Black Robe: Context

The Jesuits and Brébeuf - The Mission

Black Robe is a novel about a Jesuit priest (Father Laforgue) who comes to New France in the 1600s in order to convert the Huron. The novel charts his dangerous journey westward, during which he struggles with his lust for a beautiful young Native, is captured by Iroquois, and undergoes an angst-ridden questioning of his own culture and religion. While you aren't required to know much about Jesuit theology or Canadian history, a basic understanding of Christianity and of Canada in the 1600s will help you understand what's going on in the novel.

In the first class we'll look at the geographical and historical background. We'll take a brief look at the Jesuits in history and in the poem Brébeuf and His Brethren (1940), at the Jesuits in South America (at the start of the film The Mission, 1986), and at the fur-traders and Jesuits in excerpts from Chapters 6, 7, and 9 of Canada: A People’s History (CBC, 2000). 


The Jesuits and Brébeuf

Christian Timeline (relevant to BR)

4000    BC    0   AD   1100   1200        1517       1534

Creation    Christ                        Reformation / RC Counter-

                                                  Protestantism / Reformation   

Flood          Paul      Great       Saint      Luther  /  Jesuits

  Abraham               Schism     Francis                   in Paris     

    Moses              Orthodox / RC

The Jesuits come after the beginning of the Reformation (early 16th C), when the Catholic Church was challenged by Luther and Calvin and by what was to become Protestantism. The Jesuits can be seen as an attempt by devote Catholics to get back to the spirit of Christ, Saint Francis, evangelism, and service to others. The Jesuits embraced poverty, chastity, and obedience to the pope.

The Jesuits spread out all over the world to preach the gospel. In so doing, they radically altered the cultural and religious identity of many peoples, especially in South, Central, and North America. They also provided some of the most detailed accounts of many of the less documented peoples and languages -- for instance, in their 17th C. Relations des Jésuites de la Nouvelle-France (The Relations of the Jesuits of New France).

Père Marquette and the Indians , 1869, by Wilhelm Lamprecht (Wikimedia Commons)

Père Marquette and the Indians, 1869, by Wilhelm Lamprecht (Wikimedia Commons)

Brébeuf and His Brethren (E.J. Pratt, 1940)

E.J. Pratt's long poem chronicles the life of the Jesuit priest, Jean de Brébeuf, who is considered one of the Canadian martyrs.

The opening lines highlight the religious revival of 16th century France, as well as the inspiration of Saint Francis of Assisi, the mysticism of Saint Theresa and Saint John of the Cross, the evangelical journeys of Xavier, and the conversion of Loyola:

The winds of God were blowing over France,

Kindling the hearths and altars, changing vows

Of rote into an alphabet of flame.

The air was charged with songs beyond the range

Of larks, with wings beyond the stretch of eagles. 

Skylines unknown to maps broke from the mists

And there was laughter on the seas.

With sound of bugles from the Roman catacombs,

The saints came back in their incarnate forms.

Across the Alps St. Francis of Assisi 

In his brown tunic girt with hempen cord,

Revisited the plague infected towns.   [...]

The flame had spread across the Pyrenees -

The visions of Theresa burning through

The adorations of the Carmelites;

The very clouds at night to John of the Cross

Being cruciform - chancel, transept and aisle

Blazing with light and holy oracle.

Xavier* had risen from his knees to drive

His dreams full-sail under an ocean compass.

Loyola,* soldier-priest, staggering with wounds

At Pampeluna, guided by a voice,

Had travelled to the Montserrata Abbey

To leave his sword and dagger on an altar

That he might lead the Company of Jesus.


* Xavier and Loyola met (with others) in Paris in 1534, where they began The Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits.

Black Robes in Canada

You may want to consult this government archive site for more historical information about the time period: Here is a screen grab from this site:

Black Robes gov site.jpeg

Jesuit Activity in Canada (from "The Society of Jesus," Wikipedia)

With the discovery and colonization of New France during the 17th century, the Society of Jesus and the Jesuits played an active role in Canada. When Samuel de Champlain was placing the foundations of the French colony at Quebec, he realized that this land was inhabited by native tribes that possessed their own languages, customs and traditions. These natives that inhabited modern day Ontario, Quebec, and country around Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay were the Montagnais, the Algonquins and the Huron. Champlain was a Christian man who felt that the soul was the only thing that mattered on Earth and that the souls of these Montagnais, Algonquin, and Huron must be saved. As a result, in 1614 Champlain invited the Recollects from France to spread the word of the true God, to convert the native inhabitants, and to save their souls from eternal damnation in New France. However, in 1624 the French Recollects realized that the magnitude of their task was too much to bear alone and that they would need more missionary bodies. The Recollects sent a delegate to France to invite the Society of Jesus to help them with their mission. The invitation was accepted and Jesuits, Jean de Brebeuf, Ennemond Masse and Charles Lalemant arrived in Quebec in 1625.

The Jesuits became involved in the Huron mission in 1626 and lived among the Huron peoples. Father Brebeuf learned the native language and created the first Huron language dictionary. Due to outside conflicts, though, the Jesuits were forced to leave all of New France and their efforts as Quebec was captured by the Kirke brothers under the English flag. Yet, in 1632 Quebec was returned to the French under the Treaty of Saint Germain-en-Laye and the Jesuits were back in Huronia by 1634.

In 1639 Jesuit Jerome Lalemant decided that the missionaries in Huronia needed a local residence so they could relax, reflect, and conduct activities. As a result, Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons was established. Sainte-Marie expanded into a small community and acted as a living replica of European society. The Sainte-Marie became the headquarters of the Jesuits and is now an important part of Canadian history. Throughout most of the 1640s the Jesuits were having a tremendous amount of success. They established 5 chapels in Huronia and baptized over one thousand Huron natives. However, as the Jesuits began to expand westward they encountered more and more Iroquois natives (Huron rivals). With the Iroquois growing jealous of the Hurons’ wealth and fur trade system they began to attack Huron villages in 1648. The Iroquois killed missionaries, burned villages and scattered many of the Huron natives. Both Father Jean de Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant were killed in the Iroquois series of raids.

From Wikimedia Commons: Carte de Nouvelle France, Jésuites, 1657  Novae Franciae accurata delineatio , Bressani, Francesco Giuseppe (1612-1672),1657

From Wikimedia Commons: Carte de Nouvelle France, Jésuites, 1657 Novae Franciae accurata delineatio, Bressani, Francesco Giuseppe (1612-1672),1657

It was said that the two men had died as martyrs of the Catholic Church and that their bones would be holy relics. With the knowledge of the invading Iroquois, Father Paul Ragueneau burned down Sainte-Marie instead of allowing the Iroquois to get the satisfaction of destroying it. By late June 1649, the French and some Christian Hurons built Sainte-Marie II on Christian Island (Isle de Saint-Joseph). However, the small Sainte-Marie II was facing starvation, lack of supplies and constant threats of Iroquois attack. Sainte-Marie II was abandoned in June 1650 as the remaining Hurons and Jesuits departed for Quebec and Ottawa. With all this destruction the Huron began to claim that the Jesuits were sorcerers sent to their homeland to kill. They would blame the outbreak of disease on the Jesuits, claiming that they were casting spells from their books. With the outbreak of disease, many people began to mistrust the Jesuits and suspect them of witchcraft. As a result of the Iroquois raids and disease, many missionaries, traders, and soldiers were killed or captured. The Huron tribe ceased to exist.

After the collapse of the Huron tribe, the Jesuits were to undertake the task of converting the Iroquois natives themselves. In 1642, previous Jesuits attempted to convert the Iroquois but had little success. The Jesuits risked their own lives and well being for the sake of this Iroquois mission. In 1653 the Iroquois nation had a fall out with the Dutch. They then signed a peace treaty with the French and a mission was established. The Iroquois took the treaty very lightly and soon turned on the French again. In 1658, the Jesuits were having very little success and were under constant threat of being tortured or killed. The Jesuits continued to struggle with the Iroquois until 1687 when they abandoned their permanent posts in the Iroquois homeland.

By 1700 Jesuits began to only maintain their old posts instead of trying to establish new ones beyond Quebec, Montreal and Ottawa. During the Seven Years' War, Quebec fell to the English in 1759 and New France was under British control. The English barred the immigration of more Jesuits to New France. By 1763 there were only twenty-one Jesuits that were still stationed in New France. By 1773 only eleven Jesuits remained. During the same year the English crown laid claim to its property in Canada and declared that the Society of Jesus in New France was dissolved.

E.J. Pratt on Brébeuf and His Brethren


I saw in the Relations [the accounts of the Jesuits] a letter written by Brébeuf in which he said he had predicted an eclipse of the moon, a total eclipse, and he remarked how struck with amazement the Hurons were when the event occurred exactly as foretold. I felt a real thrill over this letter and I went to Professor Chant to tell him of it. I asked the astronomer a number of questions. Would a Jesuit priest in Canada in the early seventeenth century be sufficiently acquainted with astronomy as to be able to tell the exact time of an eclipse? Undoubtedly. The Jesuits were among the most learned men of Europe. Would a priest, knowing the time the eclipse occurred in Paris, be able to tell the exact time by the shore of Lake Huron Eastern Standard Time? Yes.  [...]

    [...] I was moving in the mists of theology where I had to be exceedingly careful for here were many shoals and breakers. I had written the account of a torture of a captured Iroquois by a Huron band. Brébeuf was an eyewitness and I knew that the priests were always urging clemency for the victims. Those tortures ran for hours and sometimes for days and nights and the fathers must have put up their earnest intercessions. I had two lines written:

        Brébeuf's first plea was for the captive's life, / But as the night wore on, it was for death.

    I submitted the whole manuscript to my friend Dr. John Penfold, the historian of the order at the Novitiate in Guelph. I asked him to scrutinize every page to make certain that I wasn't tangling up the theological threads. He was very good to me, making certain suggestions and corrections, and the chief one was just here. Naturally the Relations didn't contain that second line. I put it in for effect. He said Brébeuf would never have asked for the Iroquois' death. Such a plea would render nugatory the whole Catholic belief. No Catholic could ask for the death of anyone under any circumstances. I replied that such a plea would be in accord with my desire to humanize, as far as possible, the priest. Might I put it hypothetically, saying that his heart might wish for the termination of the process of torture as anyone might wish to see a dumb animal put out of its misery. His answer was that if I stated it as a subjective opinion that Brébeuf, away down in his sympathies, would be glad to see the victim expire so as to abbreviate the torment, there would be no ground for criticism, but to pray for death was another matter. Accordingly he passed my emendation:

        Brébeuf had pleaded for the captive's life, / But as the night wore on, would not his heart / Colliding with his mind have wished for death?

    The number of subjunctives and questions I have made in the story is a witness to my attempt at the reconciliation of research and verse composition.

[...] I used to be under the impression that a primitive tongue would be somewhat simple in its structure, until I saw how bewildered Brébeuf was at first in trying to construct a grammar. Several of the priests confessed their failure -- three genders, three numbers, a feminine conjugation, the endless compounds, and their difficulty in expressing generic notions. Brébeuf pointed out that they had no relative terms like master, servant, father, son; they had to particularize them. I think it was rather amusing to find Brébeuf writing home to his general to get permission to alter the nomine patris formula. The Hurons could understand it only if it was stated -- in the name of our Father, and of his Son, and of their Holy Ghost. And then the poetic way they drew on their mythology to express simple descriptions. A fat man was called a fallen star. Brébeuf discovered that they believed that a long time ago a star fell from heaven in the form of a fat goose.

The Mission (1986)

From Wikipedia:

The film is set in the 1740s and involves Spanish Jesuit priest Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) who enters the northeastern Argentina and western Paraguayan jungle to build a mission station and convert a Guaraní community to Christianity. The Guaraní community is not initially receptive to Christianity or outsiders in general, shown by the opening scene where they tie a priest to a wooden cross and send him over the Iguazú Falls a large waterfall they live above. Father Gabriel travels to the falls, climbs to the top, and plays his oboe. The Guaraní warriors, captivated by the music, allow him to live.

Mercenary and slaver Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert de Niro) makes his living kidnapping natives such as the Guarani community and selling them to nearby plantations, [...] in a fit of rage kills [...] spirals into depression. Father Gabriel visits and challenges Mendoza to undertake a suitable penance. Mendoza accompanies the Jesuits on their return journey, dragging a heavy bundle containing his armour and sword. After initially tense moments upon reaching the outskirts of the natives' territory, though they recognize him, the natives embrace a tearful Mendoza and cut away his heavy bundle.

Father Gabriel's mission is depicted as a place of sanctuary and education for the Guaraní. Moved by the Guaraní's acceptance, Mendoza wishes to help at the mission and Father Gabriel gives him a Bible. In time, Mendoza takes vows and becomes a Jesuit under Father Gabriel and his colleague Father Fielding (Liam Neeson).

The Jesuit missions were safe because they were protected under Spanish law. The Treaty of Madrid (1750) reapportioned South American land the Jesuit missions were located on, transferring the area to the Portuguese who allowed slavery. The Portuguese colonials seek to enslave the natives, and as the independent Jesuit missions might impede this, Papal emissary Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally), a former Jesuit priest himself, is sent from the Vatican to survey the missions and decide which, if any, should be allowed to remain.