Seventeenth-Century Jesuit Missionary Processions in New France

Carte Geographique de la Nouuelle Franse
Samuel de Champlain, Carte Geographique de la Nouuelle Franse, 1612. VAULT drawer Ayer map4F G3300 1612.C5
Brieve Relation du Voyage de la Nouuelle France
Paul Le Jeune, title page from "Brieve Relation du Voyage de la Nouuelle France," 1632. VAULT Ayer 263.J512 1632 L4

When Renaissance Center Director Carla Zecher asked me to help her anthologize early seventeenth-century Jesuit missionary processions in New France, I was excited to explore original documents for traces of what might have animated and consoled the early Jesuit missionaries. A childhood fascination with the lives of the saints had left me with images of silent men in black robes who met a grisly end at the hands of those they were trying to convert. Yet I found that the Jesuits had written frequently and eloquently to their provincials in France, describing their often joyous day-to-day life in the new world, and leaving an incredibly rich body of work for the academic study of religion, history, literature, musicology and anthropology. These copious letters were translated and edited beginning in 1896 by a team of scholars led by Reuben Gold Thwaites at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, just blocks from where I grew up reading about martyrs. The Jesuit Relations, as the Thwaites compilation is known, span the years 1610 to 1791, filling seventy-one volumes, each containing nearly three hundred pages, and thus providing ample research material. In addition, the Newberry has its own complete collection of first-edition letters and memoirs—best-sellers in their day—written by Jesuit missionaries and sent back to a French reading public eager for stories of New France.

Tracking the occurrence of processions turned out to be a productive way of negotiating the voluminous Jesuit Relations. While much of the material focuses on the customs and behavior of the different native people that the missionaries encountered, Père Pierre Biard, writing in 1612, affirms the Jesuits’ primary role, and their commitment to maintaining the rigors of religious life even in the wilderness: “Here then are our occupations: to say mass every day, and to solemnly sing it Sundays and holidays, together with Vespers, and frequently the procession; to offer public prayers morning and evening; to exhort, console, administer the sacraments, bury the dead; in short, to perform the offices of the Curate, since there are no other priests in these quarters.” This faithful adherence to ecclesiastical practices ensured that processions would retain a place of importance in the daily life of the missionaries and provide a constant against which to measure the evolution of the Jesuit presence in New France. The increasingly complex processions mirror the development of the relationship between the Jesuits and the Indians and establish a cultural bridge between two groups that, at the outset, could barely communicate with one another. The performative aspect of the processions elicited the curiosity of the Indians and encouraged participation in religious ceremonies, in a prelude, it was hoped, to conversion. Children in particular were eager to act as candle-bearers or choristers, and the priests taught them French melodies while adapting the songs to native languages.

The earliest processions in Port Royal consisted of a priest holding aloft a simple cross and leading what Père Biard refers to as “the children of the forest” in a single file. However, as French settlements grew, the processions became more elaborate and provided a way for the French governor, civil authorities and settlers, priests, and the growing numbers of teaching and nursing nuns to interact with the Indians. Perhaps the most dramatic instance of the important civic role of the procession is found in Père Paul Le Jeune’s letter from Québec in 1639, in which he describes a celebration honoring the birth of Louis XIV. In addition to fireworks, cannon salutes, and two choirs of nuns singing the Exaudiat, there is a detailed description of a procession, held in conjunction with the Feast of the Assumption, in which the French and more than a hundred Indians, six of them dressed in sumptuous French royal garments, process together from the hospital, to the Ursuline convent, and finally to the Jesuit church. Prayers are said in both French and the local Indian language, and when the procession ends, the Governor provides a feast for all in attendance. The procession has become a centerpiece of the fragile multicultural community.

The extreme weather in New France tempered the occurrence of outdoor processions in daily worship, but they appear in descriptions of funeral and baptismal ceremonies; at the conclusion of a novena to St. Ignatius asking for rain; after an influx of grasshoppers; in honor of St. Mark, St. Augustine, the Assumption; and in several processions that might or might not have taken place due to inclement weather in conjunction with the Passion and Easter, Christmas and the Epiphany. Processions, culturally inclusive and spiritually powerful, thus mark many of the most significant events in life in New France. As an unnamed Jesuit wrote in a final letter to his provincial, “When I see myself surrounded by murderous waves, by infinite forests, and by a thousand dangers there comes to mind that precious saying of the martyred St. Ignace, Nunc incipio esse Christi discipulus: to-day I begin to be of the Company of Jesus. For what avail so many exercises, so many fervent Meditations, so many eager desires? All these are nothing but wind if we do not put them into practice. So old France is fitted to conceive noble desires, but the New is adapted to their execution; what one desires in old France is what one does in the New.” Processions in New France, which are but one aspect of this important body of letters, realize the missionary’s call to action while those at home are relegated to their passive reflections.

Posted by Mary P. Angelo, Research Assistant

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