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Jesuit missions in North America started during the 17th century and faltered at the beginning of the 18th. The missions were established as part of the colonial drive of France and Spain during the period, the "conquest of the souls" being an integral part of the constitution of Nouvelle-France and early New Spain. The efforts of the Jesuits in North America were paralleled by their Jesuit China missions on the other side of the world.
In 1604, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain initiated the first important French involvement in Northern America. He founded Port Royal as the first permanent European settlement in North America north of Florida in 1605, and the first permanent French establishment at Quebec in 1608.:71
The Jesuits wanted to participate in these forays into new lands.:43 On October 25, 1604, the Jesuit Father Pierre Coton requested the General of the Company Claudio Acquaviva to send two missionaries to Terre-Neuve.:43 As a result, in 1611, the two first Jesuits, Pierre Biard and Enemond Massé were able to leave for Port Royal in Acadia.:44 The mission failed in 1613 following a raid by Virginians.:2
A third mission was built on Mount Desert Island in 1613.
The Jesuits conceived plans to move their efforts to the banks of the Saint-Laurent river. A fourth mission was established in 1625, made by our fathers Charles Lalemant (as Superior), Enemond Massé, Jean de Brébeuf, and assistants François Charton and Gilbert Buret.:44 This mission failed following the occupation of Quebec by English forces in 1629.:2
The Jesuit missions would gain a strong foothold in North America in 1632, with the arrival of the Jesuit Paul Le Jeune. Between 1632 and 1650, 46 French Jesuits arrived in North America to preach among the Indians.:2
In 1634, the Jesuit established a mission in Huron territory under the direction of Jean de Brébeuf.:72 The Mission de Sainte-Marie was quite successful, and considered as "the jewel of the Jesuit mission in New France." More than a decade later, it was destroyed by traditional Huron enemies, the Iroquois,:2 first in 1648 and again in 1649.:73 The Jesuits were killed along with the Huron. Eight Jesuits—killed between 1642 and 1649—became known as the North American Martyrs.
In 1654, the Jesuits started establishing missions among the Iroquois. In 1656 Sainte Marie among the Iroquois (originally known as Sainte-Marie-de-Ganentaa or St. Mary's of Ganantaa) was the first of these new missions to be established, located among the Onondagas under Father Simon Le Moyne. Within thirteen years, the Jesuits had missions among all five Iroquois nations, in part imposed by French attacks against their villages in present-day New York state. As relations between the French and the Iroquois were tense however, the missions were all abandoned by 1708.:73 Some converted Iroquois and members of other nations migrated to Canada, where they joined the Jesuit mission village of Kahnawake by 1718.
The Jesuit mission at Detroit was moved to Bois Blanc Island in 1742. The mission was later reestablished in the vicinity of present-day Windsor, closer to the defences at Detroit. The Huron mission served both native and European residents, with the arrival of French settlers in the area. In 1767, the mission became the Parish of Assumption, the earliest Roman Catholic parish in present-day Ontario.
In the late 1750s, leaders from Kahnawake led 30 families upriver to create a new settlement at Akwesasne, today the largest Mohawk settlement in Canada.
In order to train young Indians to the Catholic faith, a Seminary is opened near Quebec, at Notre-Dame-des-Anges in 1636. The first students were five young Hurons, who were followed by a dozen of young Montagnais and Algonquins in 1638-1639.:80 After first successes, the seminary failed as the young Indians proved reluctant to be educated, and died in great numbers due to infections brought by the Westerners. A second seminary was opened in Trois-Rivières but failed after one year.:83
A more successful endeavour was the establishment of "reductions", villages where local people were settled under the control of the Jesuits. The reductions in North America were inspired by the Jesuit Reductions of South America, especially those in Paraguay. Reductions were first established for the nomads of the St. Lawrence River valley, at Sillery near Québec, and Conception near Trois-Rivières, and later among sedentary peoples such as the Huron-Wendat at Notre-Dame-de-Foy and later Lorette, and the Iroquois at La Prairie de la Madeleine.:88
One of the most famous reductions was that of Sillery, near Quebec, which was established with the financial help of Noël Brûlart de Sillery in 1637.:88 In 1645, there were 167 Aboriginal inhabitants in Sillery.:105 The reduction was raided by the Iroquois in 1646. In 1670, Sillery was hit by an epidemic of measles and the Montagnais and Algonquins left the territory. In 1698, the Jesuits abandoned their post there as missionaries and transferred the land to the parish of Notre-Dame-de-Sainte-Foy.:108
The efforts of the Jesuits in Northern American would be constantly hampered by the conflict of the French with the Iroquois. The Huron Nation was essentially destroyed by the effects of warfare with the Iroquois following epidemic infectious diseases from 1634-1640. At last, in 1701, the "Grande Paix de Montréal" would end the conflict.:2
The Jesuits in America used methods which were comparatively respectful of the traditional way of life of the Indians, especially compared to the approach of the Puritans in New England, who required a conformity to their code of dress and behaviour. In a simplification, the 19th-century Protestant historian Francis Parkman wrote: "Spanish civilization crushed the Indian; English civilization scorned and neglected him; French civilization embraced and cherished him.":42
Jesuit missionaries learned Indian languages, and accepted Indian ways, to the point of conforming to them, especially when living among them. According to Jérôme Lalemant, a missionary must first have "penetrated their thoughts... adapted himself to their manner of living and, when necessary, been a Barbarian with them.":42–43 To gain the Indians' confidence, the Jesuits drew parallels between Catholicism and Indian practices, making connections to the mystical dimension and symbolism of Catholicism (pictures, bells, incense, candlelight), giving out religious medals as amulets, and promoting the benefits of the cult of relics.:43
By 1667 the Jesuits had established a station near present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Illiniwek whom they met there are reported to have asked the French to send a missionary to them in their home country. In 1673, Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette and French-Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet undertook the journey and explored the Mississippi river as far south as the mouth of the Arkansas River.
During the late 1690s, the Jesuits expanded along the middle of the Mississippi river, in competition with the Seminary of Foreign Missions of Quebec (a branch of the Paris Foreign Missions Society).:54 In 1700, the Jesuits established themselves at the mouth of the River Des Peres.:55 From 1703 a large Jesuit establishment was based at Kaskaskia in Illinois country, when Jacques Gravier was appointed vicar general of the Illinois Mission.:64 He was located in Fort de Chartres.:158
Many of the missionaries compiled studies or dictionaries of the First Nations and Native American languages which they learned. For instance, Jacques Gravier compiled the most extensive Kaskaskia Illinois-French dictionary among works of the missionaries before his death in 1708. It was not edited and published until 2002, but the work has contributed to the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma's language revitalization project with Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
Great Britain took over colonial rule of Canada and the lands east of the Mississippi River in 1763 after the Seven Years' War. In Quebec they allowed the Jesuits to continue to minister to First Nations villages.
The Jesuits maintained a presence until their order was dissolved in France. They were officially expelled from Louisiana in 1763. At that time twenty-seven of them were officiating from Quebec to Louisiana.:158 After the Order was restored by Pope Pius VII in 1814, Jesuits resumed missionary work in Louisiana from around 1830.:160
Several Belgian men came to study at Whitemarsh, near Bowie, Maryland, in the early 1820s. They all had volunteered to be missionaries to Native Americans. Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, who started working in Missouri in 1830, would eventually build strong relationships with leaders of numerous tribes of the West, including Sitting Bull, war chief of the Sioux. Through the nineteenth century, Jesuit priests founded missions and schools among Native tribes in present-day Montana and Idaho.