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Paul Le Jeune

 Native American Nations | The Jesuits in North America                     


In another narrative, we have seen how the Jesuits, supplanting the Récollet friars, their predecessors, had adopted as their own the rugged task of Christianizing New France. We have seen, too, how a descent of the English, or rather of Huguenots fighting under English colors, had overthrown for a time the miserable little colony, with the mission to which it was wedded; and how Quebec was at length restored to France, and the broken thread of the Jesuit enterprise resumed. ["Pioneers of France."]

It was then that Le Jeune had embarked for the New World. He was in his convent at Dieppe when he received the order to depart; and he set forth in haste for Havre, filled, he assures us, with inexpressible joy at the prospect of a living or a dying martyrdom. At Rouen he was joined by De Nouë, with a lay brother named Gilbert; and the three sailed together on the eighteenth of April, 1632. The sea treated them roughly; Le Jeune was wretchedly sea-sick; and the ship nearly foundered in a gale. At length they came in sight of "that miserable country," as the missionary calls the scene of his future labors. It was in the harbor of Tadoussac that he first encountered the objects of his apostolic cares; for, as he sat in the ship's cabin with the master, it was suddenly invaded by ten or twelve Indians, whom he compares to a party of maskers at the Carnival. Some had their cheeks painted black, their noses blue, and the rest of their faces red. Others were decorated with a broad band of black across the eyes; and others, again, with diverging rays of black, red, and blue on both cheeks. Their attire was no less uncouth. Some of them wore shaggy bear skins, reminding the priest of the pictures of St. John the Baptist.

After a vain attempt to save a number of Iroquois prisoners whom they were preparing to burn alive on shore, Le Jeune and his companions again set sail, and reached Quebec on the fifth of July. Having said mass, as already mentioned, under the roof of Madame Hébert and her delighted family, the Jesuits made their way to the two hovels built by their predecessors on the St. Charles, which had suffered woful dilapidation at the hands of the English. Here they made their abode, and applied themselves, with such skill as they could command, to repair the shattered tenements and cultivate the waste meadows around.

The beginning of Le Jeune's missionary labors was neither imposing nor promising. He describes himself seated with a small Indian boy on one side and a small negro on the other, the latter of whom had been left by the English as a gift to Madame Hébert. As neither of the three understood the language of the others, the pupils made little progress in spiritual knowledge. The missionaries, it was clear, must learn Algonquin at any cost; and, to this end, Le Jeune resolved to visit the Indian encampments. Hearing that a band of Montagnais were fishing for eels on the St. Lawrence, between Cape Diamond and the cove which now bears the name of Wolfe, he set forth for the spot on a morning in October. As, with toil and trepidation, he scrambled around the foot of the cape,--whose precipices, with a chaos of loose rocks, thrust themselves at that day into the deep tidewater,--he dragged down upon himself the trunk of a fallen tree, which, in its descent, well nigh swept him into the river. The peril past, he presently reached his destination. Here, among the lodges of bark, were stretched innumerable strings of hide, from which hung to dry an incredible multitude of eels. A boy invited him into the lodge of a withered squaw, his grandmother, who hastened to offer him four smoked eels on a piece of birch bark, while other squaws of the household instructed him how to roast them on a forked stick over the embers. All shared the feast together, his entertainers using as napkins their own hair or that of their dogs; while Le Jeune, intent on increasing his knowledge of Algonquin, maintained an active discourse of broken words and pantomime. [Le Jeune, Relation, 1633, 2.]

The lesson, however, was too laborious, and of too little profit, to be often repeated, and the missionary sought anxiously for more stable instruction. To find such was not easy. The interpreters--Frenchmen, who, in the interest of the fur company, had spent years among the Indians--were averse to Jesuits, and refused their aid. There was one resource, however, of which Le Jeune would fain avail himself. An Indian, called Pierre by the French, had been carried to France by the Récollet friars, instructed, converted, and baptized. He had lately returned to Canada, where, to the scandal of the Jesuits, he had relapsed into his old ways, retaining of his French education little besides a few new vices. He still haunted the fort at Quebec, lured by the hope of an occasional gift of wine or tobacco, but shunned the Jesuits, of whose rigid way of life he stood in horror. As he spoke good French and good Indian, he would have been invaluable to the embarrassed priests at the mission. Le Jeune invoked the aid of the Saints. The effect of his prayers soon appeared, he tells us, in a direct interposition of Providence, which so disposed the heart of Pierre that he quarreled with the French commandant, who thereupon closed the fort against him. He then repaired to his friends and relatives in the woods, but only to encounter a rebuff from a young squaw to whom he made his addresses. On this, he turned his steps towards the mission-house, and, being unfitted by his French education for supporting himself by hunting, begged food and shelter from the priests. Le Jeune gratefully accepted him as a gift vouchsafed by Heaven to his prayers, persuaded a lackey at the fort to give him a cast-off suit of clothes, promised him maintenance, and installed him as his teacher.

Seated on wooden stools by the rough table in the refectory, the priest and the Indian pursued their studies. "How thankful I am," writes Le Jeune, "to those who gave me tobacco last year! At every difficulty I give my master a piece of it, to make him more attentive."

[Relation, 1633, 7. He continues: "Ie ne sçaurois assez rendre graces à Nostre Seigneur de cet heureux rencontre. . . . Que Dieu soit beny pour vn iamais, sa prouidence est adorable, et sa bonté n'a point de limites."]

Meanwhile, winter closed in with a severity rare even in Canada. The St. Lawrence and the St. Charles were hard frozen; rivers, forests, and rocks were mantled alike in dazzling sheets of snow. The humble mission-house of Notre-Dame des Anges was half buried in the drifts, which, heaped up in front where a path had been dug through them, rose two feet above the low eaves. The priests, sitting at night before the blazing logs of their wide-throated chimney, heard the trees in the neighboring forest cracking with frost, with a sound like the report of a pistol. Le Jeune's ink froze, and his fingers were benumbed, as he toiled at his declensions and conjugations, or translated the Pater Noster into blundering Algonquin. The water in the cask beside the fire froze nightly, and the ice was broken every morning with hatchets. The blankets of the two priests were fringed with the icicles of their congealed breath, and the frost lay in a thick coating on the lozenge-shaped glass of their cells. [Le Jeune, Relation, 1633, 14, 15.]

By day, Le Jeune and his companion practised with snow-shoes, with all the mishaps which attend beginners,--the trippings, the falls, and headlong dives into the soft drifts, amid the laughter of the Indians. Their seclusion was by no means a solitude. Bands of Montagnais, with their sledges and dogs, often passed the mission-house on their way to hunt the moose. They once invited De Nouë to go with them; and he, scarcely less eager than Le Jeune to learn their language, readily consented. In two or three weeks he appeared, sick, famished, and half dead with exhaustion. "Not ten priests in a hundred," writes Le Jeune to his Superior, "could bear this winter life with the savages." But what of that? It was not for them to falter. They were but instruments in the hands of God, to be used, broken, and thrown aside, if such should be His will.

["Voila, mon Reuerend Pere, vn eschantillon de ce qu'il faut souffrir courant apres les Sauuages. . . . Il faut prendre sa vie, et tout ce qu'on a, et le ietter à l'abandon, pour ainsi dire, se contentant d'vne croix bien grosse et bien pesante pour toute richesse. Il est bien vray que Dieu ne se laisse point vaincre, et que plus on quitte, plus on trouue: plus on perd, plus on gaigne: mais Dieu se cache par fois, et alors le Calice est bien amer."--Le Jeune, Relation 1633, 19.]

An Indian made Le Jeune a present of two small children, greatly to the delight of the missionary, who at once set himself to teaching them to pray in Latin. As the season grew milder, the number of his scholars increased; for, when parties of Indians encamped in the neighborhood, he would take his stand at the door, and, like Xavier at Goa, ring a bell. At this, a score of children would gather around him; and he, leading them into the refectory, which served as his school-room, taught them to repeat after him the Pater, Aye, and Credo, expounded the mystery of the Trinity, showed them the sign of the cross, and made them repeat an Indian prayer, the joint composition of Pierre and himself; then followed the catechism, the lesson closing with singing the Pater Noster, translated by the missionary into Algonquin rhymes; and when all was over, he rewarded each of his pupils with a porringer of peas, to insure their attendance at his next bell-ringing.

["I'ay commencé à appeller quelques enfans auec vne petite clochette. La premiere fois i'en auois six, puis douze, puis quinze, puis vingt et davantage; ie leur fais dire le Pater, Aue, et Credo, etc. . . . . Nous finissons par le Pater Noster, que i'ay composé quasi en rimes en leur langue, que ie leur fais chanter: et pour derniere conclusion, ie leur fais donner chacun vne escuellée de pois, qu'ils mangent de bon appetit," etc.--Le Jeune, Relation, 1633, 23.]

It was the end of May, when the priests one morning heard the sound of cannon from the fort, and were gladdened by the tidings that Samuel de Champlain had arrived to resume command at Quebec, bringing with him four more Jesuits,--Brébeuf, Masse, Daniel, and Davost. [See "Pioneers of France."] Brébeuf, from the first, turned his eyes towards the distant land of the Huron,--a field of labor full of peril, but rich in hope and promise. Le Jeune's duties as Superior restrained him from wanderings so remote. His apostleship must be limited, for a time, to the vagabond hordes of Algonquins, who roamed the forests of the lower St. Lawrence, and of whose language he had been so sedulous a student. His difficulties had of late been increased by the absence of Pierre, who had run off as Lent drew near, standing in dread of that season of fasting. Masse brought tidings of him from Tadoussac, whither he had gone, and where a party of English had given him liquor, destroying the last trace of Le Jeune's late exhortations. "God forgive those," writes the Father, "who introduced heresy into this country! If this savage, corrupted as he is by these miserable heretics, had any wit, he would be a great hindrance to the spread of the Faith. It is plain that he was given us, not for the good of his soul, but only that we might extract from him the principles of his language." [Relation, 1633, 29.]

Pierre had two brothers. One, well known as a hunter, was named Mestigoit; the other was the most noted "medicine-man," or, as the Jesuits called him, sorcerer, in the tribe of the Montagnais. Like the rest of their people, they were accustomed to set out for their winter hunt in the autumn, after the close of their eel-fishery. Le Jeune, despite the experience of De Nouë, had long had a mind to accompany one of these roving bands, partly in the hope, that, in some hour of distress, he might touch their hearts, or, by a timely drop of baptismal water, dismiss some dying child to paradise, but chiefly with the object of mastering their language. Pierre had rejoined his brothers; and, as the hunting season drew near, they all begged the missionary to make one of their party,--not, as he thought, out of any love for him, but solely with a view to the provisions with which they doubted not he would be well supplied. Le Jeune, distrustful of the sorcerer, demurred, but at length resolved to go.

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The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, 1867

Jesuits in North America


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