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On The Banks Of The Isaraqui (Wye) River

Wendake ("the land apart") was the ancestral homeland of the Huron Wendat nation, a branch of the Iroquoian family. The Wendat were a matrilineal society of skilled traders and farmers. Following the trail of French explorer Samuel de Champlain, French Jesuit priests arrived in Wendake early in the 17th century. An international order, the Jesuits operated like an army, dedicated to spreading Catholicism throughout the world. They believed that the first step in converting a person to Christianity was to educate him.

The Jesuits established themselves in Wendake. They travelled from village to village, learning the Wendat language and customs, and preaching to the Native people. Their Superior, Father Jérome Lalemant, dreamed of "building a house apart, remote from the vicinity of the villages, that would serve among other things for the retreat and meditation of our evangelistic labourers."

Courageous laymen travelled from France to build a mission on the banks of the Isaraqui (Wye) River in 1639. It was named Sainte-Marie among the Hurons. Huron is the French name for Wendat. Hard work and dedication soon brought Sainte-Marie to virtual self-sufficiency, an impressive achievement for a community 1,200 kilometres from Quebec. It was to last only 10 years.

In the 17th century, the land we know as Canada was New France. The population numbered in the low hundreds, and most of the people lived along the Saint Lawrence River, their livelihood based on fish, furs and fledgling agriculture. We know the story of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons from the annual reports written by the Superior at Sainte-Marie. The reports, known as the Jesuit Relations, were sent to France via Quebec.

Wooden palisades interrupted by stone bastions rise up from the shores of the Wye River in Midland, Ontario. To the casual observer, it looks like a military fort, one of many 18th and 19th century frontier fortifications found across North America. In truth, this structure is unique: Sainte-Marie among the Hurons was a mission established by black-robed Jesuit priests to convert the local native populace to Christianity, the only one of its kind remaining (though, naturally, recreated for modern visitors). Though the mission lasted a mere decade, it was the first European settlement in Ontario and was the stage upon which one of the most fascinating dramas in Canadian history unfolded.

The Society of Jesus was founded in Paris in 1534 by Saint Ignatius Loyola, a Spanish soldier who underwent a profound religious experience while recovering from serious wounds. Loyola called the society "The Company of Jesus" to indicate its military spirit. The order was authorized in September 1540 to ordain its members. The name "Jesuits" (meaning those who too frequently use or appropriate the name of Jesus) was initially used against the order as a term of reproach, but in time was accepted by its members.

Spurred by the inspira-tional writings of their founder and unswerving in their obedi-ence to the papacy, the Jesuits quickly became known as the schoolmasters of Europe - teaching not only the tenets of the Catholic faith, but also varied subjects. The Jesuits' mission was to teach people "the way into heaven" and they declared themselves "ready to die for the honor of our good Lord and for the salvation of these poor people." They weren't satisfied with spreading their tenets in Europe, and actively sought to spread the teaching of Christianity throughout the world.

Armed with comprehensive education, utter devotion to their faith and rigorous discipline, the Jesuits were well-suited to mission work in the New World. In the native nations of New France, missionaries saw peoples long separated from God - a situation they wished to remedy by converting them to Christian-ity. The Jesuits were more than willing to endure hardships and even shed their own blood in order to bring these lost souls back to God.

The First Jesuits came to New France as missionaries in 1611. Pierre Biard and Enemond Masse arrived at Port Royal on 22 May 1611. Masse was driven out of Acadia by the English, but was among the first group of Jesuits who arrived at Quebec in June 1625. With him were Charles Lalemant, Jean de Brebeuf, and two lay brothers. As soon as the Jesuits arrived in the young colony of Quebec they began casting their gaze further afield to the heavily forested interior of what is now Ontario and the native Huron (Wendat) tribe that lived there along the shores of Georgian Bay. The Huron were a powerful ally of the French and a counter-balance to the English-allied Iro-quois people of present-day New York State. They were also well situated for trade with the French, and acted as middlemen with other tribes. As a consequence of this rela-tionship, the Jesuit's zeal to spread the word of God soon brought black-robed priests deep into Huronia, some 800 miles west of Quebec.

The first missionary work began in 1626, and initial suc-cesses led to increased efforts over the following years. The Huron's sedentary lifestyle was deemed favorable to mis-sionary efforts because it would enable the construction of permanent missions (previ-ous experiences had demon-strated the difficulties of working with nomadic peo-ples). In fact, contact was so frequent and prospects of con-verting the Huron deemed favorable enough that within a decade, religious authorities felt they had to have a perma-nent base there. As a result, in 1639, Jesuit missionaries estab-lished a substantial fortified mission in the center of the Huron's domain, which they called Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, in honor of the Virgin Mary. From here, several other missions were established nearby.

Despite being located in the midst of dense wilderness, hundreds of miles away from the nearest European commu-nity in Montreal and sur-rounded by suspicious, occasionally even hostile natives, the fort quickly pros-pered and its population grew. Sainte-Marie developed into a remarkably well fortified com-pound featuring as many as a dozen structures, some made of stone, all surrounded by sturdy stockades. By 1648, Sainte-Marie was home to more than 60 priests, soldiers and craftsmen, representing one-fifth of the European population of New France (the name by which the French knew their colony in Canada).

The Jesuits were more than just missionaries. They were skilled linguists and ethnographers, who learned aboriginal languages and customs, devel-oped dictionaries and gram-mars, translated and preserved much of the history and tradi-tion of the Hurons in their doc-uments. The most famous of these documents are the Jesuit Relations, which includes details of their missions and activities. The Jesuits are also underappreciated today for their role in exploring North America while searching for new tribes to contact and con-vert. Perhaps the most accom-plished Jesuit explorer was Isaac Jogues.

Although the mission was growing and was proving suc-cessful in converting some Huron to the Christian faith, troubles were brewing like a dark cloud on the horizon. The French brought deadly epidemics of influenza, measles, and smallpox to the native population which had no immunity to these foreign bacteria and was consequently ravaged by successive epidemics. It's estimated that the number of Huron was halved within a decade as a result of disease. Partly as a result of these outbreaks, clashes of culture between Natives and the French, who were blamed for bringing illness with them, and in many eyes, were viewed as sorcerers for their alien ways, grew more intense. Worse of all, at this very moment of festering instability, traditional animosities between the Huron and the Iroquois of present-day New York State were resurfacing. Weakened by disease, the Huron were almost powerless to resist when their ancestral enemies invaded.

In July of 1648, the Jesuit mission of St. Joseph was destroyed by an Iroquois war band. Father Antoine Daniel, a Jesuit missionary, was killed alongside many Huron. The following year, on 16 March 1649, the Iroquois attacked the village of Saint Louis, killing hundreds of Huron and cap-turing Father Jean de Brebeuf and Father Gabriel Lalmant. The two missionaries were tortured to death in the most brutal of fashions. It is believed that the Iroquois dragged their suffering out over a number of days to better savor the experience, and that the blood-curdling screams of the priests could be heard echoing night and day through the forests. When a Huron counter-attack successfully drove the Iroquois from the region, the French retrieved the remains of the two priests and buried them in the church at Sainte-Marie.

By now, the Huron nation was teetering on the brink of collapse. Rather than await the assault they knew was sure to come, and against which they had little defense, the inhabi-tants of Sainte-Marie aban-doned the mission and burned it to the ground to prevent its desecration. In the words of Father Paul Ragueneau, "we ourselves set fire to it, and beheld burn before our eyes, and in less than one hour, our work of nine or ten years." Prior to abandoning Sainte-Marie, the Jesuits exhumed the bodies of Fathers Brebeuf and Lalmant; the bones were taken as sacred relics, but the flesh of both men was re-interred in a single coffin and buried once more beneath the church, remaining there to this day.

Together with hundreds of friendly Huron, the Jesuits retreated to St. Joseph's Island (modern-day Christian Island) on Georgian Bay, where Sainte-Marie II - little more than a four-cornered stone bas-tion - was hastily established. Without a friendly population on which to rely for support, Sainte-Marie II was doomed to failure. Starvation claimed many during the harsh winter months, and any who crossed the ice to the mainland in order to hunt faced being killed by roving Iroquois war bands. By springtime, the inhabitants of Sainte-Marie II were despondent and sickly. Realizing they had little choice in the matter, the Jesuits aban-doned the new mission and, together with a few hundred Christian Huron, returned to Quebec. They never returned, and in time, the wilderness claimed the fire-blackened ruins of Sainte-Marie.

Sainte-Marie was abandoned, but never really forgotten by the Jesuits. In 1844, Father Pierre Chazelle returned to Huronia and conducted the initial site excavations, fol-lowed by more extensive exca-vations by Father Felix Martin in 1855. It wasn't until a century later in 1954, during major excavations conducted by Wilfred and Elsie Jury of the University of Western Ontario, that the grave of Father Jean de Brebeuf was discovered.

Recognizing the historic importance and potential tourist appeal of Sainte-Marie, starting in 1964, the Ontario Government, in cooperation with the Society of Jesus and the University of Western Ontario, undertook an ambi-tious site reconstruction. The gates of the mission swung open in March 1967, transporting people who passed through them more than 300 years into Ontario's past. Sainte-Marie among the Hurons quickly became one of the province's premier histori-cal tourist attractions. One of the reconstructed Sainte-Marie's highlights came in 1984, when Pope John Paul II visited the park to honor the eight Jesuits martyred in North America, all of whom were canonized by Pope Pius XI on 29 June 1930.

Sainte-Marie among the Hurons serves as a reminder of the historic significance of Huronia, of the first European settlement in Ontario, and of the important Jesuit contribu-tion to the province's develop-ment. Beginning with promise and piety, but ending a decade later in bloodshed and flames, the Sainte-Marie story is equal parts uplifting and tragic. Perhaps that's what makes it so compelling, even some 400-years later.

Andrew Hind. Sainte-Marie among the Hurons: A Tragic History. History Magazine. February/March 2006.


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