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The Last Phase

The priests labored on in their mission-fields from Cape Breton to the Mississippi and north towards Hudson Bay, wherever there were Indians. In the Iroquois country alone did they fail to establish themselves securely. The nearest neighbors of the Iroquois, the English of New York and New England, stirred by French and Indian raids on their borders and regarding all Frenchmen as enemies, did what they could to destroy the influence of the French priests and keep them out of the country. Lord Bellomont, governor of New York, even threatened to hang any priest found in his colony. Yet the Jesuits made another attempt in 1702; but it did not succeed, and a few years later the Iroquois mission was abandoned.

Among the Algonquin tribes the old dread of the priests had vanished and they were everywhere hailed as friends. They were no longer in danger of assassination, and, apart from the hardships inevitable to wilderness life, their lot was not an unpleasant one. Perhaps their worst enemy was the brandy traffic carried on by the coureurs de bois, which brought in its wake drunkenness, disease, licentiousness, and crime. The missionaries fought this evil, with the wholehearted support of Laval, the great bishop of Quebec, and of his successors. But for their opposition it is probable that the Indians in contact with the French would have been utterly swept away; as it was, brandy thinned their numbers quite as much as war. Some of the coureurs de bois, who displayed their wares and traded for furs at the mission stations, were almost as obnoxious to the priests as the brandy which they offered. Among them were many worthy men, like the great Du Lhut; but the majority were 'white savages,' whose conduct went far to nullify the teaching and example of the missionaries.

Thus the missions went on until the British came. For more than fifty years the conflict between the two nations for mastery continued intermittently; and finally in 1760 the French struck their flag and departed. The victors viewed the religious orders with distrust; they regarded the priests as political agents; and they passed an edict that such Jesuits and Recollets as were in Canada might remain and 'die where they are, but they must not add to their number.' Of the Jesuits only twelve remained, and the last of these, Father Casot, died in 1800.

In looking back over the work of the missionaries in New France, it would seem that their visible harvest was a scant one, since the Indian races for whom they toiled have disappeared from history and are apparently doomed to extinction. This, of course, is due to natural causes over which the priests had no control and which they would thankfully have had otherwise. It cannot be questioned that their work operated for the benefit of the natives. But the priceless contribution of the missionaries lies in the example which they gave to the world. During the greater part of two centuries in the wilds they bore themselves manfully and fought a good fight. In all that time not one of all the men in that long procession of missionaries is known to have disgraced himself or to have played the coward in the face of danger or disaster.

The influence of the priests, however, was not confined to the Indians. It permeated the whole colony and lives to the present day. In no country in the world is there a more peaceable and kindly or moral and devout people than in the province of Quebec, largely because they have kept in their primitive simplicity the lessons taught by the clergy of New France. When the Revolution swept away religion and morals in Old France, it left untouched the French of Canada; and the descendants of the peasants of Anjou, Picardy, and Poitou kept alive in the New World the beliefs and customs, the simple faith and reverence for authority, of their ancestors in the Old World. Throughout the length and breadth of New France the priests and nuns were the teachers of the people. And the seminaries, schools, and colleges which they founded continue to shape the morals and character of the French Canadians of to-day.

It may be doubted whether the British government acted wisely after winning Canada in suppressing the religious orders. At any rate, after the unhappy rebellions of 1837 the government adopted a more generous policy; and the Jesuits and the Oblates came to Canada in ever-increasing numbers to take up missionary work anew. Like the priests of old they went into the wilderness, no difficulty too great to be overcome, no peril too hazardous to be risked. In the Mackenzie valley, in the far Yukon, and among the tumbled hills of British Columbia they planted the Cross, establishing missions and schools.

But the great age of the Church in Canada was the heroic age of Lalemant and Brebeuf, of Jogues and Bressani, of Allouez and Marquette. Their memories are living lights illuminating the paths of all workers among those who sit in spiritual darkness. The resolution of these first missionaries, not to be overcome by hardship, torture, or threat of death itself, has served in time of trial and danger to brace missionaries of all churches. Brebeuf still lives and labors in the wilderness regions of Canada; Marquette still toils on into the unknown.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

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


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