Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
January 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


The Jesuits of Canada


The Society of Jesus was founded by Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish nobleman, in 1534. Wounded while defending Pampluna against the French in 1521, Ignatius retired to convalesce in his castle of Loyola . There his confinement forced him to think of more serious things than the military glory which had hitherto filled his mind. On his recovery, he decided to devote himself to God's service. After some years of study and preparation, he founded with a few companions the religious order to which he gave the name "Society of Jesus", and the motto Ad majorem Dei gloriam (To the greater glory of God). The order spread rapidly throughout Europe, and from its earliest years devoted itself to foreign missions. Before the first Jesuits landed in Canada in 1611, the great apostle, St. Francis Xavier, had traversed vast tracts of India and had preached the Gospel in Japan ; other Jesuit missionaries had entered Ethiopia, had penetrated to the court of the Great Mogul, and had founded the Reductions in Paraguay .


It was in keeping with the missionary zeal of the order that Fathers Biard and Masse should have sailed for New France as early as 1611. They landed in Port Royal to preach the gospel to the Indians living near the bay of Fundy. But the opposition of Biencourt, the acting-governor of Port Royal, and the attack on the mission and capture of the missionaries by Argall, an English raider from Virginia, put an early end to the mission. In 1625 the Jesuits returned to Canada, this time in answer to an appeal from the Recollet friars, who were not numerous enough to cope with the difficulties of the Indian missions. Fathers Masse, Brébeuf, and Charles Lalemant landed at Quebec, and began work among the Montagnais of that region. As soon as it was possible, Brébeuf set out for Huronia, that part of Ontario which stretches north to the Georgian bay between lake Simcoe and the Nottawasaga river. Except for occasional trips to Quebec and his enforced absence from the country for a few years after Quebec had fallen to the English in 1629, Brébeuf remained in Huronia till his death in 1648. Among others who joined him there were Ragueneau, LeMoyne, Jogues, who was put to death by the Mohawks in 1646 in what is now New York state, and Brébeuf's companion in martyrdom, Jerôme Lalemant. In spite of the suspicions of the Hurons, who blamed all their misfortunes on the missionaries, and despite the horrors of living the life of the savages, the missionaries persevered in their work of evangelization. They established their headquarters on the river Wye near the present town of Midland, building a small fort which they called Fort Ste. Marie, the ruins of which still exist. They had hoped that this centre would be the beginning of a series of Reductions such as their brethren had founded in Paraguay, but the Iroquois, who had long been threatening Huronia, invaded the country in 1648, destroyed the missions and frustrated the hopes of the missionaries. Brébeuf and Lalemant were put to death after hideous tortures, and Father Daniel was slain and thrown into his burning chapel. The Jesuits, finding their flock dispersed, moved Fort Ste. Marie to Christian island, about twenty miles distant. This new centre, strongly fortified against Iroquois attacks, was intended to serve the Petun, nation; but the following year (1649) the Iroquois again raided the settlements. Father Garnier was shot and tomahawked as he was giving absolution to his dying neophytes, and Father Chabanel was slain by an apostate Huron. Disease and famine added to the misery of the Hurons; and to preserve the remnants of the nation, the priests were forced to abandon their island fortress and to return to Quebec . The Huron mission was ended.


In the meantime, the Jesuits were consolidating their work in Quebec. A college was founded there in 1635, and the missionaries began to go further afield along the banks of the St. Lawrence to Three Rivers and Montreal , where churches were built and centres of spiritual activity founded. Abortive attempts to reach Hudson 's bay were finally crowned with success when Father Albanel reached its shores in 1670. But the enmity of the English and the hatchet of the assassin made the continuance of the mission impossible. In 1642 Father Jogues, while returning to Quebec from Fort Ste. Marie, was captured by Iroquois and taken to the Mohawk country. There he was tortured for a year, till the Dutch at Fort Orange enabled him to escape to Europe. He soon returned to Canada, and finding the Mohawks willing to be the allies of the French, he set out from Quebec to establish a mission amongst them. After a short visit he returned again; but the temper of the Mohawks had changed. They seized Jogues and his companion, La Lande, tortured them for some months, and finally slew there. It was some years before the Jesuits could gain any converts among the warlike and fickle Iroquois, and then only at the constant risk of their lives.


As time went on, the Jesuits pushed their mission outposts further and further west. In 1660 they began the evangelization of the Ottawa, a term covering the numerous tribes lying in the region west of lake Huron to the Mississippi and north of the Ohio river. The most famous missionary was Father Marquette, who set out with the explorer Jolliet to discover if the Mississippi was. a passage to the Pacific and so to the Far East. They went down the Mississippi as far as its confluence with the Arkansas before returning. Marquette died on the way home, but not before he had preached the gospel to many friendly tribes along the route. From their headquarters in Sault Ste. Marie, the missionaries continued the work Marquette had begun.


In the eighteenth century the Jesuits turned their eyes to the far West, and in 1731 Father Mesaiger in company with La Vérendrye and a small party crossed lake Superior, went up the Kaministikwia river, made a portage till they reached the Rainy river, and so on to the lake of the Woods, where Fort St. Charles was built. Father Aulneau, who had replaced Father Mesaiger, was slain a few years later by a band of Sioux warriors while on his way east for provisions. Later Father Coquart went as far as the shores of lake Winnipeg. All these missions were carried on under the greatest difficulties, for besides the immorality and the indifference, if not the utter .hostility, of the Indians themselves, there was the greed of the fur-traders and government officials, who cared little enough for the welfare of the Indians, provided they could buy their furs for cheap brandy and make a fortune for themselves.


In the midst of their labours, the missionaries still found time to write that mass of material on the history, condition, and character of the natives, which is known as the Jesuit Relations. These were letters written to Superiors in Europe, not necessarily (though they often were) intended for publication. They were begun by Father Biard in 1616, and continued more or less regularly till 1672. In the following year, to prevent further disputes over the Malabar rites, Clement X forbade the publication of books concerning the missions without the consent of Propaganda. Parkman says of the Relations that the closest examination had left him in no doubt that "the Relations hold a high place as authentic and trustworthy documents". He praises the Jesuits of the seventeenth century for having used their unrivalled opportunities of studying Indian superstitions "in a spirit of faithful inquiry, accumulating facts and leaving theory to their successors". Thwaites is no less emphatic: "The authors of the journals which formed the basis of the Relations were for the most part men of trained intellect, acute observers, and practised in the art of keeping records of their experiences.The Jesuits performed a great service to mankind in publishing their annals, which are for the historian, geographer, and ethnologist, among our first and best authorities." Indeed, men who had to write under such appalling conditions as faced these missionaries could have no motive for telling anything but the truth. Thus Father Bressani writes to the Father General: "I do not know if your Paternity will recognize the handwriting of one whom you once knew very well. The letter is soiled and ill-written, because the writer has only one finger of his right hand left entire, and cannot prevent the blood from his wounds, which are still open, from staining the paper. His ink is gunpowder mixed with water, and his table is the earth."


Even if the English after the conquest in 1760 had not forbidden the Jesuits to recruit new subjects, the suppression of the Society of Jesus by Clement XIV in 1773 would have meant the death-blow to the Jesuit missions in Canada. As it was, the long line of missionaries came to a close with the death of Father Casot in 1800.


The Society of Jesus was restored in 1814 by Pius VII. In 1842 Mgr. Bourget, the bishop of Montreal, requested that some Jesuits be sent to work in his diocese. Once more the Jesuits set sail from France. Six priests arrived in Montreal, and were given the parish of Laprairie, on the south bank of the St. Lawrence opposite the city, by the parish priest Father Power, who was leaving to become first bishop of Toronto. In a few years the Jesuits moved to Montreal, where they opened St. Mary's College. Their subsequent history is a record, in the main uneventful, of slow and steady progress. The lack of English subjects amongst them hampered their growth in Upper Canada. Thus two or three invitations to open a college in Toronto had to be refused; an attempt to man Regiopolis College in Kingston lasted only a year (1849). Other priests arrived on the Canadian Mission, Polish, Austrian, Swiss, French; but their numbers were small for the size of the vast territory they covered. Parishes and schools were founded in Chatham, Sandwich, and Guelph ; and from these centres the priests went out to minister to the Catholics in the surrounding districts, going as far north as Georgian bay. The country was still a missionary one; but as time went on and more parishes were erected, the Jesuits ceded the parish work in great part to the secular clergy and continued their missionary work further north and west. The Indian missions were re-established, and to date extend from Georgian bay to James bay on the north and along lake Superior to the west.


Bishop Power died in 1847. The Pope appointed as his successor in the see of Toronto a Jesuit working on the Canadian Mission, Father Larkin, a former classmate of Cardinal Wiseman in England. The brief of nomination had been given him, but the bishop-elect begged to be freed from the responsibility of the office, and Pius IX acceded to his request.


After many years of debate, Honoré Mercier, prime minister of Quebec and a former pupil of the Jesuits in Montreal, succeeded in passing through the provincial legislature in 1888 the famous Jesuits Estates Bill, which partly indemnified the Society for the properties confiscated by the British Crown after the cession of Canada. The Jesuits received a part only of the $400,000 voted, the rest being divided between Laval University, the Catholic bishops, and the Protestant Board of Education.


The Society of Jesus is composed of "Provinces", named after the countries where the members of each Province live. In 1924 the Province of Canada was divided into the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada , the former working among the English-speaking Catholics of the Dominion, the latter among the French Catholics. The Lower Canada Province, the more numerous, has three colleges in Montreal , besides two houses of study for its own members, colleges in Quebec , Gaspé, Sudbury , St. Boniface, and Edmonton. It serves the Iroquois mission at Caughnawaga, and has an extensive mission in China. The Upper Canada Province has colleges in Montreal (Loyola), Kingston (Regiopolis), Winnipeg, and Regina, as well as the Indian missions in Ontario and parishes in Port Arthur, Winnipeg, and Vancouver . It also has charge of the shrine of the Jesuit martyrs near old Fort Ste. Marie, which is visited every summer by 100,000 pilgrims from Canada and the United States. Its novitiate at Guelph was raided during the war by military police. The raid resulted in a Royal Commission, which completely exonerated the Jesuits from the charge of harbouring "slackers". Both Provinces are actively engaged in phases of social welfare work, in preaching popular missions and giving closed retreats to the laity. They number to date 926 members, of which 333 are priests, 431 scholastics or students for the priesthood, and 162 lay-brothers.


See R. G. Thwaites (ed.), The Jesuit Relations and allied documents (73 vols., Cleveland, 1896-1901), C. Martin, Relations des jésuites (Quebec, 1859), G. M. Shea, History of Catholic missions among the Indians (New York, 1855), C. de Rochemonteix, Les Jésuites et la Nouvelle France (Paris, 1895), F. Parkman, The Jesuits in North America (Boston, 1868), T. G. Marquis, The Jesuit missions (Toronto, 1915), and R. Lecompte, Les jésuites du Canada au xixme siècle (Montreal, 1920).


Source : W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. III, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 396p., pp. 297-301.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College