French Jesuit Missions


"French Jesuit priests took up residence in Indian country and shared the lifestyle of their hosts. Unlike their gray-robed Recollect predecessors, the Jesuit Black Robes did not insist that Indians be remade into French pesons before then into Christians. The contrast between English Puritans and French Jesuits was not lost on the Abenakis.

An Indian oral tradition suggests French missionaries may have been active in Abenaki villages on the shores of Lake Champlain as early as 1615. When the French built fort St. Anne on Isle la Motte in 1666, they also established a mission there. They had a thriving mission on Lake Champlain by 1682 and, in 1700, built the first Catholic church in Vermont, overlooking the Missisquoi River. There was a short-lived French mission at Mount Desert on the coast of Main in 1614; Jesuits established a mission on the Kennebec in 1646; Capuchins began another at the mouth of the Penobscot in 1648; and one of the oldest Catholic cemeteries in New England, dating from 1688, is located in Penobscot country on Indian Island. The French had a mission among the Cowasuck on the upper Connecticut before 1713. Jesuit teachings reached south across the dawnland to the villages of the Sokokis and Pennacooks, and French missions on the banks of the St. Lawrence atttraced refugees and converts from New England in genral and Abenaki country in particular. Jesuit priests traveled into the heart of Abenaki country, built chapels and churches, and decorated them with the paraphernalia of their religion. They administered the sacraments in Indian villages across the dawnland and often functioned as military and political agents of the French Crown as well as servants of God (although the Penobscot chief, Loran, assured Governor Belcher of Massachusetts that the French priests "don't leas us to war, but show us the Way to Heaven").

French mssionaries made heroic sacrifices in their campaign to win converts and save souls. Traveling alone into Indian country and making their abofes in Indian villages, they had to adapt to Indian ways. Some, like Father Sebastien Rasles, became almost totally immersed in Indian culture. They lived in Indian lodges, ate Indian food, and traveled the seasonal round by canoe and snowshoe. They learned the native language, adapted their messages to suit Indian oratorical styles, and behaved as much as possible according to Indian protocol and cultural expectations. Indifferent to the Indians' lands, women, and furs, they won respect by their poverty, their humility, their courage, and their apparent immunity to the devastating new diseases that left the shamans powerless. They shared the Indians' lives and earned their trust, even though their missionary calling required them to undermine Indian culture, promote divisions within the community, discredit established religious leaders, and initiate social and spiritual revolution. Father Jacques Bigot remarked that he functioned n a shamanistic role among the Abenakis. Arriving in time of cataclysmic change, Jesuit priests "helped the Abenakis to bridge teh procontact and postcontact worlds." They functioned as intermediaries between Indian and European society, sometimes representing the Abenakis in conferences with the English. Men like Sebastien Rasles became pivotal figures in Abenaki history, and the Abenakis soon acquired a reputation as the most devout Catholics and staunchest of New France's Indian friends."

The above was taken from Dawnland Encounters, Indians and Europeans in Northern New England,
Edited by Colin G. Calloway; pp. 59-61, (c) 1991 by University Press of New England.
Permission to reprint the above is pending.

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