Franciscan Friar Nicolas Viel and a young Huron convert, Ahuntsic, were murdered at what is known today as Sault au Recollect in this painting. They are considered the first Canadian martyrs, dying 17 years before St. René Goupil, the first Jesuit martyred for his faith. Photo courtesy of the Franciscans

Franciscans mark a modest 400 years

By  Alan Hustak, Catholic Register Special
  • October 4, 2015

They were commonly known as Recollects when their first four members landed 400 years ago with New France founder Samuel de Champlain.

An offshoot of a religious brotherhood started by the beloved St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century, Recollects were also known as Franciscans or, more specifically, Franciscans of the Strict Observance or the Grey Friars (because back then their habits were grey, not brown). Along with the Jesuits they were Canada’s first missionaries and, although their Canadian presence has seen some interruptions, the Franciscans are celebrating four centuries in Canada since their arrival in May 1615. Their contributions have been immense to the social and religious fabric of Canada and, indeed, all of North American history.

In keeping with Franciscan tradition, however, the anniversary celebrations have been relatively modest. The friars keep a low profile and don’t normally draw attention to their communities. Those that do make the headlines are priests like Franciscan Mychal Judge, the chaplain of the Fire Department of New York, who was declared the first victim of the World Trade Centre bombing, St. Maximillan Kolbe, who volunteered to take the place of a Jewish prisoner in the gas chambers at Auschwitz during the Second World War, and Padre Pio, the contemporary Italian saint who bore the stigmata.

But Franciscans have walked with history since the days of St. Francis. Other Franciscan saints include St. Anthony of Padua and St. Bonaventure, and there have been four Franciscans popes. A Franciscan accompanied Christopher Columbus on his maiden voyage to the New World in 1492, but it took another 123 years for them to reach New France.

The first friars to sail up the St. Lawrence River with the French explorer Champlain were Joseph le Caron, Jean d’Olbeau, Denis Jamay and Pacifique de Plessis. A monument in their honour, erected in 1915, stands in Place d’Armes in Quebec City. Still, unlike the Jesuits, whose missionary and exploring exploits are taught in schools, most people are unaware of Franciscan contributions over the centuries.

“We like to say Franciscans make history, and the other religious communities, like the Jesuits, write about us,” says Fr. Pierre Ducharme, who helped organize a 400-year celebration held last month in Caledon, Ont.

“Other religious communities have a better grasp of self-promotion. Maybe we are naturally shy about talking about ourselves and the work we do, or perhaps it is because we have never had the resources to promote ourselves properly.”

In his majestic 1952 work, The White and The Gold, Thomas B. Costain says that d’Olbeau went immediately to a trading post at the mouth of the Saguenay River where he opened a mission, L’Exaltation-de-la- Sainte-Croix-de-Tadoussac. Le Caron went to what is today the Island of Montreal. Costain described the challenges d’Olbeau faced while “existing there through a severe winter, living in a birch-bark lodge with the Montagnais who were particularly primitive in their ways.” Meanwhile, he said, “le Caron was consumed with an equal eagerness and attached himself to the Hurons.”

The other two were assigned to Quebec City, where according to Champlain their only task was “to worship God and cultivate their gardens,” which provided food for the fledgling settlement.

Le Caron also spent time in Huronia in present-day Ontario and is credited with being the first European to see Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. He compiled the first dictionary of the Huron, Algonkin and Montagnais languages. He was assisted in his work by another friar, Nicolas Viel, who, in 1625, was murdered along with a young Huron convert named Ahuntsic at what is today known as Sault au Recollect. They are probably the first Canadian martyrs. Their deaths occurred 17 years before the martyrdom of St. René Goupil, the first of eight Jesuits who died for their faith in the 1640s.

Missionaries were drawn to the powerful Bear Nation of the Huron Confederacy because, as Vancouver historian Peter N Moogk suggests in La Nouvelle France, the Making of French Canadian Cultural History, they were an agricultural people and “these natives seemed halfway to becoming French, and their sedentary life facilitated instruction.”

“Gathering together prospective converts in a permanent settlement was seen as a pre-requisite for success,” he wrote. “The Huron’s central location amid the great lakes and their trading network also allowed the missionaries to extend their influence with the Huron’s distant trading partners.”

Although the friars learned much about the aboriginals, the natives initially were apathetic to Christian teaching and in 1625 the Recollects, disillusioned, abandoned their Huron mission. Four years later, during the 30-year-war between England and France, an English adventurer named David Kirke and three of his brothers overwhelmed Champlain’s meagre forces and claimed Quebec City for the British Crown. They burned the Franciscan priory, forcing the five Recollects stationed there, along with 10 employees, to return to France. A few Recollects, however, continued to work among the Abnaki in Nova Scotia.

When Quebec was handed back to France in 1632 the Jesuits replaced the Recollects as New France missionaries. The Franciscans didn’t return until 1670, when five of them rebuilt their convent in Quebec City and opened missions in Montreal and Trois Rivieres. In 1674 they opened a mission in what is today Kingston, Ont.

The first native-born Canadian to become a Franciscan was Claude Pelletier, who was born in St. Anne de Beaupre, and took the name of Brother Didace. Shortly after his death in 1699, several miracles were attributed to him. The historic manuscript “Copie des actes du tres devot Frere Didace” states that although he never became a saint “he has been canonized in the hearts of those who knew him.”

The Franciscans were known as adventurers. Fr. Louis Hennepin was the first to explore Niagara Falls, which he described as “a vast and prodigious cadence of water which falls in a surprising and astonishing manner.” Recollect Anastase Douay accompanied explorer Robert de La Salle on his expeditions to Louisiansa in 1681 and 1698. When the French built Fortress Louisbourg, a stronghold on Cape Breton, in 1713 Franciscans ministered to the Kings Bastion Chapel there while they waited for the construction of their own parish church, which was never built.

As Franciscan historian Herve Blais wrote, “For almost a century our three convents at Quebec, Trois Rivieres and Montreal were the centres of prayer, spiritual counselling and traditional devotion in the Franciscan practice.”

After the British conquest of New France in 1759 the Franciscans were barred from missionary work in British North America and their missions were forced to close. Much of the archival material documenting their early years in the country was lost when their priory was destroyed during the British bombardment during the siege of Quebec. After the conquest, their convent on Notre Dame Street in Montreal, consecrated to St. Francis, was requisitioned by the British for use as a barracks. Then in 1818 the chapel was turned over to the first wave of Irish Catholic immigrants who had come to Montreal to build the Lachine Canal. They dubbed it “The Reggilie.” That building was demolished in 1867.

With the death in 1849 of the last surviving Recollect, Marc Coutant, the community again completely disappeared from Canada. It wasn’t until 1888 that Fr. Frederic Jansoone, a French Franciscan from Jerusalem, came to Trois Rivieres to re-establish a Canadian Franciscan presence. Jansoone launched a charitable foundation to raise money for Franciscans in Jerusalem. He was also instrumental in building the shrine at Notre Dame du Cap, where he spent 14 years as a pilgrimage director. He was declared venerable in 1984 and beatified in 1988.

Impressed by Jansoone’s accomplishments, Montreal Archbishop Édouard-Charles Fabre invited the Franciscans to open a French province in Quebec. From there, Franciscans from Quebec travelled in 1908 to Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., but their English-speaking province, Christ the King, didn’t officially begin until 1930, after Regina’s Archbishop James McGuigan sold his residence to finance their endeavours in Western Canada. Initially, several of the friars taught at Notre Dame College at Wilcox, Sask., which was founded in 1927 by Msgr. Athol Murray, and opened a boys school, St. Anthony’s College in Edmonton, which closed in 1970. A Franciscan, Settimo Balo, helped to establish the Diocese of Nelson, B.C., and Franciscans ministered to Japanese Canadians who were interned in British Columbia and Alberta during the Second World War.

“We are divided linguistically in Canada, our provinces are split into East and West, French and English, so perhaps we are not as present in the national consciousness as we should be,” said Fr. Marc Le Goanvec, provincial of the French-speaking community. “Our cultures are changing so fast that fewer and fewer people are receptive to God, to religion and to the consecrated life. The challenge before us is to present the Gospel in a new way to people who are ignorant, indifferent or outright hostile. Our strength is in our simple fraternity. We are brothers in a joyful way, and we accept all people as they are.”

Over the years, the Franciscans have fragmented into three distinct groups: the Order of the Friars Minor (Brown Franciscans, O.F.M. ), who are in line with the Recollects; the Capuchins, (Brown Friars with hoods, O.F.M.C.); and Friars Conventual (O.F.M. Conv) who wear grey or black habits.

Like many orders, the Franciscans in Canada are adapting to a changing religious environment. According to the Vatican year book, there are about 14,000 Franciscans worldwide, 9,000 of them priests. Once there were about 1,000 across Canada, but their numbers have dwindled to about 110 friars in two Canadian provinces. The eastern province of St. Joseph, headquartered in east-end Montreal, counts about 70 members, and the Western Province of Christ the King, headquartered in Cochrane, Alta., has about 40.

In 2007 the Franciscans left their monastic chapel which they had occupied for 117 years in downtown Montreal because they could no longer afford repairs to the building. The land is being sold to a developer who is expected to acknowledge the Franciscan presence in the proposed condominium complex being planned for the site. They are now in a priory in east end Montreal that observes the centennial of its opening on Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.

Earlier this year the last Franciscans in Saskatchewan moved out of their retreat house in Lumsden to consolidate their resources in Cochrane.

Ducharme, who at 38 is one of the youngest friars, is confident that there will always be Franciscans, but because of the demographics of an aging population, “there will never be as many around as there were in the 1950s. There are no longer that many young people around to draw from. But in general, there have been signs of renewal in Ontario and Quebec in recent years. It is slow, but there is an interest. My focus is on the future, and we have been getting vocations.”

The Western Canadian Province has celebrated five solemn professions in six years and continues to have a handful of friars at various levels of initial formation (one of the only religious communities in Western Canada steadily getting vocations), and recently there has been one solemn profession in the Eastern Province.

Celebrations this year marking the 400th anniversary of the Franciscan’s arrival in New France have been like the friars themselves, modest and low key. Montreal’s Archbishop Christian Lepine acknowledged the anniversary in June at a pageant re-enacting the first recorded Mass in Montreal. In August, Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto celebrated the anniversary with a Mass at the Huron-Wendat village of Carhagouha, Ont. In September Michael Perry, the American who was elected head of the order in May, came from Rome to attend an extraordinary “Chapter of Mats” gathering of Canadian Friars at Caledon, Ont., where the friars renewed their common sense of mission.

Perry says wherever they are, Franciscans are carving a unique identity in the world.

“The whole world is living in a time of contested identity, “ he said. “Franciscans are part of the world and we are trying to re-identify ourselves as men of the Gospel, as men who are simple, who live with the poor among themselves. We try to understand what is going on in the world to become part of the planet. In this way, we seek to foster the Gospel.”

There is, Perry said, “a great hope and a great energy among Franciscans in Canada, even among those who are older, to reclaim their ministry and to live the Gospel in new ways in a world where changes are taking place.

“They are seeking the new peripheries that Pope Francis talks about.”

(Hustak is a freelance writer in Montreal.)

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