Monday, April 1, 2013

250 Years Ago* ... The Jesuits

In honor of the new Jesuit Pope Francis, this seems as good a time as any to remember how important the French Jesuits were in the founding of French Colonial North America and talk about what was happening with them 250 years ago.  In short, 250 years ago the Jesuits lost a fight in France that would lead to them being banished from North America within the year.  The people of the Illinois country were poised to lose their King and to come under the dominion of a Protestant regime.  They were also poised to lose nearly every priest that they had.  But that wasn't the fault of their English conquerors.  I'm not an expert on Jesuit history but I'll tell you what I know about the Jesuits in the Illinois Country.



As many newspaper articles have pointed out since Francis became Pope, the Jesuits have never been the type to stay-at-home.

We can certainly expect a truly global papacy, not just because of Francis’s birthplace but also because taking the Christian message to far-flung foreign climes has always been a Jesuit obsession. 
The Jesuits came to America early.  For anyone interested in the history of the French in Colonial North America, the Jesuits are a godsend.  They were not only literate but, beginning in 1632 and throughout their stay in colonial North America, they wrote lengthy annual missives back home to France, which were then published for general consumption.  Today those missives are compiled in a multi-volume set called the Relations des Jésuites de la Nouvelle-France or the Jesuit Relations.

Originally written in French, Latin and Italian, The Jesuit Relations were reports from Jesuit missionaries in the field that were sent to their superiors to update them as to the missionaries’ progress in the conversion of various Native American tribes. Constructed as narratives, the original reports of the Jesuit missionaries were subsequently transcribed and altered several times before their publication, first by the Jesuit overseer in New France and then by the Jesuit governing body in France. The Relations gradually became more focused on the general public as its readers, in terms of a marketing tool to procure new settlers for the colonies, while simultaneously trying to gain the capital to continue the missions in New France.
For those doing genealogical research, the Jesuit Relations can also be helpful in filling in details.  For instance, I know that one of my Canadian ancestors, Antoine Desrosiers, had a servant who was killed by the Iroquois.  It happened on August 7, 1651.  The servant was out in the early morning along the St. Lawrence river, killing crows. He was found in the road with two gunshots in him and a hatchet in his head.  How do I know that?  The Jesuits reported it.

The Jesuits and the fur traders were the first Europeans to explore what is, today, the American midwest.  Sometimes they did it together.  The most famous pair was Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette and explorer/trader Louis Jolliet.  The pair set out in 1673, paddled down the Mississippi from the Wisconsin River as far as Arkansas and then paddled back up.  The Native Americans told them that, going back, it would be easier to head up the Illinois River towards the Lake of the Illinois (Lake Michigan) rather than go back up the Wisconsin River.  Today, at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers there is a lovely Illinois state park named ... Pere Marquette Park.  Oh and note that it is "Pere" Marquette, not "Pierre" Marquette.  His name was not Pierre, it was Jacques. The French word for "Father" is Pere, which is pronounced "pear" - so the park name in English is "Father Marquette" park.  Sorry for the lecture but this mispronunciation is a pet peeve of mine.

Father Marquette later returned to the tribes on the Illinois River  near the Great Village of the Kaskaskias, and founded the Mission of the Immaculate Conception.  But unfortunately he contracted dysentery and died at the age of 37. The always indefatigable Jesuits, however, sent new missionaries. In 1689 Father Jacques Gravier was assigned to work in the Illinois Country among the Kaskaskia Indians. 

Gravier's most enduring work was his compilation of a Kaskaskia-French dictionary, with nearly 600 pages and 20,000 entries ... It is the most extensive of dictionaries of the Illinois language compiled by French missionaries. The work was finally edited and published in 2002 by Carl Masthay, providing an invaluable source of the historic Kaskaskia Illinois language.
Fr. Gravier traveled extensively around the Illinois country and couldn't always be at the official mission, so the Jesuits sent even more missionaries to the Illinois country to join him.  In 1698 Jesuit Father Pierre-Gabriel Marest was assigned to the Illinois.  He too was known to have a talent for local languages.  In 1700 the Kaskaskia Indians decided to leave the Illinois River and relocate south. Fr. Gravier and Fr. Marest relocated with them.  They ended up at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Kaskaskia River and there the Mission of the Immaculate Conception began to build a permanent church.  In 1705 Fr. Gravier was wounded by an arrow and left to return to France. Fr. Marest died in 1714, the victim of an epidemic.

But by that time more Jesuits had come to Kaskaskia, among them Father Jean Mermet who joined the mission in 1702.  The year he arrived he was told told to travel with a group of traders who intended to start a tannery operation along the Ohio River, trading French goods for deer skins brought by the local tribes.  Father Mermet was to serve the local Indians (and probably keep an eye on the French traders).   The tannery failed and eventually Mermet returned to Kaskaskia.  He died in 1716.

Father Jean-Antoine Le Boullenger came to the mission in 1719.  The following year French administration arrived in Illinois in the person of the Sieur de Boisbriant and his troops.  One of the first things Boisbriant did was establish a village for the Kaskaskia Indians that was separate from the French village.  The village church became the Parish of the Immaculate Conception but the Jesuits also served the Indian village.

When Fort de Chartres was established, a chapel called Ste. Anne was also established by the Jesuits.  Eventually a full church was built but a dispute arose between the Jesuits and the Recollect priests of the Seminary of Foreign Missions based in Cahokia as to who was to be in charge of this new parish and the two offshoot "chapels" that were also established: the Chapel of the Visitation in the village of St. Philippe north of Fort de Chartres and the chapel of St. Joseph in the village of Prairie du Rocher.  Although the Recollects were officially in charge, the Jesuits appear to have remained in control of the Fort's chapel.

In any event, in 1720 Fr. Boullenger moved to Fort de Chartres and was there until 1726.  During this time my ancestors Jean Baptiste Nicolas Becquet and his wife Catherine Barreau first came to the Illinois country and would have known Fr. Boullenger.  In fact, on October 24, 1725 Fr. Boullenger baptised their son, and my ancestor, Jean Baptiste.

When Fr. Boullenger left he was replaced by Fr. Beaubois, who was the first Jesuit assigned to the area by the Jesuits in New Orleans.  Until this time all the Jesuits had come through Canada.  Fr. Beaubois ended up traveling back to France on a recruiting mission and he took with him four Indian chiefs, including the chief of the local Mitchigamia tribe.   It is said that he created a sensation when he presented the chiefs to the King.  And he recruited a number of young Jesuits to come back to Illinois with him.  Over the years there were a number of Jesuits who served in the Illinois country.  But by mid-century trouble was brewing for the Jesuits back home in Europe.

Part of the irony in having a Jesuit Pope here in the 21st century is that back in the 18th century Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Jesuit order, following the lead of France, Spain and Portugal.  Although at first the Jesuits were strongly supported in North America by the French crown, this began to change in the 1750's.   

In the sixteenth century the English crown had found an effective means of controlling religion by separating the Church of England from the unity of the Church of Rome. By the eighteenth century, the monarchies of Portugal, Spain, and France began their campaigns to free their "national churches" from Roman influences. In the Society of Jesus, with its traditional loyalty to the papacy, they saw a stumbling block to their goal.
It was the Seven Years War that caused part of the problem.  The English navy wreaked havoc on French commerce and that included the commerce that some individual Jesuits were engaged in.

Père Antoine La Vallette, superior of the Martinique [Jesuits] ... began to borrow money to work the large undeveloped resources of the colony, and a strong letter from the governor of the island dated 1753 is extant in praise of his enterprise. But on the outbreak of war, ships carrying goods of an estimated value of 2,000,000 livres were captured and he suddenly became a bankrupt, for very large sum. His creditors were egged on to demand payment from the [Jesuit] procurator of Paris, but [the procurator], relying on what certainly was the letter of the law, refused responsibility for the debts of an independent mission, though offering to negotiate for a settlement, for which he held out assured hopes. The creditors went to the courts ...
The courts ruled against the Jesuit procurator and ruled that the order must pay the debts of the individual priest.  On the advice of counsel, the Jesuits appealed.  This was a mistake.  They not only lost but the process brought all of their enemies out of the woodwork

... the Constitution of the Jesuits ... was publicly examined and exposed in a hostile press. The Parlement [French high court] issued its Extraits des assertions assembled from passages from Jesuit theologians and canonists, in which they were alleged to teach every sort of immorality and error. On August 6, 1762, the final arrêt was issued condemning the Society to extinction, but the king's intervention brought eight months' delay and meantime a compromise was suggested by the Court. If the French Jesuits would separate from the order, under a French vicar, with French customs ... the Crown would still protect them. In spite of the dangers of refusal the Jesuits would not consent.
250 years ago today, on April 1, 1763, the Jesuit colleges in France were closed.  By July of 1763 the council in Louisiana would issue an order expelling the Jesuits from the colony.   By 1773 Pope Clement XIV suppressed the entire order.  Only in non-Catholic countries like Russia was the order ignored and the Jesuits retreated to those countries.

In 1814, Pope Pius VII restored the Order and the Jesuits would eventually, after many years, return to the American midwest.  They would eventually found teaching institutions like St. Louis University.  They would, once again, be part of everyday life.  And, eventually, there would even be a Jesuit pope.

*Part of my continuing blog series leading up to the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis in February 2014.