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Persecution

 Native American Nations | The Jesuits in North America                   

 

The town of Ossossané, or Rochelle, stood, as we have seen, on the borders of Lake Huron, at the skirts of a gloomy wilderness of pine. Thither, in May, 1637, repaired Father Pijart, to found, in this, one of the largest of the Huron towns, the new mission of the Immaculate Conception. [The doctrine of the immaculate conception of the Virgin, recently sanctioned by the Pope, has long been a favorite tenet of the Jesuits.] The Indians had promised Brébeuf to build a house for the black-robes, and Pijart found the work in progress. There were at this time about fifty dwellings in the town, each containing eight or ten families. The quadrangular fort already alluded to had now been completed by the Indians, under the instruction of the priests. [Lettres de Garnier, MSS. It was of upright pickets, ten feet high with flanking towers at two angles.]

The new mission-house was about seventy feet in length. No sooner had the savage workmen secured the bark covering on its top and sides than the priests took possession, and began their preparations for a notable ceremony. At the farther end they made an altar, and hung such decorations as they had on the rough walls of bark throughout half the length of the structure. This formed their chapel. On the altar was a crucifix, with vessels and ornaments of shining metal; while above hung several pictures,--among them a painting of Christ, and another of the Virgin, both of life-size. There was also a representation of the Last Judgment, wherein dragons and serpents might be seen feasting on the entrails of the wicked, while demons scourged them into the flames of Hell. The entrance was adorned with a quantity of tinsel, together with green boughs skillfully disposed.

["Nostre Chapelle estoit extraordinairement bien ornée, . . nous auions dressé vn portique entortillé de feüillage, meslé d'oripeau, en vn mot nous auions estallé tout ce que vostre R. nous a enuoié de beau," etc., etc.--Le Mercier, Relation des Hurons, 1637, 175, 176.--In his Relation of the next year he recurs to the subject, and describes the pictures displayed on this memorable occasion.--Relation des Hurons, 1638, 33.]

Never before were such splendors seen in the land of the Huron. Crowds gathered from afar, and gazed in awe and admiration at the marvels of the sanctuary. A woman came from a distant town to behold it, and, tremulous between curiosity and fear, thrust her head into the mysterious recess, declaring that she would see it, though the look should cost her life. [Ibid., 1637, 176.]

One is forced to wonder at, if not to admire, the energy with which these priests and their scarcely less zealous attendants1 toiled to carry their pictures and ornaments through the most arduous of journeys, where the traveler was often famished from the sheer difficulty of transporting provisions.

A great event had called forth all this preparation. Of the many baptisms achieved by the Fathers in the course of their indefatigable ministry, the subjects had all been infants, or adults at the point of death; but at length a Huron, in full health and manhood, respected and influential in his tribe, had been won over to the Faith, and was now to be baptized with solemn ceremonial, in the chapel thus gorgeously adorned. It was a strange scene. Indians were there in throngs, and the house was closely packed: warriors, old and young, glistening in grease and sunflower-oil, with uncouth locks, a trifle less coarse than a horse's mane, and faces perhaps smeared with paint in honor of the occasion; wenches in gay attire; hags muffled in a filthy discarded deer-skin, their leathery visages corrugated with age and malice, and their hard, glittering eyes riveted on the spectacle before them. The priests, no longer in their daily garb of black, but radiant in their surplices, the genuflections, the tinkling of the bell, the swinging of the censer, the sweet odors so unlike the fumes of the smoky lodge-fires, the mysterious elevation of the Host, (for a mass followed the baptism,) and the agitation of the neophyte, whose Indian imperturbability fairly deserted him,--all these combined to produce on the minds of the savage beholders an impression that seemed to promise a rich harvest for the Faith. To the Jesuits it was a day of triumph and of hope. The ice had been broken; the wedge had entered; light had dawned at last on the long night of heathendom. But there was one feature of the situation which in their rejoicing they overlooked.

The Devil had taken alarm. He had borne with reasonable composure the loss of individual souls snatched from him by former baptisms; but here was a convert whose example and influence threatened to shake his Huron empire to its very foundation. In fury and fear, he rose to the conflict, and put forth all his malice and all his hellish ingenuity. Such, at least, is the explanation given by the Jesuits of the scenes that followed.2 Whether accepting it or not, let us examine the circumstances which gave rise to it.

The mysterious strangers, garbed in black, who of late years had made their abode among them, from motives past finding out, marvelous in knowledge, careless of life, had awakened in the breasts of the Huron mingled emotions of wonder, perplexity, fear, respect, and awe. From the first, they had held them answerable for the changes of the weather, commending them when the crops were abundant, and upbraiding them in times of scarcity. They thought them mighty magicians, masters of life and death; and they came to them for spells, sometimes to destroy their enemies, and sometimes to kill grasshoppers. And now it was whispered abroad that it was they who had bewitched the nation, and caused the pest which threatened to exterminate it.

It was Isaac Jogues who first heard this ominous rumor, at the town of Onnentisati, and it proceeded from the dwarfish sorcerer already mentioned, who boasted himself a devil incarnate. The slander spread fast and far. Their friends looked at them askance; their enemies clamored for their lives. Some said that they concealed in their houses a corpse, which infected the country,--a perverted notion, derived from some half-instructed neophyte, concerning the body of Christ in the Eucharist. Others ascribed the evil to a serpent, others to a spotted frog, others to a demon which the priests were supposed to carry in the barrel of a gun. Others again gave out that they had pricked an infant to death with awls in the forest, in order to kill the Huron children by magic. "Perhaps," observes Father Le Mercier, "the Devil was enraged because we had placed a great many of these little innocents in Heaven."

["Le diable enrageoit peutestre de ce que nous avions placé dans le ciel quantité de ces petits innocens."--Le Mercier, Relation des Hurons, 1638, 12 (Cramoisy).]

The picture of the Last Judgment became an object of the utmost terror. It was regarded as a charm. The dragons and serpents were supposed to be the demons of the pest, and the sinners whom they were so busily devouring to represent its victims. On the top of a spruce-tree, near their house at Ihonatiria, the priests had fastened a small streamer, to show the direction of the wind. This, too, was taken for a charm, throwing off disease and death to all quarters. The clock, once an object of harmless wonder, now excited the wildest alarm; and the Jesuits were forced to stop it, since, when it struck, it was supposed to sound the signal of death. At sunset, one would have seen knots of Indians, their faces dark with dejection and terror, listening to the measured sounds which issued from within the neighboring house of the mission, where, with bolted doors, the priests were singing litanies, mistaken for incantations by the awe-struck savages.

Had the objects of these charges been Indians, their term of life would have been very short. The blow of a hatchet, stealthily struck in the dusky entrance of a lodge, would have promptly avenged the victims of their sorcery, and delivered the country from peril. But the priests inspired a strange awe. Nocturnal councils were held; their death was decreed; and, as they walked their rounds, whispering groups of children gazed after them as men doomed to die. But who should be the executioner? They were reviled and upbraided. The Indian boys threw sticks at them as they passed, and then ran behind the houses. When they entered one of these pestiferous dens, this impish crew clambered on the roof, to pelt them with snowballs through the smoke-holes. The old squaw who crouched by the fire scowled on them with mingled anger and fear, and cried out, "Begone! there are no sick ones here." The invalids wrapped their heads in their blankets; and when the priest accosted some dejected warrior, the savage looked gloomily on the ground, and answered not a word.

Yet nothing could divert the Jesuits from their ceaseless quest of dying subjects for baptism, and above all of dying children. They penetrated every house in turn. When, through the thin walls of bark, they heard the wail of a sick infant, no menace and no insult could repel them from the threshold. They pushed boldly in, asked to buy some trifle, spoke of late news of Iroquois forays,--of anything, in short, except the pestilence and the sick child; conversed for a while till suspicion was partially lulled to sleep, and then, pretending to observe the sufferer for the first time, approached it, felt its pulse, and asked of its health. Now, while apparently fanning the heated brow, the dexterous visitor touched it with a corner of his handkerchief, which he had previously dipped in water, murmured the baptismal words with motionless lips, and snatched another soul from the fangs of the "Infernal Wolf."3 Thus, with the patience of saints, the courage of heroes, and an intent truly charitable, did the Fathers put forth a nimble-fingered adroitness that would have done credit to the profession of which the function is less to dispense the treasures of another world than to grasp those which pertain to this.

The Huron chiefs were summoned to a great council, to discuss the state of the nation. The crisis demanded all their wisdom; for, while the continued ravages of disease threatened them with annihilation, the Iroquois scalping-parties infested the outskirts of their towns, and murdered them in their fields and forests. The assembly met in August, 1637; and the Jesuits, knowing their deep stake in its deliberations, failed not to be present, with a liberal gift of wampum, to show their sympathy in the public calamities. In private, they sought to gain the good-will of the deputies, one by one; but though they were successful in some cases, the result on the whole was far from hopeful.

In the intervals of the council, Brébeuf discoursed to the crowd of chiefs on the wonders of the visible heavens,--the sun, the moon, the stars, and the planets. They were inclined to believe what he told them; for he had lately, to their great amazement, accurately predicted an eclipse. From the fires above he passed to the fires beneath, till the listeners stood aghast at his hideous pictures of the flames of perdition,--the only species of Christian instruction which produced any perceptible effect on this unpromising auditory.

The council opened on the evening of the fourth of August, with all the usual ceremonies; and the night was spent in discussing questions of treaties and alliances, with a deliberation and good sense which the Jesuits could not help admiring. [Le Mercier, Relation des Hurons, 1638, 38.] A few days after, the assembly took up the more exciting question of the epidemic and its causes. Deputies from three of the four Huron nations were present, each deputation sitting apart. The Jesuits were seated with the Nation of the Bear, in whose towns their missions were established. Like all important councils, the session was held at night. It was a strange scene. The light of the fires flickered aloft into the smoky vault and among the soot-begrimed rafters of the great council-house,4 and cast an uncertain gleam on the wild and dejected throng that filled the platforms and the floor. "I think I never saw anything more lugubrious," writes Le Mercier: "they looked at each other like so many corpses, or like men who already feel the terror of death. When they spoke, it was only with sighs, each reckoning up the sick and dead of his own family. All this was to excite each other to vomit poison against us."

A grisly old chief, named Ontitarac, withered with age and stone-blind, but renowned in past years for eloquence and counsel, opened the debate in a loud, though tremulous voice. First he saluted each of the three nations present, then each of the chiefs in turn,--congratulated them that all were there assembled to deliberate on a subject of the last importance to the public welfare, and exhorted them to give it a mature and calm consideration. Next rose the chief whose office it was to preside over the Feast of the Dead. He painted in dismal colors the woful condition of the country, and ended with charging it all upon the sorceries of the Jesuits. Another old chief followed him. "My brothers," he said, "you know well that I am a war-chief, and very rarely speak except in councils of war; but I am compelled to speak now, since nearly all the other chiefs are dead, and I must utter what is in my heart before I follow them to the grave. Only two of my family are left alive, and perhaps even these will not long escape the fury of the pest. I have seen other diseases ravaging the country, but nothing that could compare with this. In two or three moons we saw their end: but now we have suffered for a year and more, and yet the evil does not abate. And what is worst of all, we have not yet discovered its source." Then, with words of studied moderation, alternating with bursts of angry invective, he proceeded to accuse the Jesuits of causing, by their sorceries, the unparalleled calamities that afflicted them; and in support of his charge he adduced a prodigious mass of evidence. When he had spent his eloquence, Brébeuf rose to reply, and in a few words exposed the absurdities of his statements; whereupon another accuser brought a new array of charges. A clamor soon arose from the whole assembly, and they called upon Brébeuf with one voice to give up a certain charmed cloth which was the cause of their miseries. In vain the missionary protested that he had no such cloth. The clamor increased.

"If you will not believe me," said Brébeuf, "go to our house; search everywhere; and if you are not sure which is the charm, take all our clothing and all our cloth, and throw them into the lake."

"Sorcerers always talk in that way," was the reply.

"Then what will you have me say?" demanded Brébeuf.

"Tell us the cause of the pest."

Brébeuf replied to the best of his power, mingling his explanations with instructions in Christian doctrine and exhortations to embrace the Faith. He was continually interrupted; and the old chief, Ontitarac, still called upon him to produce the charmed cloth. Thus the debate continued till after midnight, when several of the assembly, seeing no prospect of a termination, fell asleep, and others went away. One old chief, as he passed out said to Brébeuf, "If some young man should split your head, we should have nothing to say." The priest still continued to harangue the diminished conclave on the necessity of obeying God and the danger of offending Him, when the chief of Ossossané called out impatiently, "What sort of men are these? They are always saying the same thing, and repeating the same words a hundred times. They are never done with telling us about their Oki, and what he demands and what he forbids, and Paradise and Hell." [The above account of the council is drawn from Le Mercier, Relation des Huron, 1638, Chap. II. See also Bressani, Relation Abrégée, 163.]

"Here was the end of this miserable council," writes Le Mercier; . . . "and if less evil came of it than was designed, we owe it, after God, to the Most Holy Virgin, to whom we had made a vow of nine masses in honor of her immaculate conception."

The Fathers had escaped for the time; but they were still in deadly peril. They had taken pains to secure friends in private, and there were those who were attached to their interests; yet none dared openly take their part. The few converts they had lately made came to them in secret, and warned them that their death was determined upon. Their house was set on fire; in public, every face was averted from them; and a new council was called to pronounce the decree of death. They appeared before it with a front of such unflinching assurance, that their judges, Indian-like, postponed the sentence. Yet it seemed impossible that they should much longer escape. Brébeuf, therefore, wrote a letter of farewell to his Superior, Le Jeune, at Quebec, and confided it to some converts whom he could trust, to be carried by them to its destination.

"We are perhaps," he says, "about to give our blood and our lives in the cause of our Master, Jesus Christ. It seems that His goodness will accept this sacrifice, as regards me, in expiation of my great and numberless sins, and that He will thus crown the past services and ardent desires of all our Fathers here. . . . Blessed be His name forever, that He has chosen us, among so many better than we, to aid him to bear His cross in this land! In all things, His holy will be done!" He then acquaints Le Jeune that he has directed the sacred vessels, and all else belonging to the service of the altar, to be placed, in case of his death, in the hands of Pierre, the convert whose baptism has been described, and that especial care will be taken to preserve the dictionary and other writings on the Huron language. The letter closes with a request for masses and prayers.

[The following is the conclusion of the letter (Le Mercier, Relation des Hurons, 1638, 43.)

"En tout, sa sainte volonté soit faite; s'il veut que dés ceste heure nous mourions, ô la bonne heure pour nous! s'il veut nous reseruer à d'autres trauaux, qu'il soit beny; si vous entendez que Dieu ait couronné nos petits trauaux, ou plustost nos desirs, benissez-le: car c'est pour luy que nous desirons viure et mourir, et c'est luy qui nous en donne la grace. Au reste si quelques-vns suruiuent, i'ay donné ordre de tout ce qu'ils doiuent faire. I'ay esté d'aduis que nos Peres et nos domestiques se retirent chez ceux qu'ils croyront estre leurs mei'leurs amis; i'ay donné charge qu'on porte chez Pierre nostre premier Chrestien tout ce qui est de la Sacristie, sur tout qu'on ait vn soin particulier de mettre en lieu d'asseurance le Dictionnaire et tout ce que nous auons de la langue. Pour moy, si Dieu me fait la grace d'aller au Ciel, ie prieray Dieu pour eux, pour les pauures Hurons, et n'oublieray pas Vostre Reuerence.

"Apres tout, nous supplions V. R. et tous nos Peres de ne nous oublier en leurs saincts Sacrifices et prieres, afin qu'en la vie et apres la mort, il nous fasse misericorde; nous sommes tous en la vie et à l'Eternité,

"De vostre Reuerence tres-humbles et tres-affectionnez seruiteurs en Nostre Seigneur,

"IEAN DE BREBEVF. FRANÇOIS IOSEPH LE MERCIER. PIERRE CHASTELLAIN. CHARLES GARNIER. PAVL RAGVENEAV.

"En la Residence de la Conception, à Ossossané, ce 28 Octobre.

"I'ay laissé en la Residence de sainct Ioseph les Peres Pierre Pijart et Isaac Iogves, dans les mesmes sentimens."]

The imperilled Jesuits now took a singular, but certainly a very wise step. They gave one of those farewell feasts--festins d'adieu--which Huron custom enjoined on those about to die, whether in the course of Nature or by public execution. Being interpreted, it was a declaration that the priests knew their danger, and did not shrink from it. It might have the effect of changing overawed friends into open advocates, and even of awakening a certain sympathy in the breasts of an assembly on whom a bold bearing could rarely fail of influence. The house was packed with feasters, and Brébeuf addressed them as usual on his unfailing themes of God, Paradise, and Hell. The throng listened in gloomy silence; and each, when he had emptied his bowl, rose and departed, leaving his entertainers in utter doubt as to his feelings and intentions. From this time forth, however, the clouds that overhung the Fathers became less dark and threatening. Voices were heard in their defence, and looks were less constantly averted. They ascribed the change to the intercession of St. Joseph, to whom they had vowed a nine days' devotion. By whatever cause produced, the lapse of a week wrought a hopeful improvement in their prospects; and when they went out of doors in the morning, it was no longer with the expectation of having a hatchet struck into their brains as they crossed the threshold.

["Tant y a que depuis le 6. de Nouembre que nous acheuasmes nos Messes votiues son honneur, nous auons iouy d'vn repos incroyable, nons nous en emerueillons nous-mesmes de iour en iour, quand nous considerons en quel estat estoient nos affaires il n'y a que huict iours."--Le Mercier, Relation des Hurons, 1638, 44.]

The persecution of the Jesuits as sorcerers continued, in an intermittent form, for years; and several of them escaped very narrowly. In a house at Ossossané, a young Indian rushed suddenly upon François Du Peron, and lifted his tomahawk to brain him, when a squaw caught his hand. Paul Ragueneau wore a crucifix, from which hung the image of a skull. An Indian, thinking it a charm, snatched it from him. The priest tried to recover it, when the savage, his eyes glittering with murder, brandished his hatchet to strike. Ragueneau stood motionless, waiting the blow. His assailant forbore, and withdrew, muttering. Pierre Chaumonot was emerging from a house at the Huron town called by the Jesuits St. Michel, where he had just baptized a dying girl, when her brother, standing hidden in the doorway, struck him on the head with a stone. Chaumonot, severely wounded, staggered without falling, when the Indian sprang upon him with his tomahawk. The bystanders arrested the blow. François Le Mercier, in the midst of a crowd of Indians in a house at the town called St. Louis, was assailed by a noted chief, who rushed in, raving like a madman, and, in a torrent of words, charged upon him all the miseries of the nation. Then, snatching a brand from the fire, he shook it in the Jesuit's face, and told him that he should be burned alive. Le Mercier met him with looks as determined as his own, till, abashed at his undaunted front and bold denunciations, the Indian stood confounded.

[The above incidents are from Le Mercier, Lalemant, Bressani, the autobiography of Chaumonot, the unpublished writings of Garnier, and the ancient manuscript volume of memoirs of the early Canadian missionaries, at St. Mary's College, Montreal.]

The belief that their persecutions were owing to the fury of the Devil, driven to desperation by the home-thrusts he had received at their hands, was an unfailing consolation to the priests. "Truly," writes Le Mercier, "it is an unspeakable happiness for us, in the midst of this barbarism, to hear the roaring of the demons, and to see Earth and Hell raging against a handful of men who will not even defend themselves."5 In all the copious records of this dark period, not a line gives occasion to suspect that one of this loyal band flinched or hesitated. The iron Brébeuf, the gentle Garnier, the all-enduring Jogues, the enthusiastic Chaumonot, Lalemant, Le Mercier, Chatelain, Daniel, Pijart, Ragueneau, Du Peron, Poncet, Le Moyne,--one and all bore themselves with a tranquil boldness, which amazed the Indians and enforced their respect.

Father Jerome Lalemant, in his journal of 1639, is disposed to draw an evil augury for the mission from the fact that as yet no priest had been put to death, inasmuch as it is a received maxim that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.6 He consoles himself with the hope that the daily life of the missionaries may be accepted as a living martyrdom; since abuse and threats without end, the smoke, fleas, filth, and dogs of the Indian lodges,--which are, he says, little images of Hell,--cold, hunger, and ceaseless anxiety, and all these continued for years, are a portion to which many might prefer the stroke of a tomahawk. Reasonable as the Father's hope may be, its expression proved needless in the sequel; for the Huron church was not destined to suffer from a lack of martyrdom in any form.


1 The Jesuits on these distant missions were usually attended by followers who had taken no vows, and could leave their service at will, but whose motives were religious, and not mercenary. Probably this was the character of their attendants in the present case. They were known as _donnés_, or "given men." It appears from a letter of the Jesuit Du Peron, that twelve hired laborers were soon after sent up to the mission.

2 Several of the Jesuits allude to this supposed excitement among the tenants of the nether world. Thus, Le Mercier says, "Le Diable se sentoit pressé de prés, il ne pouuoit supporter le Baptesme solennel de quelques Sauuages des plus signalez."--Relation des Hurons, 1638, 33.--Several other baptisms of less note followed that above described. Garnier, writing to his brother, repeatedly alludes to the alarm excited in Hell by the recent successes of the mission, and adds,--"Vous pouvez juger quelle consolation nous étoit-ce de voir le diable s'armer contre nous et se servir de ses esclaves pour nous attaquer et tâcher de nous perdre en haine de J. C."

3 Ce loup infernal is a title often bestowed in the Relations on the Devil. The above details are gathered from the narratives of Brébeuf, Le Mercier, and Lalemant, and letters, published and unpublished, of several other Jesuits.

In another case, an Indian girl was carrying on her back a sick child, two months old. Two Jesuits approached, and while one of them amused the girl with his rosary, "l'autre le baptise lestement; le pauure petit n'attendoit que ceste faueur du Ciel pour s'y enuoler."

4 It must have been the house of a chief. The Hurons, unlike some other tribes, had no houses set apart for public occasions.

5 "C'est veritablement un bonheur indicible pour nous, au milieu de cette barbarie, d'entendre les rugissemens des demons, & de voir tout l'Enfer & quasi tous les hommes animez & remplis de fureur contre une petite poignée de gens qui ne voudroient pas se defendre."--Relation des Hurons, 1640, 31 (Cramoisy).

6 "Nous auons quelque fois douté, sçauoir si on pouuoit esperer la conuersion de ce païs sans qu'il y eust effusion de sang: le principe reçeu ce semble dans l'Eglise de Dieu, que le sang des Martyrs est la semence des Chrestiens, me faisoit conclure pour lors, que cela n'estoit pas à esperer, voire mesme qu'il n'étoit pas à souhaiter, consideré la gloire qui reuient à Dieu de la constance des Martyrs, du sang desquels tout le reste de la terre ayant tantost esté abreuué, ce seroit vne espece de malediction, que ce quartier du monde ne participast point au bonheur d'auoir contribué à l'esclat de ceste gloire."--Lalemant, Relation des Hurons, 1639, 56, 57.]


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The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, 1867

Jesuits in North America

 

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