The Jesuits in Canada

The Jesuit missions established in New France during the 17th Century were an integral part of French colonization efforts in North America.

Toward the end of his reign, Henry IV, the King of France, began to consider the possibility of ventures abroad. Among the possibilities considered were the Levant, in Turkey and North America. In 1604, Samuel de Champlain founded the colony of Port Royal, on Nova Scotia’s Fundy Coast. Port Royal was the first permanent European settlement north of Florida. In 1608, Champlain founded a second colony, at Quebec.

Early Jesuits Missions in New France

Following the establishment of New France, the Church began to advocate for an active role in the exploration and settlement of the new lands that had been discovered. On October 25, 1604, Jesuit Father Pierre Coton wrote a letter to Father Claudio Acquaviva, the Jesuit Superior General. Father Acquaviva agreed to send two missionaries to New France. In 1611, Father Pierre Biard and Father Enemone Masse arrived in Port Royal. However, their mission failed as the result of an English raid in 1613.

Following this failure, the Jesuits began planning a second mission to New France. This mission was established on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in 1625, by Father Charles Lallemant and Father Jean Brebeuf, two of the future Canadian Martyrs. However, this mission also failed in the wake of the English occupation of Quebec in 1629.

The Jesuits were finally able to establish a permanent foothold in New France, in 1632. Following in the wake of the arrival of Father Paul Le Jeun, 46 Jesuits arrived in New France between 1632 and 1650.

The Canadian Martyrs

Not long after, the Jesuits established a mission in Huron territory, in what is now the Haliburton Region, in Ontario, under the direction of Father Jean Brebeuf. Known today as Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons, The Jesuits first established a mission on this site in 1632. They eventually established a village for Huron converts in 1639.

The mission acted as a base of operations for Jesuits working with the local Huron tribes, in addition to providing First Nations converts with an example of a European style community.

Along the with the priests, Sainte Marie Among the Hurons also contained a small number of religiously devoted men, known as donnes, who worked in exchange for food and shelter, in addition to non-clerical Jesuits known as lay brothers. The Jesuits preached the Gospel to the Hurons by adapting the story to suit local customs. The Huron Christmas Carol is an example of this. Jean Brebeuf wrote the Huron Christmas Carol to teach the Hurons the story of the birth of Jesus by using the native language and imagery.

The founding of the mission led to divisions among the Hurons, between those who converted and those who did not. This, coupled with a rise in Iroquois aggression, served to weaken the Huron and widen the gap between the First Nations and the missionaries. The resulting Huron-Iroquois war would virtually destroy the Huron tribes and led to the martyring of Jean Brebeuf and Gabriel Lallemant along with six others.

On June 16, 1649, the remaining missionaries set fire to the mission, rather than see it desecrated or overrun by the Iroquois. At the same time, they had also decided that Brebeuf and Lallemant would be canonized as saints. Accordingly, their bodies were exhumed and boiled in a lye solution. Their flesh was reburied and their bones wrapped in linen and saved as relics.

The remaining missionaries attempted to establish a second mission with better defences. However, the continuing threat of Iroquois raids eventually forced the missionaries to return to New France.

In 1654, the Jesuits attempted to establish missions among the Iroquois tribes in upstate New York. However, relations between the Iroquois and the French remained tense, and the missions eventually failed.

The Jesuits had more success with the establishment of reductions, similar to those in South America. A reduction was a small European-style village built to facilitate indigenous cultural assimilation and acceptance of Christianity. Like Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons, the reductions at Sillery and Troi-Riviers in Quebec, were designed to facilitate the acceptance of European culture and beliefs by the First Nations.

The Jesuit Legacy in Canada

The Jesuits also remained respectful of the First Nations’ traditional way of life, unlike the Puritans in New England, who required conformity to their codes of dress and behaviour. The difference between how the English, the Spanish and the French treated the First Nations can be summed up in the following way. “Spanish civilization crushed the Indian; English civilization scorned and neglected him; French civilization embraced and cherished him.”

In order to gain the confidence of the tribes they were sent to convert, the Jesuit missionaries learned the languages of the First Nations tribes. They also conformed to tribal customs in order to gain the tribes’ confidence and drew parallels between Christianity and traditional tribal practices. In addition, missionaries also handed out religious medals as amulets and encouraged the veneration of relics.

Following the end of the French and Indian War, the British took control of New France. They allowed the Jesuits to continue ministering to the First Nations.

The Jesuits maintained a presence in Canada until their order was dissolved in France. They would not return to Canada until the 1840s, thanks to the assistance of Bishop Michael Power, the first Bishop of Toronto.


Calloway, Colin Gordon, 2006, The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America, Oxford University Press US

Alfred A. Cave The French and Indian War, 2004 Greenwood

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