The Jesuits

Jesuit missionaries of the Society of Jesus, also known as 'Soldiers of Christ', had had great success in converting the pagans of Asia, Africa and South America to Christianity. With the discovery of the New World and the natives who lived there, the Jesuits set their sites to the west - especially the Hurons whose 30,000 population was easily the strongest presence in New France. If they could be converted to Christianity, the other tribes would be sure to follow.

Paul le Jeune, Charles Lalemant and Jean de Brébeuf arrived in 1625. While le Jeune and Lalemant began their work with the natives around Quebec, Brébeuf headed west into Huronia to begin his missionary work there. He built several Jesuit missions near Georgian Bay. Brébeuf was accompanied by his personal servant, 15-year-old Pierre Bouden. Pierre would later play a great part in the development of Canada (see 1661). It was clear from the very beginning, though, that Brébeuf's religion would not easily be accepted by the Hurons.

Nonetheless, more Jesuits arrived in New France and spread out to live among the natives. They had great difficulty adapting to the 'heathen' culture, however, and very few natives were converted.

Despite their apparent failures, the Jesuits built several missions in Huronia and continued with their labours.

Alcohol became a serious threat to the Jesuits. More and more, the natives were trading their furs for 'fire water' and the Jesuits realized that they were drinking it with the sole intention of getting drunk. Many of the converts were recanting their decisions, finding more and more pleasure in the bottle than they were finding in the Bible.

With the alcohol problem becoming more and more serious, the Jesuits began to petition the King for legislation which would either ban or limit the trade of alcohol with the natives. Their efforts were finally rewarded with a decree on February 23, 1662 which prohibited the sale of alcohol for furs under threat of excommunication. A second decree in 1679 prohibited the sale of alcohol outside of any French dwelling and anyone caught transporting alcohol to any native village would suffer serious penalties, including tremendous fines and even prison terms.

Their efforts would be too late for the Hurons, though. As the Jesuits worked to obliterate the demon alcohol, they were unknowingly obliterating the Huron Nation as well. Along with their religion, they also brought disease. Smallpox, measles and influenza swept through the Huron villages like a firestorm. Every day, hundreds of Hurons died. Huron shamans blamed the Jesuits for poisoning them and rejected the Catholic faith. They also resented being asked to break their own laws of nature by hunting and trapping out of season. As animosities rose, the Huron population declined.

By 1649, they had been decimated to the point where the Iroquois, mortal and life-long enemies to the Hurons, easily swept through Huronia and destroyed what was left of the Hurons. Jesuit missionaries were captured, tortured, and executed. From a 30,000-strong nation, only a few hundred Hurons remained, dispersed throughout the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

The Jesuits' efforts in New France played a major role in the development of Canada, and, through their records and journals, published as Relations, we know much about Canada and its Native Peoples. The Relations detailed the geography, flora and fauna of New France. They told of the vast natural riches of the country. But, most imortantly, they detailed the lives of the Hurons - their beliefs, culture, lifestyle, wars, language, and even the Hurons' perceptions of the Europeans.

Much of the early exploration of the Upper Country of Canada (roughly the Great Lakes region, Ontario and Quebec up to Hudson Bay) was done by Jesuits. Their maps and journals were filled with invaluable information. Jesuits were often the first Europeans to set foot on far-away lands, or to set eyes on various lakes and rivers, many of which they named. Their discoveries helped to build Canada. Present-day towns and cities grew up around the missions they built, and many of the schools and colleges they created still exist today.

Of the Recollet, Suplician, and Jesuit missionaries, only the Jesuits are commonly remembered today.

The Black Robes
* The Jesuits *
The Récollets
The Suplicians
The Jesuits - Bones of Contention