own land was convulsed with religious troubles. Not only were the Huguenots breaking from the trammels of the old religion, but within the Catholic Church, itself in France there were two great contending factions. One group strove for the preservation of the Galilean liberties, the special rights of the French King and the French bishops in the ecclesiastical government of the land, while the other claimed for the Pope a supremacy over all earthly rulers in matters of spiritual concern. It was not a difference on points of doctrine, for the Galileans did not question the headship of the Papacy in things of the spirit. What they insisted upon was the circumscribed nature of the papal power in temporal matters within the realm of France, particularly with regard to the right of appointment to ecclesiastical positions with endowed revenues. Bishops, priests, and religious orders ranged themselves on one side or the other, for it was a conflict in which there could be no neutrality. As the royal authorities were heart and soul with the Galileans, it was natural enough that priests of this group should gain the first religious foothold in the colony. The earliest priests brought to the colony were members of the Recollet Order. They came with Champlain in 1615, and made their headquarters in Quebec at the suggestion of the King's secretary. For ten years they labored in the colony, striving bravely to clear the way for a great missionary crusade.

But the day of the Recollets in New France was not long. In 1625 came the advance guard of another religious order, the militant Jesuits, bringing with them their traditions of unwavering loyalty to the Ultramontane cause. The work of the Recollets had, on the whole, been disappointing, for their numbers and their resources proved too small for effective progress. During ten years of devoted labor they had scarcely been able to make any impression upon the great wilderness of heathenism that lay on all sides. In view of the apparent futility of their efforts, the coming of the Jesuits--suggested, it may be, by Champlain--was probably not unwelcome to them. Richelieu, moreover, had now brought his Ultramontane sympathies close to the seat of royal power, so that the King no longer was in a position to oppose the project. At any rate the Jesuits sailed for Canada, and their arrival forms a notable landmark in the history of the colony. Their dogged zeal and iron persistence carried them to points which missionaries of no other religious order would have reached. For the Jesuits were, above all things else, the harbingers of a militant faith. Their organization and their methods admirably fitted them to be the pioneers of the Cross in new lands. They were men of action, seeking to win their crown of glory and their reward through intense physical and spiritual exertions, not through long seasons of prayer and meditation in cloistered seclusion. Loyola, the founder of the Order, gave to the world the nucleus of a crusading host, disciplined as no army ever was. If the Jesuits could not achieve the spiritual conquest of the New World, it was certain that no others could. And this conquest they did achieve. The whole course of Catholic missionary effort throughout the Western Hemisphere was shaped by members of the Jesuit Order.

Only four of these priests came to Quebec in 1625. Although it was intended that others should follow at once, their number was not substantially increased until seven years later, when the troubles with England were brought to an end and the colony was once more securely in the hands of the French. Then the Jesuits came steadily, a few arriving with almost every ship, and either singly or together they were sent off to the Indian settlements--to the Hurons around the Georgian Bay, to the Algonquins north of the Ottawa, and to the Iroquois south of the Lakes. The physical vigor, the moral heroism, and the unquenchable religious zeal of these missionaries were qualities exemplified in a measure and to a degree which are beyond the power of any pen to describe. Historians of all creeds have tendered homage to their self-sacrifice and zeal, and never has work of human hand or spirit been more worthy of tribute. The Jesuit went, often alone, where no others dared to go, and he faced unknown dangers which had all the possibilities of torture and martyrdom. Nor did this energy waste itself in flashes of isolated triumph. The Jesuit was a member of an efficient organization, skillfully guided by inspired leaders and carrying its extensive work of Christianization with machine-like thoroughness through the vastness of five continents. We are too apt to think only of the individual missionary's glowing spirit and rugged faith, his picturesque strivings against great odds, and to regard him as a guerilla warrior against the hosts of darkness. Had he been this, and nothing more, his efforts must have been altogether in vain. The great services which the Jesuit missionary rendered in the New World, both to his country and to his creed, were due not less to the matchless organization of the Order to which he belonged than to qualities of courage, patience, and fortitude which he himself showed as a missionary.

During the first few years of Jesuit effort among the Indians of New France the results were pitifully small. The Hurons, among whom the missionaries put forth their initial labors, were poor stock, even as red men went. The minds of these half-nomadic and dull-witted savages were filled with gross superstitions, and their senses had been brutalized by the incessant torments of their Iroquois enemies. Amid the toils and hazards and discomforts of so insecure and wandering a life the Jesuits found little opportunity for soundly instructing the Hurons in the faith. Hence there were but few neophytes in these early years. By 1640 the missionaries could count only a hundred converts in a population of many thousands, and even this little quota included many infants who had died soon after receiving the rites of baptism. More missionaries kept coming, however; the work steadily broadened; and the posts of service were multiplied. In due time the footprints of the Jesuits were everywhere, from the St. Lawrence to the Mississippi, from the tributaries of the Hudson to the regions north of the Ottawa. Le Jeune, Masse, Brebeuf, Lalemant, Ragueneau, Le Dablon, Jogues, Gamier, Raymbault, Peron, Moyne, Allouez, Druilletes, Chaumonot, Menard, Bressani, Daniel, Chabanel, and a hundred others,--they soon formed that legion whose works of courage and devotion stand forth so prominently in the early annals of New France.

Once at their stations in the upper country, the missionaries regularly sent down to the Superior of the Order at Quebec their full reports of progress, difficulties, and hopes, all mingled with interesting descriptions of Indian customs, folklore, and life. It is no wonder that these narratives, "jotted down hastily," as Le Jeune tells us, "now in one place, now in another, sometimes on water, sometimes on land," were often crude, or that they required careful editing before being sent home to France for publication. In their printed form, however, these "Relations des Jesuites" gained a wide circle of European readers; they inspired more missionaries to come, and they drew from well-to-do laymen large donations of money for carrying on the crusade.

The royal authorities also gave their earnest support, for they saw in the Jesuit missionary not merely a torchbearer of his faith or a servant of the Church. They appreciated his loyalty and remembered that he never forgot his King, nor shirked his duty to the cause of France among the tribes. Every mission post thus became an embassy, and every Jesuit an ambassador of his race, striving to strengthen the bonds of friendship between the people to whom he went and the people from whom he came. The French authorities at Quebec were not slow to recognize what an ever-present help the Jesuit could be in times of Indian trouble. One governor expressed the situation with fidelity when he wrote to the home authorities that, "although the interests of the Gospel do not require us to keep missionaries in all the Indian villages, the interests of the civil government for the advantage of trade must induce us to manage things so that we may always have at least one of them there." It must therefore be admitted that, when the civil authorities did encourage the missions, they did not always do so with a purely spiritual motive in mind.

As the political and commercial agent of his people, the Jesuit had great opportunities, and in this capacity he usually gave a full measure of service. After he had gained the confidence of the tribes, the missionary always succeeded in getting the first inkling of what was going on in the way of inter-tribal intrigues. He learned to fathom the Indian mind and to perceive the redskin's motives. He was thus able to communicate to Quebec the information and advice which so often helped the French to outwit their English rivals. As interpreters in the conduct of negotiations and the making of treaties the Jesuits were also invaluable. How much, indeed, these blackrobes achieved for the purely secular interests of the French colony, for its safety from sudden Indian attack, for the development of its trade, and for its general upbuilding, will never be known. The missionary did not put these things on paper, but he rendered services which in all probability were far greater than posterity will ever realize.

It was not, however, with the conversion of the Indians or with the service of French secular interests among the savages that the work of the Jesuits was wholly, or even chiefly, concerned. During the middle years of the seventeenth century, these services at the outposts of French territory may have been most significant, for the French population along the shores of the St. Lawrence remained small, the settlements were closely huddled together, and a few priests could serve their spiritual needs. The popular impression of Jesuit enterprises in the New World is connected almost wholly with work among the Indians. This pioneer phase of the Jesuit's work was picturesque, and historians have had a great deal to say about it. It was likewise of this service in the depths of the interior that the missionary himself wrote most frequently. But as the colony grew and broadened its bounds until its settlements stretched all the way from the Saguenay to Montreal and beyond, a far larger number of "cures" was needed. Before the old regime came to a close there were far more Frenchmen than Indians within the French sphere of influence in America, and they required by far the greater share of Jesuit ministration, and, long before the old dominion ended, the Indian missions had to take a subordinate place in the general program of Jesuit undertakings. The outposts in the Indian country were the chief scene of Jesuit labors from 1615 to about 1700, when the emphasis shifted to the St. Lawrence valley. Some of the mission fields held their own to the end, but in general they failed to make much headway during the last half-century of French rule. The Church in the settled portions of the colony, however, kept on with its steady progress in achievement and power.

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