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 persons 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 dawn land to the villages of the Pennacooks, and French missions on the banks of the St. Lawrence attracted refugees and converts from New England in general 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 dawn land 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 missionaries made heroic sacrifices in their campaign to win converts and save souls. Traveling alone into Indian country and making their abodes 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 the pre-contact and post-contact 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.

Our People -

Jesuit Father Pierre Biard came in contact with Abenaki Indians at Kennebec in 1611. He attributed to them the qualities of "noble savages". In an excerpt from the Jesuit Relations, he wrote this:

"... The most prominent sagamore was caled Betsabes, a man of great discretion and prudence; and I confess we often see in these savages natural and graceful qualities which will make anyone but a shameless person blush, when they compare them to the greater part of the French who come over here."

Jesuit Father Sebastien Rasles spent most of his life among the Abenaki. He produced an Abenaki-French dictionary. In a letter to his brother in 1723, he wrote the following about the Abenaki language: "It cannot be denied that the language of the savages has real beauties, and there is an indescribable force in their style and manner of expression."

The Cowasucks Refuse Refuge 1704 -

"Withdrawal, and even migration, was a common Abenaki response to military danger and the disruption of war. Many Abenakis followed well-worn paths to mission villages in Canada, where the French welcomed them with open arms. In 1704, Governor Vaudreuil invited several tribes to resettle on the St. Lawrence where they could enjoy French protection against the English.

Some bands accepted, but the Cowasucks preferred to stay and fight in their homeland. The same month that the Cowasuck delegates were declining Vaudreuil's offer, Caleb Lyman was leading his expedition against their village.

Speech of the Abenaki Indians of Cowasuck to the Governor-General, 13 June 1704

Father, to tell the truth you have shown great care for me in inviting me to come and settle on your lands. However, I cannot bring myself to come there because the English have already struck me too hard. I believe, therefore, that the only place where I can strike back against the English is the place I come from, which is called Cowasuck. I could not do that easily if I was in your country. (Presented a wampum belt.)

Father, hear me, I wish to remain at Cowasuck. It is true you have acted well in offering me a fort on your lands, and that would have been good if we had been at peace as we used to be, and we could have done it easily. But hear me, I am a warrior.

I offer you my village which is like a fort thrust towards the enemy, so that your lands on this side can be protected, and so that you can think of me as "my child who is at Cowasuck to carry on the war and protect me, serving as a palisade against my enemies."

National Archives of Canada, MG1 F3, Vol. 2:407-10; Editor's Translation.

Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook - Abenaki People

840 Suncook Valley Road, P.O. Box 52
Alton, New Hampshire 03809-0052
Phone: 603-776-1090
Email: cowasuck@tds.net


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