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The Rocollet Friars

For seven years the colony which Champlain founded at the rock of Quebec lived without priests. [Footnote: For the general history of the period covered by the first four chapters of the present narrative, see 'The Founder of New France' in this Series.] Perhaps the lack was not seriously felt, for most of the two score inmates of the settlement were Huguenot traders. But out in the great land, in every direction from the rude dwellings that housed the pioneers of Canada, roamed savage tribes, living, said Champlain, 'like brute beasts.' It was Champlain's ardent desire to reclaim these beings of the wilderness. The salvation of one soul was to him 'of more value than the conquest of an empire.' Not far from his native town of Brouage there was a community of the Recollets, and, during one of his periodical sojourns in France, he invited them to send missionaries to Canada. The Recollets responded to his appeal, and it was arranged that several of their number should sail with him to the St Lawrence in the following spring. So, in May 1615, three Recollet friars--Denis Jamay, Jean d'Olbeau, Joseph Le Caron--and a lay brother named Pacificus du Plessis, landed at Tadoussac. To these four men is due the honor of founding the first permanent mission among the Indians of New France. An earlier undertaking of the Jesuits in Acadia (1611-13) had been broken up. The Canadian mission is usually associated with the Jesuits, and rightly so, for to them, as we shall see, belongs its most glorious history; but it was the Recollets who pioneered the way.

When the friars reached Quebec they arranged a division of labor in this manner: Jamay and Du Plessis were to remain at Quebec; D'Olbeau was to return to Tadoussac and essay the thorny task of converting the tribes round that fishing and trading station; while to Le Caron was assigned a more distant field, but one that promised a rich harvest. Six or seven hundred miles from Quebec, in the region of Lake Simcoe and the Georgian Bay, dwelt the Huron, a sedentary people living in villages and practicing a rude agriculture. In these respects they differed from the Algonquin tribes of the St Lawrence, who had no fixed abodes and depended on forest and stream for a living. The Huron, too, were bound to the French by both war and trade. Champlain had assisted them and the Algonquins in battle against the common foe, the Iroquois or Five Nations, and a flotilla of canoes from the Huron country, bringing furs to one of the trading-posts on the St Lawrence, was an annual event. The Recollets, therefore, felt confident of a friendly reception among the Huron; and it was with buoyant hopes that Le Caron girded himself for the journey to his distant mission-field.

On the 6th or 7th of July, in company with a party of Huron, Le Caron set out from the island of Montreal. The Huron had come down to trade, and to arrange with Champlain for another punitive expedition against the Iroquois, and were now returning to their own villages. It was a laborious and painful journey--up the Ottawa, across Lake Nipissing, and down the French River--but at length the friar stood on the shores of Lake Huron, the first of white men to see its waters. From the mouth of the French River the course lay southward for mere than a hundred miles along the east shore of Georgian Bay, until the party arrived at the peninsula which lies between Nottawasaga and Matchedash Bays. Three or four miles inland from the west shore of this peninsula stood the town of Carhagouha, a triple-palisaded stronghold of the Huron. Here the Indians gave the priest an enthusiastic welcome and invited him to share their common lodges; but as he desired a retreat 'in which he could meditate in silence,' they built him a commodious cabin apart from the village. A few days later Champlain himself appeared on the scene; and it was on the 12th of August that he and his followers attended in Le Caron's cabin the first Mass celebrated in what is now the province of Ontario. Then, while Le Caron began his efforts for the conversion of the benighted Huron, Champlain went off with the warriors on a very different mission--an invasion of the Iroquois country. The commencement of religious endeavor in Huronia is thus marked by an event that was to intensify the hatred of the ferocious Iroquois against both the Huron and the French.

Le Caron spent the remainder of the year 1615 among the Huron, studying the people, learning the language, and compiling a dictionary. Champlain, his expedition ended, returned to Huronia and remained there until the middle of January, when he and Le Caron set out on a visit to the Petun or Tobacco Nation, then dwelling on the southern shore of Nottawasaga Bay, a two-days' journey south-west of Carhagouha. There had been as yet no direct communication between the French and the Petuns, and the visitors were not kindly received. The Petun sorcerers or medicine-men dreaded the influence of the grey-robed friar, regarded him as a rival, and caused his teachings to be derided. After an uncomfortable month Champlain and Le Caron returned to Carhagouha, where they remained until the 20th of May, and then set out for Quebec.

When Le Caron reached Quebec on the 11th of July (1616) he found that his comrades had not been idle. A chapel had been built, in what is now the Lower Town, close to the habitation, and here Father Jamay ministered to the spiritual needs of the colonists and labored among the Indians camped in the vicinity of the trading-post. Father d'Olbeau had been busy among the Montagnais, a wandering Algonquin tribe between Tadoussac and Seven Islands, his reward being chiefly suffering. The filth and smoke of the Indian wigwams tortured him, the disgusting food of the natives filled him with loathing, and their vice and indifference to his teaching weighed on his spirit.

The greatest trial the Recollets had to bear was the opposition of the Company of St Malo and Rouen, which was composed largely of Huguenots, and had a monopoly of the trade of New France. Many of the traders were actively antagonistic to the spread of the Catholic religion and they all viewed the work of the Recollets with hostility. It was the aim of the missionaries to induce the Indians to settle near the trading-posts in order that they might the more easily be reached with the Gospel message. The traders had but one thought--the profits of the fur trade; and, desiring to keep the Indians nomadic hunters of furs, they opposed bringing them into fixed abodes and put every possible obstacle in the way of the friars. Trained interpreters in the employ of the company for both the Huron and the various Algonquin tribes were ordered not to assist the missionaries in acquiring a knowledge of the native languages. The company was pledged to support six missionaries, but the support was given with an unwilling, niggardly hand.

At length, in 1621, as a result of the complaints of Champlain and the Recollets, before the authorities in France, the Company of St Malo and Rouen lost its charter, and the trading privileges were given to William and Emery de Caen, uncle and nephew. But these men also were Huguenots, and the unhappy condition of affairs continued in an intensified form. Champlain, though the nominal head of the colony, was unable to provide a remedy, for the real power was in the hands of the Caens, who had in their employment practically the entire population.

Yet, in spite of all the obstacles put in their way, the Recollets continued their self-sacrificing labors. By the beginning of 1621 they had a comfortable residence on the bank of the St Charles, on the spot where now stands the General Hospital. Here they had been granted two hundred acres of land, and they cultivated the soil, raising meager crops of rye, barley, maize, and wheat, and tending a few pigs, cows, asses, and fowls. There were from time to time accessions to their ranks. Between the years 1616 and 1623 the fathers Guillaume Poullain, Georges le Baillif, Paul Huet, Jacques de la Foyer, Nicolas Viel, and several lay brothers, the most noted among whom was Gabriel Sagard-Theodat, labored in New France. They made attempts to Christianize the Micmac of Acadia, the Abnaki of the upper St John, the Algonquin tribes of the lower St Lawrence, and the Nipissings of the upper Ottawa. But the work among these roving bands proved most disheartening, and once more the grey-robed friars turned to the Huron.

The end of August 1623 saw Le Caron, Viel, and Sagard in Huronia. Until October they seem to have laboured in different settlements, Viel at Toanche, a short distance from Penetanguishene Bay, Sagard at Ossossane, near Dault's Bay, an indentation of Nottawasaga Bay, and Le Caron at Carhagouha. It does not appear that they were able to make much of an impression on the savages, though they had the satisfaction of some baptisms. During the winter Sagard studied Indian habits and ideas, and with Le Caron's assistance compiled a dictionary of the Huron language. [Footnote: Sagard's observations were afterwards given to the world in his 'Histoire du Canada et Voyages des Peres Recollects en la Nouvelle-France.'] Then, an June 1624, Le Caron and Sagard accompanied the annual canoe-fleet to Quebec, and Viel was left alone in Huronia.

The Recollets were discouraged. They saw that the field was too large and that the difficulties were too great for them. And, after invoking 'the light of the Holy Spirit,' they decided, according to Sagard, 'to send one of their members to France to lay the proposition before the Jesuit fathers, whom they deemed the most suitable for the work of establishing and extending the Faith in Canada.' So Father Irenaeus Piat and Brother Gabriel Sagard were sent to entreat to the rescue of the Canadian mission the greatest of all the missionary orders--an order which 'had filled the whole world with memorials of great things done and suffered for the Faith'--the militant and powerful Society of Jesus.

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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