Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 14, 2008
Spiritual golden age inspired French missionaries
- WCR photo by Deborah Gyapong
Quebec City street scene shows Notre-Dame de Quebec Basilica in the background.
By DEBORAH GYAPONG
Canadian Catholic News
In 1608 Samuel de Champlain established a "habitation" or wooden fort at Quebec - literally "the place where the river narrowed" - to protect settlers and the fledgling fur trade from attack.
Though Champlain was not the first to travel up the St. Lawrence - Jacques Cartier had discovered the waterway in 1534 - he was the first to make a permanent settlement there.
But the fur trade was not the only motivation. The French wanted to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. France was in the midst of a spiritual renewal that has been called its golden age.
A church is built
Almost as soon as the first houses were built at the foot of cliffs overlooking the river, Franciscan missionary priests, known as the Recollet Fathers, built a wooden church.
In 1633, Champlain built a chapel in Upper Town near the site of the present Notre-Dame de Quebec Basilica Cathedral. Jesuit missionaries, the "Black Robes," soon followed. They lived among the Huron tribes, sharing their hardships and meagre food. They spent eight to 12 years learning the language before they could share the Gospel.
"The quality of the first Jesuits was extraordinary," said Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec, who remains inspired by St. Jean de Br‚beuf and the Canadian martyrs, who gave their lives to serve among aboriginal peoples.
"When you read Br‚beuf, so impressive was his readiness for martyrdom. And it was authentic; it was not the enthusiasm of an adolescent."
Ouellet hopes the 2008 International Eucharistic Congress this June 15-22 in Quebec City will revive the memory of Br‚beuf and the seven other Canadian martyrs, as the city also celebrates the 400th anniversary of its founding.
Br‚beuf arrived in Canada in 1625, and lived among the Huron for 12 years before winning any converts. The Hurons' acceptance of the missionaries was ambivalent. Often they blamed priests for crop failures and outbreaks of illness, accusing them of sorcery.
Famous for writing the Huron Carol, Br‚beuf and other Jesuits provided some of the first ethnographic accounts of aboriginal tribes and life in New France. Their long and detailed letters have been compiled into The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, available online at http://puffin.creighton.edu/jesuit/relations/.Though not politically correct, the accounts reveal the Black Robes' great faith in God, their willingness to undergo great hardship, and their love of the native peoples, despite their unvarnished, Euro-centric depictions of living conditions and practices.
Paddling their canoes
Like the fur traders, the missionaries travelled along the great rivers such as the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa. The Huron were at war with the Iroquois Confederacy, who were allied with hostile English and Dutch settlers in the colonies on the Atlantic coast.
In 1649, the Iroquois sacked the missions of St. Ignace and St. Louis and captured Br‚beuf and fellow Jesuit Gabriel Lallemant. They brought the two to St. Ignace where they tied them to stakes and tortured them to death by scalping, boiling water mock "baptisms" and other means.
Br‚beuf, who was 55, did not make a sound, except to preach to Christian Hurons held captive with them. According to reports, the captors ate their hearts after their deaths so impressed were they with the Jesuits' courage.