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Priest and Pagan

 Native American Nations | The Jesuits in North America                     


We have already touched on the domestic life of the Jesuits. That we may the better know them, we will follow one of their number on his journey towards the scene of his labors, and observe what awaited him on his arrival.

Father François Pu Peron came up the Ottawa in a Huron canoe in September, 1638, and was well treated by the Indian owner of the vessel. Lalemant and Le Moyne, who had set out from Three Rivers before him, did not fare so well. The former was assailed by an Algonquin of Allumette Island, who tried to strangle him in revenge for the death of a child, which a Frenchman in the employ of the Jesuits had lately bled, but had failed to restore to health by the operation. Le Moyne was abandoned by his Huron conductors, and remained for a fortnight by the bank of the river, with a French attendant who supported him by hunting. Another Huron, belonging to the flotilla that carried Du Peron, then took him into his canoe; but, becoming tired of him, was about to leave him on a rock in the river, when his brother priest bribed the savage with a blanket to carry him to his journey's end.

It was midnight, on the twenty-ninth of September, when Du Peron landed on the shore of Thunder Bay, after paddling without rest since one o'clock of the preceding morning. The night was rainy, and Ossossané was about fifteen miles distant. His Indian companions were impatient to reach their towns; the rain prevented the kindling of a fire; while the priest, who for a long time had not heard mass, was eager to renew his communion as soon as possible. Hence, tired and hungry as he was, he shouldered his sack, and took the path for Ossossané without breaking his fast. He toiled on, half-spent, amid the ceaseless pattering, trickling, and whispering of innumerable drops among innumerable leaves, till, as day dawned, he reached a clearing, and descried through the mists a cluster of Huron houses. Faint and bedrenched, he entered the principal one, and was greeted with the monosyllable "Shay!"--"Welcome!" A squaw spread a mat for him by the fire, roasted four ears of Indian corn before the coals, baked two squashes in the embers, ladled from her kettle a dish of sagamite, and offered them to her famished guest. Missionaries seem to have been a novelty at this place; for, while the Father breakfasted, a crowd, chiefly of children, gathered about him, and stared at him in silence. One examined the texture of his cassock; another put on his hat; a third took the shoes from his feet, and tried them on her own. Du Peron requited his entertainers with a few trinkets, and begged, by signs, a guide to Ossossané. An Indian accordingly set out with him, and conducted him to the mission-house, which he reached at six o'clock in the evening.

Here he found a warm welcome, and little other refreshment. In respect to the commodities of life, the Jesuits were but a step in advance of the Indians. Their house, though well ventilated by numberless crevices in its bark walls, always smelt of smoke, and, when the wind was in certain quarters, was filled with it to suffocation. At their meals, the Fathers sat on logs around the fire, over which their kettle was slung in the Indian fashion. Each had his wooden platter, which, from the difficulty of transportation, was valued, in the Huron country, at the price of a robe of beaver-skin, or a hundred francs. ["Nos plats, quoyque de bois, nous coûtent plus cher que Les vôtres; ils sont de la valeur d'une robe de castor, c'est à dire cent francs."--Lettre du P. Du Peron à son Frère, 27 Avril, 1639.--The Father's appraisement seems a little questionable.] Their food consisted of sagamite, or "mush," made of pounded Indian-corn, boiled with scraps of smoked fish. Chaumonot compares it to the paste used for papering the walls of houses. The repast was occasionally varied by a pumpkin or squash baked in the ashes, or, in the season, by Indian corn roasted in the ear. They used no salt whatever. They could bring their cumbrous pictures, ornaments and vestments through the savage journey of the Ottawa; but they could not bring the common necessaries of life. By day, they read and studied by the light that streamed in through the large smoke-holes in the roof,--at night, by the blaze of the fire. Their only candles were a few of wax, for the altar. They cultivated a patch of ground, but raised nothing on it except wheat for making the sacramental bread. Their food was supplied by the Indians, to whom they gave, in return, cloth, knives, awls, needles, and various trinkets. Their supply of wine for the Eucharist was so scanty, that they limited themselves to four or five drops for each mass.

[The above particulars are drawn from a long letter of François Du Peron to his brother, Joseph-Imbert Du Peron, dated at La Conception (Ossossané), April 27, 1639, and from a letter, equally long, of Chaumonot to Father Philippe Nappi, dated Du Pays des Hurons, May 26, 1640. Both are in Carayon. These private letters of the Jesuits, of which many are extant, in some cases written on birch-bark, are invaluable as illustrations of the subject.

The Jesuits soon learned to make wine from wild grapes. Those in Maine and Acadia, at a later period, made good candles from the waxy fruit of the shrub known locally as the "bayberry."]

Their life was regulated with a conventual strictness. At four in the morning, a bell roused them from the sheets of bark on which they slept. Masses, private devotions, reading religious books, and breakfasting, filled the time until eight, when they opened their door and admitted the Indians. As many of these proved intolerable nuisances, they took what Lalemant calls the _honnête_ liberty of turning out the most intrusive and impracticable,--an act performed with all tact and courtesy, and rarely taken in dudgeon. Having thus winnowed their company, they catechized those that remained, as opportunity offered. In the intervals, the guests squatted by the fire and smoked their pipes.

As among the Spartan virtues of the Huron that of thieving was especially conspicuous, it was necessary that one or more of the Fathers should remain on guard at the house all day. The rest went forth on their missionary labors, baptizing and instructing, as we have seen. To each priest who could speak Huron1 was assigned a certain number of houses,--in some instances, as many as forty; and as these often had five or six fires, with two families to each, his spiritual flock was as numerous as it was intractable. It was his care to see that none of the number died without baptism, and by every means in his power to commend the doctrines of his faith to the acceptance of those in health.

At dinner, which was at two o'clock, grace was said in Huron,--for the benefit of the Indians present,--and a chapter of the Bible was read aloud during the meal. At four or five, according to the season, the Indians were dismissed, the door closed, and the evening spent in writing, reading, studying the language, devotion, and conversation on the affairs of the mission.

The local missions here referred to embraced Ossossané and the villages of the neighborhood; but the priests by no means confined themselves within these limits. They made distant excursions, two in company, until every house in every Huron town had heard the annunciation of the new doctrine. On these journeys, they carried blankets or large mantles at their backs, for sleeping in at night, besides a supply of needles, awls, beads, and other small articles, to pay for their lodging and entertainment: for the Hurons, hospitable without stint to each other, expected full compensation from the Jesuits.

At Ossossané, the house of the Jesuits no longer served the double purpose of dwelling and chapel. In 1638, they had in their pay twelve artisans and laborers, sent up from Quebec, [Du Peron in Carayon, 173.] who had built, before the close of the year, a chapel of wood. ["La chapelle est faite d'une charpente bien jolie, semblable presque en façon et grandeur, à notre chapelle de St. Julien."--Ibid., 183.] Hither they removed their pictures and ornaments; and here, in winter, several fires were kept burning, for the comfort of the half-naked converts. [Lalemant, Relation des Hurons, 1639, 62.] Of these they now had at Ossossané about sixty,--a large, though evidently not a very solid nucleus for the Huron church,--and they labored hard and anxiously to confirm and multiply them. Of a Sunday morning in winter, one could have seen them coming to mass, often from a considerable distance, "as naked," says Lalemant, "as your hand, except a skin over their backs like a mantle, and, in the coldest weather, a few skins around their feet and legs." They knelt, mingled with the French mechanics, before the altar,--very awkwardly at first, for the posture was new to them,--and all received the sacrament together: a spectacle which, as the missionary chronicler declares, repaid a hundred times all the labor of their conversion. [Lalemant, Relation des Hurons, 1639, 62.]

Some of the principal methods of conversion are curiously illustrated in a letter written by Garnier to a friend in France. "Send me," he says, "a picture of Christ without a beard." Several Virgins are also requested, together with a variety of souls in perdition--âmes damnées--most of them to be mounted in a portable form. Particular directions are given with respect to the demons, dragons, flames, and other essentials of these works of art. Of souls in bliss--âmes bienheureuses--he thinks that one will be enough. All the pictures must be in full face, not in profile; and they must look directly at the beholder, with open eyes. The colors should be bright; and there must be no flowers or animals, as these distract the attention of the Indians.

[Garnier, Lettre 17me, MS. These directions show an excellent knowledge of Indian peculiarities. The Indian dislike of a beard is well known. Catlin, the painter, once caused a fatal quarrel among a party of Sioux, by representing one of them in profile, whereupon he was jibed by a rival as being but half a man.]

The first point with the priests was of course to bring the objects of their zeal to an acceptance of the fundamental doctrines of the Roman Church; but, as the mind of the savage was by no means that beautiful blank which some have represented it, there was much to be erased as well as to be written. They must renounce a host of superstitions, to which they were attached with a strange tenacity, or which may rather be said to have been ingrained in their very natures. Certain points of Christian morality were also strongly urged by the missionaries, who insisted that the convert should take but one wife, and not cast her off without grave cause, and that he should renounce the gross license almost universal among the Hurons. Murder, cannibalism, and several other offences, were also forbidden. Yet, while laboring at the work of conversion with an energy never surpassed, and battling against the powers of darkness with the mettle of paladins, the Jesuits never had the folly to assume towards the Indians a dictatorial or overbearing tone. Gentleness, kindness, and patience were the rule of their intercourse.2 They studied the nature of the savage, and conformed themselves to it with an admirable tact. Far from treating the Indian as an alien and barbarian, they would fain have adopted him as a countryman; and they proposed to the Hurons that a number of young Frenchmen should settle among them, and marry their daughters in solemn form. The listeners were gratified at an overture so flattering. "But what is the use," they demanded, "of so much ceremony? If the Frenchmen want our women, they are welcome to come and take them whenever they please, as they always used to do." [Le Mercier, Relation des Hurons, 1637, 160.]

The Fathers are well agreed that their difficulties did not arise from any natural defect of understanding on the part of the Indians, who, according to Chaumonot, were more intelligent than the French peasantry, and who, in some instances, showed in their way a marked capacity. It was the inert mass of pride, sensuality, indolence, and superstition that opposed the march of the Faith, and in which the Devil lay intrenched as behind impregnable breastworks.

[In this connection, the following specimen of Indian reasoning is worth noting. At the height of the pestilence, a Huron said to one of the priests, "I see plainly that your God is angry with us because we will not believe and obey him. Ihonatiria, where you first taught his word, is entirely ruined. Then you came here to Ossossané, and we would not listen; so Ossossané is ruined too. This year you have been all through our country, and found scarcely any who would do what God commands; therefore the pestilence is everywhere." After premises so hopeful, the Fathers looked for a satisfactory conclusion; but the Indian proceeded--"My opinion is, that we ought to shut you out from all the houses, and stop our ears when you speak of God, so that we cannot hear. Then we shall not be so guilty of rejecting the truth, and he will not punish us so cruelly."--Lalemant, Relation des Hurons, 1640, 80.]

It soon became evident that it was easier to make a convert than to keep him. Many of the Indians clung to the idea that baptism was a safeguard against pestilence and misfortune; and when the fallacy of this notion was made apparent, their zeal cooled. Their only amusements consisted of feasts, dances, and games, many of which were, to a greater or less degree, of a superstitious character; and as the Fathers could rarely prove to their own satisfaction the absence of the diabolic element in any one of them, they proscribed the whole indiscriminately, to the extreme disgust of the neophyte. His countrymen, too, beset him with dismal prognostics: as, "You will kill no more game,"--"All your hair will come out before spring," and so forth. Various doubts also assailed him with regard to the substantial advantages of his new profession; and several converts were filled with anxiety in view of the probable want of tobacco in Heaven, saying that they could not do without it. [Lalemant, Relation des Hurons, 1639, 80.] Nor was it pleasant to these incipient Christians, as they sat in class listening to the instructions of their teacher, to find themselves and him suddenly made the targets of a shower of sticks, snowballs, corn-cobs, and other rubbish, flung at them by a screeching rabble of vagabond boys. [Ibid., 78.]

Yet, while most of the neophytes demanded an anxious and diligent cultivation, there were a few of excellent promise; and of one or two especially, the Fathers, in the fulness of their satisfaction, assure us again and again "that they were savage only in name."

[From June, 1639, to June, 1640, about a thousand persons were baptized. Of these, two hundred and sixty were infants, and many more were children. Very many died soon after baptism. Of the whole number, less than twenty were baptized in health,--a number much below that of the preceding year.

The following is a curious case of precocious piety. It is that of a child at St. Joseph. "Elle n'a que deux ans, et fait joliment le signe de la croix, et prend elle-même de l'eau bénite; et une fois se mit à crier, sortant de la Chapelle, à cause que sa mère qui la portoit ne lui avoit donné le loisir d'en prendre. Il l'a fallu reporter en prendre."--Lettres de Garnier, MSS.]

As the town of Ihonatiria, where the Jesuits had made their first abode, was ruined by the pestilence, the mission established there, and known by the name of St. Joseph, was removed, in the summer of 1638, to Teanaustayé, a large town at the foot of a range of hills near the southern borders of the Huron territory. The Hurons, this year, had had unwonted successes in their war with the Iroquois, and had taken, at various times, nearly a hundred prisoners. Many of these were brought to the seat of the new mission of St. Joseph, and put to death with frightful tortures, though not before several had been converted and baptized. The torture was followed, in spite of the remonstrances of the priests, by those cannibal feasts customary with the Hurons on such occasions. Once, when the Fathers had been strenuous in their denunciations, a hand of the victim, duly prepared, was flung in at their door, as an invitation to join in the festivity. As the owner of the severed member had been baptized, they dug a hole in their chapel, and buried it with solemn rites of sepulture. [Lalemant, Relation des Hurons, 1639, 70.]

1 At the end of the year 1638, there were seven priests who spoke Huron, and three who had begun to learn it.

2 The following passage from the "Divers Sentimens," before cited, will illustrate this point. "Pour conuertir les Sauuages, il n'y faut pas tant de science que de bonté et vertu bien solide. Les quatre Elemens d'vn homme Apostolique en la Nouuelle France sont l'Affabilité, l'Humilité, la Patience et vne Charité genereuse. Le zele trop ardent brusle plus qu'il n'eschauffe, et gaste tout; il faut vne grande magnanimité et condescendance, pour attirer peu à peu ces Sauuages. Ils n'entendent pas bien nostre Theologie, mais ils entendent parfaictement bien nostre humilité et nostre affabilité, et se laissent gaigner."

So too Brébeuf, in a letter to Vitelleschi, General of the Jesuits (see Carayon, 163): "Ce qu'il faut demander, avant tout, des ouvriers destinés à cette mission, c'est une douceur inaltérable et une patience à toute épreuve."

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The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, 1867

Jesuits in North America


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