Mary Beth Writes

Happy All Saints Day.

Today (though it will probably be yesterday by the time I get this written) we are going to discuss Catholic missionary types who proselytized Mississippi watershed country in the mid-to-late 1600’s.

Why on earth are we doing this? Because I read this essay: “The Terms of Encounter: Language and Contested Visions of French Colonization in the Illinois Country, 1673-1702” written by Robert Michael Morrissey, https://history.illinois.edu/directory/profile/rmorriss who teaches history at U of Illinois/Champaign Urbana. His essay is in “French and Indians in the Heart of North America, 1630-1815”, edited by Robert Englebert and Guillaume Teasdale.

I have been trying to write this essay for weeks. It is not THAT complicated, but there are so many twists and turns that I had to read most of another book. “Old Man River, the Mississippi River in North American History” by Paul Schneider. This book is very cool and I recommend it; Schneider intersperses the geology and history of the Mississippi watershed with anecdotes about kayaking the river with his son.  He also has a line about masturbating bears, but I bet (hope) that was a typo.

So… Why? Why would anyone go nuts about proselytizing styles of missionary priests 300 years ago?

Because it has so much to a do with this nation’s persistent, ugly, ridiculous xenophobia. That’s why.

Jacques Marquette was born in 1637; at 17 he joined the Jesuits. He studied two years and then taught while continuing to study until he was 27. 

A word about Jesuits at that time; unlike most other Catholic traditions, they believed in Christ AND education. You could be an Officially Religious person (priest, nun, or monk) within one year; to be Jesuit took two years - of disciplined study. Jesuits modeled themselves on the military; Ignatius of Loyola had been a soldier until he was wounded and had months recuperating in bed to invent the Society of Jesus. Jesuits wore black robes, lived disciplined lives, and went where they were told - which in many cases was to nations and peoples not yet touched by the Christian preaching. 

This was the Jesuit missionary M.O. Send a guy to a place where there were no or very few Christians.  Live in the community, listen to and learn whatever new language/s needed to be learned, make a dictionary for those who would come later.  Participate in the rituals, ceremonies, and culture of the people.  Dress in ways that were similar to the host community. After the Jesuit begins to understand the host’s language enough to speak it, THEN  begin talking about Jesus and God; weave Christian theology into whatever spirituality already exists in that culture and community.

By 30 Marquette was sent to the New World of New France (eastern end of Canada). He spent two years learning native languages while living in villages between Quebec and Montreal. After those years he was expert enough to be sent further into the wilderness - he canoed to and lived in Algonquian villages at Sault Ste. Marie, at St Ignace (across the straights from Mackinaw Island), and La Point (an island just off Ashland, Wisconsin). He spent the most of his time and energy starting a mission at St. Ignace. He created a French-Algonquian dialects dictionary that would be used for decades.

In 1673 he was granted permission by King Louis the 14th in France and Governor Frontenac in Quebec to search for and explore the Mississippi River. White men in power all over Europe were looking for explorers who could map and claim North America … paying no attention to the fact that it was already inhabited.  So sure, Father Marquette could go look for the Mississippi – and while he was at it he should turn the “heathens” into obedient French subjects.

Officials assigned Louis Joliet to go with Marquette, (as well as canoes manned by Indian-French ‘metis’ voyageurs). Coincidence here; Joliet had been born and raised in Quebec and at 17 he too went to Jesuit school. However at 20 Joliet decided the pious life wasn’t for him and became a fur trader instead.  Fur traders in 17th century were like Wall Street brokers now - smart, savvy, risk-taking, and ambitious money-chasers.  

Marquette and Joliet set out mid-May 1673 from St. Ignace. They paddled to a fur-trading fort at Green Bay where Indians there told them they could navigate the Fox River to a portage place (now called Portage, Hi Judy!) where they could slide onto the Wisconsin River. Float down the Wisconsin River to what would one day be Prairie du Chien (Hi Pat and Dick!). Now they were on the mighty Mississippi. They stopped when they came to river-side Indian villages. Native Americans generally welcomed them with food and pipe smoking - a peace pipe was called a calumet. (Hi Jennifer!) After the first village gave a peace pipe to Marquette, he could lift it into the air when they slid into other villages. A calumet was an extraordinarily helpful safe-passage passport in Illinois country.

Their adventures were scary and many, but Marquette and Joliet made it to 100 miles south of modern Memphis, whereupon they turned around and paddled back UP the Mississippi. They learned from the locals that they could navigate the Illinois River up to a portage place at what is now Chicago. Then up Lake Michigan and back to St. Ignace.

In 1674 – the following year - Marquette returned to the Illinois peoples along the Mississippi. He wanted to start another mission. By 1677 he was in such poor health from dysentery that he decided it was time to return to St. Ignace. He died along the way on the cove side of a dune in my hometown, Ludington, Michigan.  I would stare out my 3rd floor Sunday school classroom at the Pere Marquette cross high on that dune across the harbor. I didn’t know what I thought about him. I did think that when he was dying along that sandy finger of land … he was a man far from home.

The year after he died, native people from St. Ignace canoed 200 miles back to Ludington, dug up his bones and carried Father Marquette back to the mission he had founded. Back to where they missed him, which was his home.

France (like most European nations back then) was greedy to colonize and exploit the New World. They wanted “ignorant savages” to be turned into proper subjects of the king; they also wanted those native people to do the work of pillaging their own resources while the royals piled up the wealth. The French sent some explorers and as well they gave licenses/permission to Catholic missionaries to travel to Illinois Country. The missionaries were instructed to find the “natives” and turn them into Catholics who would obey their king and send their riches back to him.

That’s how most French Jesuit missionaries got sent to new places. They got permission and financial support from the King and off they went. They were passionate about converting “lost souls”. As their founder Ignatius had instructed them – the mission was to know people, figure out their language, live with them – and then preach Christianity into the parlance of the people with whom they lived.

So 1.)Tell the king that your passion was to convert souls. 2.) Let the king think you meant to do that cheap and fast. 3.) Get to the far-flung place and hunker down for the long haul of living and preaching Christ and church in a crazy, wild, beautiful place far from France and king.

Jesuits held to a theology that instructed them, against great odds, to find the spirituality in people that was already there. Bring Jesus to that spirituality. Allow the mercy of Jesus’ teachings to work in the people’s lives.  

Yeah, right. As if waiting for grace to work was ever going to fill a king’s coffers.

The rest of this story is shorter (because I don’t know it nearly as well). There were plenty of other priests and missionaries from other orders of Catholicism.  The Franciscans sent many religious persons to New France / Illinois Country. These were also good and intrepid men and women. But they were less devoted to their own educations.  They were not determined to learn the languages of Indian tribes and nations.  They believed Christianity could be imparted by coercing unsuspecting people into strange rituals with a cross and maybe some water for fast, misunderstood baptisms. Teach proper Latin or French prayers to these people who had no clue what they were saying and boom, now they were subjects of Mother Church and Father France.  Punish Indian children who couldn’t pronounce French prayers correctly. They saw Indians as brutes with no sensitivity or soul.

Father Hennepin was one of these men. He risked greatly, suffered, traveled widely in Indian lands, and renamed St Anthony Falls along what would one day be Minneapolis.

The governor back in Quebec was pleased.  Hennepin and others were sending back reports of proper missions with proper churches, bells, houses and converts.  Any day now, the royals thought, they’d be able to get those far-flung Indian people to bring in more furs, new minerals, maybe caches of gold and silver, along with knowledge of the river that must exist that would take them to China.

Jesuits spread their religion by living among people until they somewhat understood them. Jesuits were not 21st century liberals, but they were men who were passionate to preach their understanding of spirituality.

Hennepin, as a representat6ive of SO MANY other religious men and women who would come to North America – believed that Christianity equaled proper nationalism and that Indians would never be as good as the French, but the job was to get them to try.

For what it says– when Marquette died the Indians from St Ignace paddled their canoes 200 miles to find his bones and then another 200 miles to bring him home. That is an undertaking of people who loved and revered the one who is gone.

Hennepin was captured by Indians for several months, rescued by a fur trader, and ended up his life in obscurity in a monastery back in Europe after folks found out some of his claims were lies.

 

This nation was built out of the strife, exploitation, murder, deceit, and injustice that happened when Europeans pushed themselves into Native nations and cultures.

This nation was also built out of intersection, of learned and shared skills, of maps, tools, machines that were shared between women and men who had so much to give each other.

We are inheritors of those who slowed down, paid attention, and looked for the spirit in each other. We are also the inheritors of those who thought they already knew everything worth knowing, who acted with arrogance, disrespect and violence.

Calling others brutes, monsters, rapists and criminals is not a new strategy.  It’s ugly and it isn’t done yet.  

Comments

Leonard's picture

I have known Jesuits and Franciscans, and this is not how I imagined them. But, I understand what you are saying, and I can see how these different perspectives could have played out by the two different types. And, I can see that there are plenty of people today who can only judge people by how much they act like them. Alas.

I worry about the future (present) of our country when I think about the atrocities that were committed to create our "good nation." Our for-bearers harmed the people and they also harmed the land. Here in CT, there is a distinct sense on the part of sensitive people that our land is hurting. You can actually feel it if you try. One teacher/healer I talked to suggested healing your relationship with YOUR land (in other words, don't take on the entirety of the state/country!). I liked this philosophy and I try to keep it in mind when I take my 20 minute nature walks in the mornings.
Mary Beth's picture

I like this. Vote and walk and pay attention.

I did laugh when u warned me about your new posting was about the 1600’s. Very interesting and stuff I haven’t thought about (prob ever). I admire your writing!
Mary Beth's picture

Anyone who reads about 16th century Catholic missionary styles - WHILE flying to Florida on vacation - is a BFF... Thanks!

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