Jesuits Begin Missionary Activities in New France

Beginning in 1611, Jesuits endured countless hardships and dangers in their attempts to convert and educate the indigenous peoples of Quebec and Acadia (present-day Nova Scotia).

Summary of Event

For more than a century before French Jesuits arrived in Canada, their colleagues from Spain and Portugal had been in the vanguard of missionary activities in Mexico, South America, Asia, and Africa. In the 1570’, a few Spanish Jesuits were even active in Virginia. Inspired by the example set by their colleagues, many Jesuits in France were anxious to contribute to the expansion of Catholicism into non-European cultures. [kw]Jesuits Begin Missionary Activities in New France (1611-1630’)
[kw]New France, Jesuits Begin Missionary Activities in (1611-1630’)
[kw]Missionary Activities in New France, Jesuits Begin (1611-1630’)
Religion and theology;1611-1630’: Jesuits Begin Missionary Activities in New France[0590]
Colonization;1611-1630’: Jesuits Begin Missionary Activities in New France[0590]
Canada;1611-1630’: Jesuits Begin Missionary Activities in New France[0590]
Jesuits;New France
Christianity;Native Americans and

Shortly after French merchants in 1604 opened a trading station at Port Royal Port Royal (American colony) , Acadia, the Jesuit leadership made arrangements to send missionaries to the station. Moreover, as soon as explorer Samuel de Champlain Champlain, Samuel de founded Quebec in 1608, he asked French Jesuits to send missionaries to the small settlement. The Jesuits declined, however, because of their prior commitment to Port Royal. They had good reasons to question the viability of Quebec in any case: Only nine of the twenty-eight original colonists survived the winter of 1608-1609, and Quebec’s first permanent resident, Louis Hébert, would not arrive for another seven years.

In 1611, two Jesuits, Pierre Biard Biard, Pierre and Enemond Massé, Massé, Enemond landed at Port Royal. They were the first two priests in New France proper. Soon, they were joined by other priests of the black gown, Jacques Quentin, Quentin, Jacques Joseph Le Caron Le Caron, Joseph , and Jean Dolbeau Dolbeau, Jean . Because the merchants in Port Royal thought proselytizing efforts were bad for business, the Jesuits moved their mission to Mount Desert Island in nearby Maine. In 1614, before the Jesuits were able to accomplish very much, sixty English soldiers from Virginia, led by Captain Samuel Argall, Argall, Samuel destroyed the settlements of Port Royal and Mount Desert Island. Some of the priests and merchants were set adrift in a boat, while others were taken prisoner and shipped to France. After returning home, Father Biard published an account of the goals and history of the mission, encouraging his fellow Jesuits to return to North America.

During a visit to France in 1614, Champlain asked the Recollect Fathers Recollect Fathers , the most austere branch of the Franciscans, to send missionaries to the region around Quebec. When the Recollects agreed, the sieur de Monts’s Company of Merchants, which possessed a monopoly of the fur trade, contracted to support them. The Estates-General of France also agreed to provide economic assistance.

In 1615, four Recollects—Jean Dolbeau, Joseph Le Caron, Denis Jamet, Jamet, Denis and Pacifique Duplessis Duplessis, Pacifique —arrived in Quebec. Father Dolbeau’s assignment was to the nomadic Montagnais Montagnais Indians of the lower Saint Lawrence River, Le Caron chose to labor among the semisedentary Hurons Hurons in the region of Georgian Bay (in present-day Ontario), and the other two “gray friars” stayed in Quebec Quebec;Franciscans and , ministering to the colonists and Native Americans who entered the village. Soon, additional Recollects arrived, including Gabriel Sagard Sagard, Gabriel , the first true historian of New France. In 1619, a group of Recollects attempted missionary activities in Acadia, but after a series of disasters, they were forced to abandon this project in 1624.

Missionaries in New France faced immense problems, including the disruptions of intertribal warfare, the necessity of learning unwritten languages, and considerable hostility from French traders. Even more, most Indians were firmly committed to their traditional religions, and they were not prepared to accept Christian principles of sexual morality. After a decade in Canada, the Recollects had little to show for their work. Clearly, they had not been prepared for the gargantuan undertaking. In addition to a lack of resources, they had almost no experience in dealing with alien cultures. The powerful Jesuit order, in contrast, could benefit from its long record of building foreign missions. Acknowledging the need for help, the Recollects in 1624 invited the Jesuits to send missionaries as soon as possible.

In April, 1625, three Jesuit priests—Enemond Massé, Charles Lalemant, Lalemant, Charles and the future Saint Jean de Brébeuf Brébeuf, Saint Jean de —arrived in Quebec. More than the Recollects, they recognized the importance of adopting the Indian lifestyle and learning native languages. Brébeuf’s residence among the Hurons became a model for later missions. Rather than emphasizing differences between Christianity and Indian religions, the Jesuits concentrated on their spiritual similarities. Most of the Jesuits’ efforts were directed at the Montagnais, Algonquians Algonquians , and Hurons. Their relationship to these tribes brought them into conflict with the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederation. Believing that the presence of French Protestants (Huguenots) hindered their work, the Jesuits delegated Father Lalemant to go to France and convince the government of the need for religious uniformity among the settlers. Before he could return, however, the English conquered Quebec in 1629, which ended Jesuit missions for the next three years.

In the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye (1632) Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Treaty of (1632)[Saint Germain en Laye, Treaty of (1632)] , however, France regained sovereignty over Quebec and Acadia. Under Cardinal de Richelieu Richelieu, Cardinal de;Jesuits , the French government gave the Jesuits a monopoly over the religious affairs of both settlers and Indians. That summer, the new Jesuit superior for Quebec, Paul Le Jeune, Le Jeune, Paul arrived with several of his associates. A steady stream of Jesuit missionaries soon followed.

Le Jeune initiated the writing of annual reports, called the Relations, which for forty years stimulated great interest in the mother country and helped bring forth a steady stream of donations and new missionaries. Under his leadership, the Jesuits continued to live among the Indians, learning their languages and cultures. The Jesuits, however, had already learned the futility of trying to make long-term converts of nomadic individuals, so they wished to promote a sedentary way of life among Native Americans. To accomplish this goal, the Jesuits decided that it was necessary to instruct Indians in agricultural skills. They also recognized the importance of educating young people during their impressionable years. In 1635, the Jesuits founded a college in Quebec. Two years later, they established a village reserved for Christian Indians in nearby Sillery. Within a few years, they were operating similar missions in Three Rivers and elsewhere. Education;New France


During the seventeenth century, the Jesuits were the most energetic and successful group of missionaries in North America North America;Jesuits . Although they converted a relatively small percentage of the indigenous peoples, many of these converts and their children, especially among the Hurons, remained committed to Catholicism. An unknown number married French settlers and became assimilated into the colonial society. Even in the twenty-first century, descendants of Native Americans continue to live in communities that can be traced back to the Jesuit missions.

The Jesuits’ missionary activities and devotion to social services profoundly influenced the subsequent political and cultural life of Quebec. For several centuries, the population of the province was recognized for its piety and firm commitment to the Catholic Church. To some extent, this development can be traced back to the devotion and sacrifices of the 115 Jesuit missionaries of the seventeenth century.

The works of the Jesuits are significant for secular as well as religious reasons. Their knowledge and transcription of Indian languages played an important role in the development of the French empire in North America. Modern historians recognize, moreover, that Jesuit ethnographic writings are among the best sources of knowledge about seventeenth century Native American culture.

Further Reading

  • Axtell, James. Invasion Within: The Context of Cultures in Colonial North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Argues that in contrast to English settlers, the Jesuits’ commitment to conversion caused them to learn to appreciate indigenous ways of life.
  • Donnelly, Joseph. Jean de Brébeuf, 1594-1649. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1976. Detailed study of the celebrated Jesuit martyr who was canonized as a saint.
  • Francis, R. Douglas, Richard Jones, and Donald Smith. Origins: Canadian History to Confederation. Toronto: Harcourt Canada, 2001. Includes a helpful summary of the Jesuits’ influences within the context of Canadian history.
  • Grant, John W. Moon of Wintertime: Missionaries and the Indians of Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984. An interesting account emphasizing the cultural differences between the Europeans and American Indians.
  • Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975. Highly critical of all colonial missionaries as espousing “conquest religions,” but Jennings acknowledges the Jesuits’ curiosity and knowledge of indigenous cultures.
  • Moore, James T. Indians and Jesuits: A Seventeenth Century Encounter. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1982. An interesting summary, taking a favorable view of the Jesuits and emphasizing their empathetic approach to American Indian cultures.
  • Morision, Samuel Eliot. Samuel de Champlain: Father of New France. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972. A standard work that includes information about Champlain’s support of missionary activities.
  • Roustang, François, ed. An Autobiography of Martyrdom: Spiritual Writings of the Jesuits in New France. Bruges, Belgium: B. Herder, 1964. Select writings by Brébeuf, Le Jeune, and others with perceptive historical analysis.
  • Thwaites, Reuben, ed. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610-1791. 73 vols. New York: Pageant, 1959. A massive and extremely valuable collection of original documents. The first three volumes have good introductions that summarize the early missionary efforts of the Recollects and Jesuits.
  • Wright, Jonathan. God’s Soldiers: A History of the Jesuits. New York: Doubleday, 2004. Chronicles the story of the religious order, with an emphasis on its work in education and foreign missions.

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