Ignatian Blackrobes: Priest-Explorers for Souls' Salvation

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Dauntless for the Sake of Souls’ Salvation

From the early 1600s, some of France’s most imposing youth crossed the Atlantic to pour out their lifeblood as priests of the Society of Jesus (“Black Robes”) in North America.

None other than the agnostic, Francis Parkman, summoned up their memory in a tone of awe:

“Again their ghostly camp-fires seem to burn, and the fitful light is cast about on lord and vassal and black robed priest; mingled with wild forms of savage warriors knit in close fellowship on the same stern errand. A boundless vision grows upon us; an untamed continent; vast wastes of forest verdure; mountains silent in primeval sleep; river, lake and glimmering pool; wilderness oceans mingling with the sky.

“Such was the domain which France conquered for civilization.

“Plumed helmets gleamed in the shade of its forest, priestly vestments in the dens and fastnesses of ancient barbarism. Men steeped in antique learning, pale with the close breath of the cloister, here spent the noon and evening of their lives, ruled savage hordes with a mild paternal sway, and stood serene before the direst shapes of death.  Men of courtly nature, heirs to the polish of a far-reaching ancestry, here, with their dauntless hardihood, put to shame the boldest sons of toil.” (FRANCIS PARKMAN, The Pioneers of France in the New World)

Their first headquarters was in Québec, from where Jesuits spread out to open up mission territories among the Hurons  in Ontario, Michigan and Ohio; with the Iroquois of New York and the Abnakis in Maine; among the Chippewas, Algonquins and Ottawas in Wisconsin and Michigan; with the Illinois; and finally, among the Creeks and other tribes, in Louisiana.

The Protestant historian, Bancroft, writing about such “Black Robes”, exclaimed in admiration: “Not a cape was turned, or a river entered, but a Jesuit led the way”.

The most famous Black Robe explorer is Jacques Marquette (1637 – 1675). Described by his superior as a man of “wonderfully gentle ways”, he made a deep impression on the Native Americans. Understandably so, for besides his natural winsomeness, by his thirty-eighth year the priest had already learned six native dialects during his work with the Illinois, the Pottawatomis, the Foxes, the Hurons, the Ottawas, the Mackinacs and Sioux. His demeanor exuded an exceptionally  sensitive love for God. Parkman spoke movingly of the French priest’s devotion to the Immaculée in whose honor he named the last mission he founded, seven weeks before his death “amid the forests”:

“He was a devout votary of the Virgin Mary, who, imaged to his mind in shapes of the most transcendent loveliness with which the pencil of human genius has ever informed the canvas, was to him the object of an adoration not unmingled with a sentiment of chivalrous devotion. The longings of a sensitive heart, divorced from earth, sought solace in the skies. A subtle element of romance was blended with the fervor of his worship, and hung like an illumined cloud over the harsh and hard realities of his daily lot. Kindled by the smile of his celestial mistress, his gentle and noble nature knew no fear. For her he burned to dare and to suffer, discover new lands and conquer new realms to her sway.” (FRANCIS PARKMAN, France and England in North America. A Series of Historical Narratives. Part Three. The Discovery of the Great West, Little, Brown, and Company, Boston [1869], 1910, p. 59-60)

In 1673 he and Louis Jolliet, together with five companions, set out in birch bark canoes from St. Ignace (Michigan) in answer to the plea of tribesmen, among them some Illinois, who had visited the priest to ask that he visit their homeland close to a great river. Plying their paddles across the waters, they travelled more than 2,000 miles through the wilderness, becoming the first Europeans to see and chart the northern part of the Mississippi which they showed as emptying into the Gulf of Mexico and not – as had been thought up to then- into the Pacific somewhere in California. On the journey they had spent the winter of 1674 in the area of what is now Chicago.

Here is Jacques Marquette’s own account of his exploration of the Mississippi, a splendid insight into the spirit of the pioneering priests of North America:

“The feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin – whom I have always invoked since I have been in this country of the Outaouacs to obtain from God the grace of being able to visit the nations who dwell along the Missis­sippi River – was precisely the day on which Monsieur Joliet arrived with orders from the Count de Frontenac, our Governor, and Monsieur Talon, our Intendant, to accomplish this discovery with me.

“I was all the more delighted at this good news, since I saw that my plans were about to be accomplished; and since I found myself in the blessed necessity of exposing my life for the salvation of all these peoples, and especially of the Ilinois, who had very urgently entreated me, when I was at [La Pointe du] Saint-Esprit to carry the word of God to their country… Above all, I placed our voyage under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Immaculate, promising her that, if she granted us the favor of discovering the great river, I would give it the name of the [Immaculate] Conception, and that I would also make the first mission that I should establish among those new peoples  bear the same name. This I have actually done, among the Ilinois.

“We were not long in preparing all our equipment, although we were about to begin a voyage the duration of which we could not foresee. Indian corn, with some smoked meat, constituted all our provisions. With these we embarked – Monsieur Joliet and myself with five men in two bark canoes, fully resolved to do and suffer everything for so glorious an undertaking.

“Accordingly, on the seventeenth day of May, 1673, we started from the mission of St. Ignace at Michilimakinac, where I then was. The joy that we felt at being selected for this expedition animated our courage and rendered the labor of paddling from morning to night agreeable: to us. And because we were going to seek unknown countries we took every precaution in our power, so that if our undertaking were hazardous it should not be foolhardy. To that end we obtained all the information that we could from the savages[2] who had frequented those regions; and we even traced out from their reports a map of the whole of that new country. On it we indicated the rivers which we were to navigate, the names. of the peoples and of the places through which we were to pass, the course of the Great River, and the direc­tion we were to follow when we reached it….

“With all these precautions, we joyfully plied our paddles on a portion of Lake Huron and on that of the Illinois [i.e. Lake Michigan] and on the Bay des Puants [i.e. Green Bay]. The first nation that we came to was that of the “Wild Oats.” I entered their river to go and visit these peoples, to whom we have preached the gospel for several years, – in consequence of which there are several good Christians among them….

“I told these peoples of the Wild Oats of my design to go and discover those remote nations in order to teach them the mysteries of our holy religion. They were greatly sur­prised to hear it, and did their best to dissuade me. They represented to me that I would meet nations who never show mercy to strangers, but break their heads without cause; and that war was kindled between various peoples who dwelt upon our route, which exposed us to the further manifest danger of being killed by the bands of warriors who are ever in the field. They also said that the Great River was very dangerous for one who does not know the difficult places; that it was full of horrible monsters which devoured men and canoes together; that there was even a demon who was heard from a great distance, who barred the way and swallowed up all who ventured to approach him; finally, the heat was so excessive that it would inevitably cause our death.

“I thanked them for the good advice they gave me, but told them that I could not follow it because the salvation of souls was at stake, for which I would be delighted to give my life….Embarking then in our canoes, we arrived shortly afterward at the bottom of the Bay des Puants, where our fathers labor successfully for the conversion of these people, over two thousand of whom they have baptized while they have been there….

“We left this bay to enter the river that discharges into it. It is very beautiful at its mouth and flows gently. It is full of bustards, ducks, teal, and other birds, attracted thither by the wild oats, of which they are very fond. But after ascending the river a short distance it becomes very difficult of passage on account of both the currents and the sharp rocks, which cut the canoes and the feet of those who are obliged to drag them, especially when the waters are low. . . We continued to advance toward the Maskoutens, where we arrived on the 7th of June.

“Here we are at Maskoutens. This word may, in Algonquin, mean the “Fire Nation,”-which, indeed, is the name given to this tribe. Here is the limit of the discoveries which the French have made, for they have not yet gone any farther. . . . I was greatly consoled at seeing a handsome cross erected in the middle of the village and adorned with many white skins, red belts, bows and arrows, which these good people had offered to the great Manitou (this is the name which they give to God). They did this to thank him for having pity on them during the winter by giving them an abundance of game when they most dreaded famine. . . .

“On the following day, the 10th of June, two Miamis, who were given us as guides, embarked with us in the sight of a great crowd, who could not sufficiently express their astonish­ment at the sight of seven Frenchmen alone in two canoes daring to undertake so extraordinary and so hazardous an expedition.

“We knew that at three leagues from Maskoutens was a river which discharged into the Mississippi. We knew also that the direction we were to follow in order to reach it was west-southwesterly. But the road is broken by so many swamps and small lakes that it is easy to lose one’s way, especially as the river leading thither is so full of wild oats that it is difficult to find the channel.

“For this reason we greatly needed our two guides, who safely conducted us to a portage of twenty-seven hundred paces and helped us to transport our canoes to enter that river. After which they returned home, leaving us alone in this unknown country in the hands of Providence. Thus we left the waters flowing to Québec, four or five hundred leagues from here, to float on those that would thenceforward take us through strange lands. Before embarking thereon, we began all together a new devotion to the Blessed Virgin Immaculate, which we practiced daily, addressing to her special prayers to place under her protection both our persons and the success of our voyage; and, after mutually encouraging one another, we entered our canoes.

“The river on which we embarked is called the Meskousing [i.e. Wisconsin]. It is very wide. It has a sandy bottom, which forms various shoals that render its navigation very dif­ficult. . . . After proceeding forty leagues on this same route, we arrived at the mouth of our river, and at 42 degrees of latitude we safely entered the Mississippi on the 17th of June with a joy that I cannot express.

“Here we are, then, on this renowned river, all of whose peculiar features I have endeavored to note carefully. The Mississippi River takes its rise in various lakes in the coun­try of the northern nations. . . . We gently followed its course, which runs toward the south and southeast, as far as the 42nd degree of latitude. . . . From time to time we came upon monstrous fish, one of which struck our canoe with such violence that I thought that it was a great tree about to break the canoe in pieces. On another occasion we saw on the water a monster with the head of a tiger, a sharp nose like that of a wild-cat, with whiskers and straight, erect ears. The head was gray and the neck quite black. But we saw no more creatures of this sort…. When we reached the parallel of 41 degrees 28 minutes, following the same direction, we found that turkeys had taken the place of game and the pisikious or wild cattle [i.e. buffaloes] that of the other animals.

“We call them wild cattle because they are very similar to our domestic cattle. They are not longer, but are nearly as large again and more corpulent. When our people killed one, three persons had much difficulty in moving it.  Their heavy coat falls off in summer and the skin becomes as soft as velvet. At that season the savages use the hides for making fine robes, which they paint in various colors….

“Finally, on the 25th of June, we perceived on the water’s edge, soft tracks of men and a narrow and somewhat beaten path leading to a fine prairie. We stopped to examine it, and thinking that it was a road which led to some village of savages, we resolved to go and reconnoiter it. We therefore left our two canoes under the guard of our people, strictly charging them, not to allow themselves to be surprised, after which Monsieur Joliet and I undertook this investigation,-a rather hazardous one for two men who exposed themselves alone to the mercy of a barbarous and unknown people. [The savages received us kindly, having probably recognized us as Frenchmen, especially when they saw our black robes.] I spoke to them and asked them who they were. They replied that they were Illinois, and as a token of peace they offered us their pipes to smoke. They afterward invited us to enter their village, where all the people impatiently awaited us.  These pipes for smoking are called in this country “calumets. This word has come so much into use that in order to be understood I shall be obliged to use it, as I shall often have to mention these pipes….

“When one speaks the word “Illinois,” it is as if one said in their language “the men,” – as if the other savages were looked upon by them merely as animals. It must also be admitted that they have an air of humanity which we have not observed in the other nations that we have seen upon our route. . . . We take leave of our Illinois at the end of June about three o’clock in the afternoon. We embark in the sight of all the people who admire our little canoes for they have never seen any like them.

“While skirting some rocks which by their height and length inspired awe, we saw upon one of them two painted monsters which at first made us afraid, and upon which the boldest savages dare not long rest their eyes. They are as large as a calf; they have horns on their heads like those of deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard like a tiger’s, a face somewhat like a man’s, a body covered with scales. . .

“While we were conversing about these monsters, sailing quietly in clear and calm water, we heard the noise of a rapid into which we were about to run. I have seen nothing more dreadful. An accumulation of large and entire trees, branches, and floating islands was issuing from the mouth of the river Pekitanoui [i.e. Missouri] with such impetuosity that we could not, without great danger, risk passing through it. So great was the agitation that the water was very muddy and could not become clear. The Pekitanoui is a river of considerable size coming from the northwest, from a great distance, and it discharges into the Mississippi. There are many villages of savages along this river, and I hope by its means to dis­cover the Vermilion or California Sea.”

“After escaping as best we could the dangerous rapid, we proceeded south. After a long journey we reached the   large village of Akamsea [Arkansas]. In the evening the elders held a secret council in regard to the design entertained by some to break our heads and rob us; but the chief put a stop to all these plots. After sending for us he danced the calumet before us as a token of our entire safety, and to relieve us of all fear he made me a present of it.

“Monsieur Joliet and I held another council to deliberate upon what we should do, – whether we should push on, or remain content with the discovery which we had made. After attentively considering that we were not far from the Gulf of Mexico, the basin of which is at the latitude of 31 degrees and 60 minutes, while we were at 33 degrees 40 minutes, we judged that we could not be more than two or three days’ journey from it, and that beyond a doubt the Mississippi River discharges into the Florida or Mexican Gulf, and not to the east in Virginia, whose seacoast is at 34 degrees of latitude, which we had passed without, however, having as yet reached the sea, – or to the west in California, because in that case our route would have been to the west or the west-southwest, whereas we had always continued it toward the south.

“We further considered that we exposed ourselves to the risk of losing the results of this voyage, of which we could give no information if we proceeded to fling ourselves into the hands of the Spaniards, who, without doubt, would at least have detained us as captives. Moreover, we saw very plainly that we were not in a condition to resist savages allied to the Europeans, who were numerous and expert in firing guns, and who continually infested the lower part of the river. Finally, we had obtained all the information that could be desired in regard to this discovery. All these reasons induced us to decide upon returning; this we announced to the savages, and after a day’s rest made our preparations for it. . . .

“We therefore reascend the Mississippi, which gives us much trouble in breasting its currents. It is true that we leave it at about the 38th degree, which greatly shortens our road and takes us with only a little effort to the lake of the Illinois. . . . One of the chiefs of this nation, with his young men, escorted us to the lake of the Illinois, whence at last, at the end of September, we reached the Bay des Puants, from which we had started at the beginning of June.”[1]

[1]From the journal of Father Jacques Marquette  in Reuben G. Thwaites (ed.), The Jesuit Relations [Reports] and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit missionaries in New France, 1610-1791, Burrows Bros. Co., Cleveland, 1896-1901, Volume 59, extracts from pp.87-163. This is the full collection of the Jesuit Relations in 73 volumes with the original French, Latin, and Italian texts, along with English translations and notes. See http://www.canadiana.org/view/07593/134

[2] My note: The use of the term “savages” was commonly used by writers in that century and is not per se derogatory (and certainly is not in this instance) but has often been used as a merely technical term employed when referring to peoples anywhere who did not have a “civiltas” (civilization), a lifestyle that was to some extent urbanized.