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The Huron and the Jesuits

 Native American Nations | The Jesuits in North America                    

 

Meanwhile from Old France to New came succors and reinforcements to the missions of the forest. More Jesuits crossed the sea to urge on the work of conversion. These were no stern exiles, seeking on barbarous shores an asylum for a persecuted faith. Rank, wealth, power, and royalty itself, smiled on their enterprise, and bade them God-speed. Yet, withal, a fervor more intense, a self-abnegation more complete, a self-devotion more constant and enduring, will scarcely find its record on the page of human history.

Holy Mother Church, linked in sordid wedlock to governments and thrones, numbered among her servants a host of the worldly and the proud, whose service of God was but the service of themselves,--and many, too, who, in the sophistry of the human heart, thought themselves true soldiers of Heaven, while earthly pride, interest, and passion were the life-springs of their zeal. This mighty Church of Rome, in her imposing march along the high road of history, heralded as infallible and divine, astounds the gazing world with prodigies of contradiction: now the protector of the oppressed, now the right arm of tyrants; now breathing charity and love, now dark with the passions of Hell; now beaming with celestial truth, now masked in hypocrisy and lies; now a virgin, now a harlot; an imperial queen, and a tinselled actress. Clearly, she is of earth, not of heaven; and her transcendently dramatic life is a type of the good and ill, the baseness and nobleness, the foulness and purity, the love and hate, the pride, passion, truth, falsehood, fierceness, and tenderness, that battle in the restless heart of man.

It was her nobler and purer part that gave life to the early missions of New France. That gloomy wilderness, those hordes of savages, had nothing to tempt the ambitious, the proud, the grasping, or the indolent. Obscure toil, solitude, privation, hardship, and death were to be the missionary's portion. He who set sail for the country of the Hurons left behind him the world and all its prizes. True, he acted under orders,--obedient, like a soldier, to the word of command: but the astute Society of Jesus knew its members, weighed each in the balance, gave each his fitting task; and when the word was passed to embark for New France, it was but the response to a secret longing of the fervent heart. The letters of these priests, departing for the scene of their labors, breathe a spirit of enthusiastic exaltation, which, to a colder nature and a colder faith, may sometimes seem overstrained, but which is in no way disproportionate to the vastness of the effort and the sacrifice demanded of them.

[The following are passages from letters of missionaries at this time. See "Divers Sentimens," appended to the Relation of 1635.

"On dit que les premiers qui fondent les Eglises d'ordinaire sont saincts: cette pensée m'attendrit si fort le cœur, que quoy que ie me voye icy fort inutile dans ceste fortunée Nouuelle France, si faut-il que i'auoüe que ie ne me sçaurois defendre d'vne pensée qui me presse le cœur: Cupio impendi, et superimpendi pro vobis, Pauure Nouuelle France, ie desire me sacrifier pour ton bien, et quand il me deuroit couster mille vies, moyennant que ie puisse aider à sauuer vne seule âme, ie seray trop heureux, et ma vie tres bien employée."

"Ma consolation parmy les Hurons, c'est que tous les iours ie me confesse, et puis ie dis la Messe, comme si ie deuois prendre le Viatique et mourir ce iour là, et ie ne crois pas qu'on puisse mieux viure, ny auec plus de satisfaction et de courage, et mesme de merites, que viure en un lieu, où on pense pouuoir mourir tous les iours, et auoir la deuise de S. Paul, Quotidie morior, fratres, etc. mes freres, ie fais estat de mourir tous les iours."

"Qui ne void la Nouuelle France que par les yeux de chair et de nature, il n'y void que des bois et des croix; mais qui les considere auec les yeux de la grace et d'vne bonne vocation, il n'y void que Dieu, les vertus et les graces, et on y trouue tant et de si solides consolations, que si ie pouuois acheter la Nouuelle France, en donnant tout le Paradis Terrestre, certainement ie l'acheterois. Mon Dieu, qu'il fait bon estre au lieu où Dieu nous a mis de sa grace! veritablement i'ay trouué icy ce que i'auois esperé, vn cœur selon le cœur de Dieu, qui ne cherche que Dieu."]

All turned with longing eyes towards the mission of the Huron; for here the largest harvest promised to repay their labor, and here hardships and dangers most abounded. Two Jesuits, Pijart and Le Mercier, had been sent thither in 1635; and in midsummer of the next year three more arrived,--Jogues, Chatelain, and Garnier. When, after their long and lonely journey, they reached Ihonatiria one by one, they were received by their brethren with scanty fare indeed, but with a fervor of affectionate welcome which more than made amends; for among these priests, united in a community of faith and enthusiasm, there was far more than the genial comradeship of men joined in a common enterprise of self-devotion and peril.1 On their way, they had met Daniel and Davost descending to Quebec, to establish there a seminary of Huron children,--a project long cherished by Brébeuf and his companions.

Scarcely had the new-comers arrived, when they were attacked by a contagious fever, which turned their mission-house into a hospital. Jogues, Garnier, and Chatelain fell ill in turn; and two of their domestics also were soon prostrated, though the only one of the number who could hunt fortunately escaped. Those who remained in health attended the sick, and the sufferers vied with each other in efforts often beyond their strength to relieve their companions in misfortune. [Lettre de Brébeuf au T. R. P. Mutio Vitelleschi, 20 Mai, 1637, in Carayon, 157. Le Mercier, Relation des Huron, 1637, 120, 123.] The disease in no case proved fatal; but scarcely had health begun to return to their household, when an unforeseen calamity demanded the exertion of all their energies.

The pestilence, which for two years past had from time to time visited the Huron towns, now returned with tenfold violence, and with it soon appeared a new and fearful scourge,--the small-pox. Terror was universal. The contagion increased as autumn advanced; and when winter came, far from ceasing, as the priests had hoped, its ravages were appalling. The season of Huron festivity was turned to a season of mourning; and such was the despondency and dismay, that suicide became frequent. The Jesuits, singly or in pairs, journeyed in the depth of winter from village to village, ministering to the sick, and seeking to commend their religious teachings by their efforts to relieve bodily distress. Happily, perhaps, for their patients, they had no medicine but a little senna. A few raisins were left, however; and one or two of these, with a spoonful of sweetened water, were always eagerly accepted by the sufferers, who thought them endowed with some mysterious and sovereign efficacy. No house was left unvisited. As the missionary, physician at once to body and soul, entered one of these smoky dens, he saw the inmates, their heads muffled in their robes of skins, seated around the fires in silent dejection. Everywhere was heard the wail of sick and dying children; and on or under the platforms at the sides of the house crouched squalid men and women, in all the stages of the distemper. The Father approached, made inquiries, spoke words of kindness, administered his harmless remedies, or offered a bowl of broth made from game brought in by the Frenchman who hunted for the mission. [Game was so scarce in the Huron country, that it was greatly prized as a luxury. Le Mercier speaks of an Indian, sixty years of age, who walked twelve miles to taste the wild-fowl killed by the French hunter. The ordinary food was corn, beans, pumpkins, and fish.] The body cared for, he next addressed himself to the soul. "This life is short, and very miserable. It matters little whether we live or die." The patient remained silent, or grumbled his dissent. The Jesuit, after enlarging for a time, in broken Huron, on the brevity and nothingness of mortal weal or woe, passed next to the joys of Heaven and the pains of Hell, which he set forth with his best rhetoric. His pictures of infernal fires and torturing devils were readily comprehended, if the listener had consciousness enough to comprehend anything; but with respect to the advantages of the French Paradise, he was slow of conviction. "I wish to go where my relations and ancestors have gone," was a common reply. "Heaven is a good place for Frenchmen," said another; "but I wish to be among Indians, for the French will give me nothing to eat when I get there." [It was scarcely possible to convince the Indians, that there was but one God for themselves and the whites. The proposition was met by such arguments as this: "If we had been of one father, we should know how to make knives and coats as well as you."--Le Mercier, Relation des Huron, 1637, 147.] Often the patient was stolidly silent; sometimes he was hopelessly perverse and contradictory. Again, Nature triumphed over Grace. "Which will you choose," demanded the priest of a dying woman, "Heaven or Hell?" "Hell, if my children are there, as you say," returned the mother. "Do they hunt in Heaven, or make war, or go to feasts?" asked an anxious inquirer. "Oh, no!" replied the Father. "Then," returned the querist, "I will not go. It is not good to be lazy." But above all other obstacles was the dread of starvation in the regions of the blest. Nor, when the dying Indian had been induced at last to express a desire for Paradise, was it an easy matter to bring him to a due contrition for his sins; for he would deny with indignation that he had ever committed any. When at length, as sometimes happened, all these difficulties gave way, and the patient had been brought to what seemed to his instructor a fitting frame for baptism, the priest, with contentment at his heart, brought water in a cup or in the hollow of his hand, touched his forehead with the mystic drop, and snatched him from an eternity of woe. But the convert, even after his baptism, did not always manifest a satisfactory spiritual condition. "Why did you baptize that Iroquois?" asked one of the dying neophytes, speaking of the prisoner recently tortured; "he will get to Heaven before us, and, when he sees us coming, he will drive us out." [Most of the above traits are drawn from Le Mercier's report of 1637. The rest are from Brébeuf.]

Thus did these worthy priests, too conscientious to let these unfortunates die in peace, follow them with benevolent persecutions to the hour of their death.

It was clear to the Fathers, that their ministrations were valued solely because their religion was supposed by many to be a "medicine," or charm, efficacious against famine, disease, and death. They themselves, indeed, firmly believed that saints and angels were always at hand with temporal succors for the faithful. At their intercession, St. Joseph had interposed to procure a happy delivery to a squaw in protracted pains of childbirth; [Brébeuf, Relation des Hurons, 1636, 89. Another woman was delivered on touching a relic of St. Ignatius. Ibid., 90. ] and they never doubted, that, in the hour of need, the celestial powers would confound the unbeliever with intervention direct and manifest. At the town of Wenrio, the people, after trying in vain all the feasts, dances, and preposterous ceremonies by which their medicine-men sought to stop the pest, resolved to essay the "medicine" of the French, and, to that end, called the priests to a council. "What must we do, that your God may take pity on us?" Brébeuf's answer was uncompromising:--

"Believe in Him; keep His commandments; abjure your faith in dreams; take but one wife, and be true to her; give up your superstitious feasts; renounce your assemblies of debauchery; eat no human flesh; never give feasts to demons; and make a vow, that, if God will deliver you from this pest, you will build a chapel to offer Him thanksgiving and praise." [Le Mercier, Relation des Hurons, 1637, 114, 116 (Cramoisy). ]

The terms were too hard. They would fain bargain to be let off with building the chapel alone; but Brébeuf would bate them nothing, and the council broke up in despair.

At Ossossané, a few miles distant, the people, in a frenzy of terror, accepted the conditions, and promised to renounce their superstitions and reform their manners. It was a labor of Hercules, a cleansing of Augean stables; but the scared savages were ready to make any promise that might stay the pestilence. One of their principal sorcerers proclaimed in a loud voice through the streets of the town, that the God of the French was their master, and that thenceforth all must live according to His will. "What consolation," exclaims Le Mercier, "to see God glorified by the lips of an imp of Satan!" [Le Mercier, Relation des Hurons, 1637, 127, 128 (Cramoisy). ]

Their joy was short. The proclamation was on the twelfth of December. On the twenty-first, a noted sorcerer came to Ossossané. He was of a dwarfish, hump-backed figure,--most rare among this symmetrical people,--with a vicious face, and a dress consisting of a torn and shabby robe of beaver-skin. Scarcely had he arrived, when, with ten or twelve other savages, he ensconced himself in a kennel of bark made for the occasion. In the midst were placed several stones, heated red-hot. On these the sorcerer threw tobacco, producing a stifling fumigation; in the midst of which, for a full half-hour, he sang, at the top of his throat, those boastful, yet meaningless, rhapsodies of which Indian magical songs are composed. Then came a grand "medicine-feast"; and the disappointed Jesuits saw plainly that the objects of their spiritual care, unwilling to throw away any chance of cure, were bent on invoking aid from God and the Devil at once.

The hump-backed sorcerer became a thorn in the side of the Fathers, who more than half believed his own account of his origin. He was, he said, not a man, but an okies,--a spirit, or, as the priests rendered it, a demon,--and had dwelt with other okies under the earth, when the whim seized him to become a man. Therefore he ascended to the upper world, in company with a female spirit. They hid beside a path, and, when they saw a woman passing, they entered her womb. After a time they were born, but not until the male oki had quarrelled with and strangled his female companion, who came dead into the world. [Le Mercier, Relation des Huron, 1637, 72 (Cramoisy). This "petit sorcier" is often mentioned elsewhere. ] The character of the sorcerer seems to have comported reasonably well with this story of his origin. He pretended to have an absolute control over the pestilence, and his prescriptions were scrupulously followed.

He had several conspicuous rivals, besides a host of humbler competitors. One of these magician-doctors, who was nearly blind, made for himself a kennel at the end of his house, where he fasted for seven days. [See Introduction.] On the sixth day the spirits appeared, and, among other revelations, told him that the disease could be frightened away by means of images of straw, like scarecrows, placed on the tops of the houses. Within forty-eight hours after this announcement, the roofs of Onnentisati and the neighboring villages were covered with an army of these effigies. The Indians tried to persuade the Jesuits to put them on the mission-house; but the priests replied, that the cross before their door was a better protector; and, for further security, they set another on their roof, declaring that they would rely on it to save them from infection. ["Qu'en vertu de ce signe nous ne redoutions point les demons, et esperions que Dieu preserueroit nostre petite maison de cette maladie contagieuse."--Le Mercier, Relation des Hurons, 1637, 150.] The Indians, on their part, anxious that their scarecrows should do their office well, addressed them in loud harangues and burned offerings of tobacco to them. [Ibid., 157.]

There was another sorcerer, whose medical practice was so extensive, that, unable to attend to all his patients, he sent substitutes to the surrounding towns, first imparting to them his own mysterious power. One of these deputies came to Ossossané while the priests were there. The principal house was thronged with expectant savages, anxiously waiting his arrival. A chief carried before him a kettle of mystic water, with which the envoy sprinkled the company,2 at the same time fanning them with the wing of a wild turkey. Then came a grand medicine-feast, followed by a medicine-dance of women.

Opinion was divided as to the nature of the pest; but the greater number were agreed that it was a malignant oki, who came from Lake Huron.3 As it was of the last moment to conciliate or frighten him, no means to these ends were neglected. Feasts were held for him, at which, to do him honor, each guest gorged himself like a vulture. A mystic fraternity danced with firebrands in their mouths; while other dancers wore masks, and pretended to be hump-backed. Tobacco was burned to the Demon of the Pest, no less than to the scarecrows which were to frighten him. A chief climbed to the roof of a house, and shouted to the invisible monster, "If you want flesh, go to our enemies, go to the Iroquois!"--while, to add terror to persuasion, the crowd in the dwelling below yelled with all the force of their lungs, and beat furiously with sticks on the walls of bark.

Besides these public efforts to stay the pestilence, the sufferers, each for himself, had their own methods of cure, dictated by dreams or prescribed by established usage. Thus two of the priests, entering a house, saw a sick man crouched in a corner, while near him sat three friends. Before each of these was placed a huge portion of food,--enough, the witness declares, for four,--and though all were gorged to suffocation, with starting eyeballs and distended veins, they still held staunchly to their task, resolved at all costs to devour the whole, in order to cure the patient, who meanwhile ceased not in feeble tones, to praise their exertions, and implore them to persevere.

["En fin il leur fallut rendre gorge, ce qu'ils firent à diuerses reprises, ne laissants pas pour cela de continuer à vuider leur plat."--Le Mercier, Relation des Hurons, 1637, 142.--This beastly superstition exists in some tribes at the present day. A kindred superstition once fell under the writer's notice, in the case of a wounded Indian, who begged of every one he met to drink a large bowl of water, in order that he, the Indian, might be cured.]

Turning from these eccentricities of the "noble savage"4 to the zealots who were toiling, according to their light, to snatch him from the clutch of Satan, we see the irrepressible Jesuits roaming from town to town in restless quest of subjects for baptism. In the case of adults, they thought some little preparation essential; but their efforts to this end, even with the aid of St. Joseph, whom they constantly invoked,5 were not always successful; and, cheaply as they offered salvation, they sometimes railed to find a purchaser. With infants, however, a simple drop of water sufficed for the transfer from a prospective Hell to an assured Paradise. The Indians, who at first had sought baptism as a cure, now began to regard it as a cause of death; and when the priest entered a lodge where a sick child lay in extremity, the scowling parents watched him with jealous distrust, lest unawares the deadly drop should be applied. The Jesuits were equal to the emergency. Father Le Mercier will best tell his own story.

"On the third of May, Father Pierre Pijart baptized at Anonatea a little child two months old, in manifest danger of death, without being seen by the parents, who would not give their consent. This is the device which he used. Our sugar does wonders for us. He pretended to make the child drink a little sugared water, and at the same time dipped a finger in it. As the father of the infant began to suspect something, and called out to him not to baptize it, he gave the spoon to a woman who was near, and said to her, 'Give it to him yourself.' She approached and found the child asleep; and at the same time Father Pijart, under pretence of seeing if he was really asleep touched his face with his wet finger, and baptized him. At the end of forty-eight hours he went to Heaven.

"Some days before, the missionary had used the same device (industrie) for baptizing a little boy six or seven years old. His father, who was very sick, had several times refused to receive baptism; and when asked if he would not be glad to have his son baptized, he had answered, No. 'At least,' said Father Pijart, 'you will not object to my giving him a little sugar.' 'No; but you must not baptize him.' The missionary gave it to him once; then again; and at the third spoonful, before he had put the sugar into the water, he let a drop of it fall on the child, at the same time pronouncing the sacramental words. A little girl, who was looking at him, cried out, 'Father, he is baptizing him!' The child's father was much disturbed; but the missionary said to him, 'Did you not see that I was giving him sugar?' The child died soon after; but God showed His grace to the father, who is now in perfect health."

[Le Mercier, Relation des Hurons, 1637, 165. Various other cases of the kind are mentioned in the Relations.]

That equivocal morality, lashed by the withering satire of Pascal,--a morality built on the doctrine that all means are permissible for saving souls from perdition, and that sin itself is no sin when its object is the "greater glory of God,"--found far less scope in the rude wilderness of the Huron than among the interests, ambitions, and passions of civilized life. Nor were these men, chosen from the purest of their Order, personally well fitted to illustrate the capabilities of this elastic system. Yet now and then, by the light of their own writings, we may observe that the teachings of the school of Loyola had not been wholly without effect in the formation of their ethics.

But when we see them, in the gloomy February of 1637, and the gloomier months that followed, toiling on foot from one infected town to another, wading through the sodden snow, under the bare and dripping forests, drenched with incessant rains, till they descried at length through the storm the clustered dwellings of some barbarous hamlet,--when we see them entering, one after another, these wretched abodes of misery and darkness, and all for one sole end, the baptism of the sick and dying, we may smile at the futility of the object, but we must needs admire the self-sacrificing zeal with which it was pursued.


1 "Ie luy preparay de ce que nous auions, pour le receuoir, mais quel festin! vne poignée de petit poisson sec auec vn peu de farine; i'enuoyay chercher quelques nouueaux espics, que nous luy fismes rostir à la façon du pays; mais il est vray que dans son cœur et à l'entendre, il ne fit iamais meilleure chere. La ioye qui se ressent à ces entreueuës semble estre quelque image du contentement des bien-heureux à leur arriuée dans le Ciel, tant elle est pleine de suauité."--Le Mercier, Relation des Hurons, 1637, 106.

2 The idea seems to have been taken from the holy water of the French. Le Mercier says that a Huron who had been to Quebec once asked him the use of the vase of water at the door of the chapel. The priest told him that it was "to frighten away the devils". On this, he begged earnestly to have some of it.

3 Many believed that the country was bewitched by wicked sorcerers, one of whom, it was said, had been seen at night roaming around the villages, vomiting fire. (Le Mercier, Relation des Hurons, 1637, 134.) This superstition of sorcerers vomiting fire was common among the Iroquois of New York.--Others held that a sister of Étienne Brulé caused the evil, in revenge for the death of her brother, murdered some years before. She was said to have been seen flying over the country, breathing forth pestilence.

4 In the midst of these absurdities we find recorded one of the best traits of the Indian character. At Ihonatiria, a house occupied by a family of orphan children was burned to the ground, leaving the inmates destitute. The villagers united to aid them. Each contributed something, and they were soon better provided for than before.]

5 "C'est nostre refuge ordinaire en semblables necessitez, et d'ordinaire auec tels succez, que nous auons sujet d'en benir Dieu à iamais, qui nous fait cognoistre en cette barbarie le credit de ce S. Patriarche aupres de son infinie misericorde."--Le Mercier, Relation des Hurons, 1637, 153.--In the case of a woman at Onnentisati, "Dieu nous inspira de luy vouër quelques Messes en l'honneur de S. Joseph." The effect was prompt. In half an hour the woman was ready for baptism. On the same page we have another subject secured to Heaven, "sans doute par les merites du glorieux Patriarche S. Joseph."]


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The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, 1867

Jesuits in North America

 

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