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The Jesuits at Quebec

The 15th of June 1625 was a significant day for the colony of New France. On that morning a blunt-prowed, high-pooped vessel cast anchor before the little trading village that clustered about the base of the great cliff at Quebec. It was a ship belonging to the Caens, and it came laden to the hatches with supplies for the colonists and goods for trade with the Indians. But, what was more important, it had as passengers the Jesuits who had been sent to the aid of the Recollets, the first of the followers of Loyola to enter the St Lawrence--Fathers Charles Lalemant, Ennemond Masse, Jean de Brebeuf, and two lay brothers of the Society. These black-robed priests were the forerunners of an army of men who, bearing the Cross instead of the sword and laboring at their arduous tasks in humility and obedience but with dauntless courage and unflagging zeal, were to make their influence felt from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the sea-girt shores of Cape Breton to the wind-swept plains of the Great West. They were the vanguard of an army of true soldiers, of whom the words

Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die, might fittingly have been written. The Jesuit missionary in North America had no thought of worldly profit or renown, but, with his mind fixed on eternity, he performed his task ad majorem Dei gloriam, for the greater glory of God.

The Jesuits had sailed from Dieppe on the 26th of April in company with a Recollet friar, La Roche de Daillon, of whom we shall presently hear more. The voyage across the stormy Atlantic had been long and tedious. On a vessel belonging to Huguenots, the priests had been exposed to the sneers and gibes of crew and traders. It was the viceroy of New France, the Duc de Ventadour, a devout Catholic, who had compelled the Huguenot traders to give passage to these priests, or they would not have been permitted on board the ship. Much better could the Huguenots tolerate the humble, mendicant Recollets than the Jesuits, aggressive and powerful, uncompromising opponents of Calvinism.

As the anchor dropped, the Jesuits made preparations to land; but they were to meet with a temporary disappointment. Champlain was absent in France, and Emery de Caen said that he had received no instructions from the viceroy to admit them to the colony. Moreover, they were told that there was no room for them in the habitation or the fort. To make matters worse, a bitter, slanderous diatribe against their order had been distributed among the inhabitants, and the doors of Catholics and Huguenots alike were closed against them. Prisoners on the ship, at the very gate of the promised land, no course seemed open to them but to return on the same vessel to France. But they were suddenly lifted by kindly hands from the depths of despair. A boat rowed by men attached to the Recollets approached their vessel. Soon several friars dressed in coarse grey robes, with the knotted cord of the Recollet order about their waists, peaked hood hanging from their shoulders, and coarse wooden sandals on their feet, stood before them on the deck, giving them a wholehearted welcome and offering them a home, with the use of half the buildings and land on the St Charles. Right gladly the Jesuits accepted the offer and were rowed ashore in the boat of the generous friars. On touching the soil of New France they fell on their knees and kissed the ground, in spite of the scowling traders about them.

The disappointment of these aggressive pioneers of the Church must have been great as they viewed Quebec. It was now seventeen years since the colony had been founded; yet it had fewer than one hundred inhabitants. In the whole of Canada there were but seven French families and only six white children. Save by Louis Hebert, the first to cultivate the soil at Quebec, and the Recollets, no attempt had been made at agriculture, and the colony was almost wholly dependent on France for its subsistence. When not engaged in gathering furs or loading and unloading vessels, the men lounged in indolence about the trading-posts or wandered to the hunting grounds of the Indians, where they lived in squalor and vice. The avarice of the traders was bearing its natural fruit, and the untiring efforts of Champlain, a devoted, zealous patriot, had been unavailing to counteract it. The colony sorely needed the self-sacrificing Jesuits, but for whom it would soon undoubtedly have been cast off by the mother country as a worthless burden. To them Canada, indeed, owed its life; for when the king grew weary of spending treasure on this unprofitable colony, the stirring appeals of the Relations [Footnote: It was a rule of the Society of Jesus that each of its missionaries should write a report of his work. These reports, known as Relations, were generally printed and sold by the booksellers of Paris. About forty volumes of the Relations from the missions of Canada were published between 1632 and 1672 and widely read in France.] moved both king and people to sustain it until the time arrived when New France was valued as a barrier against New England.

Scarcely had the Jesuits made themselves at home in the convent of the Recollets when they began planning for the mission. It was decided that Lalemant and Masse should remain at Quebec; but Brebeuf, believing, like the Recollets, that little of permanent value could be done among the ever-shifting Algonquins, desired to start at once for the populous towns of Huronia. In July, in company with the Recollet La Roche de Daillon, Brebeuf set out for Three Rivers. The Indians--Huron, Algonquins, and Ottawa--had gathered at Cape Victory, a promontory in Lake St Peter near the point where the lake narrows again into the St Lawrence. There, too, stood French vessels laden with goods for barter; and thither went the two missionaries to make friends with the Indians and to lay in a store of goods for the voyage to Huronia and for use at the mission. The captains of the vessels appeared friendly and supplied the priests with colored beads, knives, kettles, and other articles. All was going well for the journey, when, on the eve of departure, a runner arrived from Montreal bringing evil news.

For a year the Recollet Nicolas Viel had remained in Huronia. Early in 1624 he had written to Father Piat hoping that he might live and die in his Huron mission at Carhagouha. There is no record of his sojourn in Huronia during the winter 1624-25. Alone among the savages, with a scant knowledge of their language, his spirit must have been oppressed with a burden almost too great to be borne; he must have longed for the companionship of men of his own language and faith. At any rate, in the early summer of 1625 he had set out for Quebec with a party of trading Huron for the purpose of spending some time in retreat at the residence on the banks of the St Charles. He was never to reach his destination. On arriving at the Riviere des Prairies, his Indian conductors, instead of portaging their canoes past the treacherous rapids in this river, had attempted to run them, and a disaster had followed. The canoe bearing Father Viel and a young Huron convert named Ahaustic (the Little Fish) had been overturned and both had been drowned.1

The story brought to Cape Victory was that the tragedy had been due to the treacherous conduct of three evil-hearted Huron who coveted the goods the priest had with him. On the advice of the traders, who feared that the Huron were in no spirit to receive the missionaries, Brebeuf and Daillon concluded not to attempt the ascent of the Ottawa for the present, and returned to Quebec. Ten years later, such a report would not have moved Brebeuf to turn back, but would have been an added incentive to press forward.

1 This rapid has since been known as Sault au Recollet and a village near by bears the name of Ahuntsic, a corruption of the young convert's name. Father A. E. Jones, S. J., in his 'Old Huronia' (Ontario Archives), points out that no such word as Ahuntsic could find a place in a Huron vocabulary.]

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Chronicles of Canada, The Jesuit Missions, A Chronicle of the Cross in the Wilderness, 1915


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