May 2, 2014

Hurons gamble on Quebec

When we were kids, our parents took us to visit Sainte Marie among the Hurons, the restoration of the settlement French missionaries built in 1639 in what is now central Ontario.

I remember being moved by the sense of deep isolation in a dense forest of towering pines.

I didn’t soak in much at the time, kids being generally more interested in the visual than the historical, but I did learn later that this outpost in the heart of Huronia had profound importance in the shaping of what would become Canada.

I now live in Quebec City, where the final chapter of that Jesuit mission in the wilderness played out.

The place is the Huron Wendat Nation. It’s at the north end of the city and except for the sudden appearances of street and store signs in the Huron language, it has every appearance of an ordinary neighborhood in the Quebec capital.

In this same city, there are two churches named for the Canadian martyrs, Jesuit priests based in Sainte Marie among the Hurons who were tortured and killed by the Iroquois. Three of those martyrs became the first American saints, since they met their end on the soil of upper New York state.

A war with the Iroquois left the once mighty Wendat nation decimated. Some survivors joined the Iroquois, others fled to the States and some, mostly those converted to Christianity, ended up in the Quebec City area.

After being bounced around several times, they were finally settled on the current site, near a scenic waterfall. The 300 original survivors now number about 3,000.

The fate of the Wendat and the Jesuit missionaries has come into the public spotlight of late thanks to a recently published book. “The Orenda” by Joseph Boyden — himself of Native ancestry — tells the tale of this fateful interface between French Catholics and the Natives who had occupied the territory of North American for millennia.

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