Mi'kmaq keep the faith for 400 years

  • June 30, 2010
Mi’kmaq christianityOn June 24, 1610 Mi’kmaq Grand Chief Henri Membertou, hoping to solidify relations with Nova Scotia French settlers, became the first native Canadian baptized into the Catholic Church. He was joined that day by 20 family members and within 50 years the entire Mi’kmaq nation had become Christians.

The 400th anniversary of that historic baptism was celebrated in a public showcase June 24-28 that paid homage to Mi’kmaq culture and the important contribution made by Membertou and the Mi’kmaq nation to the spread of Catholicism in Canada. To this day, virtually every Mi’kmaq is a baptized Christian.

The celebrations, which included a recreation of Membertou’s baptism, helped reaffirm Membertou’s Christian beliefs, said Sr. Dorothy Moore, a Sister of St. Martha in the diocese of Antigonish and member of the Mi’kmaq nation.

“I think it will and is renewing our faith and our appreciation for our history, our history in the Church,” she said. “And I think it also renews hope for the future, hope that who we are and what we are will continue in the generations to come.”

Membertou, a respected leader, was regarded as a shaman and prophet. He forged a relationship with the French that helped them survive the harsh winters and, over time, he built a respect for their faith which, like Mi’kmaq spirituality, was centred on a belief in one God.

Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, who served as  archbishop of Halifax for nine years, said East Coast Catholics have the Mi’kmaq to thank, and ultimately Chief Membertou, for keeping their faith alive as the country was forming.

In 1752, the Holy See entered into a treaty with the British that allowed a French priest to come and minister to the Mi’kmaq, Prendergast said.

“And so when the priest came to minister to the Mi’kmaq, he also came to minister to the Irish, rather clandestinely, but nonetheless he gave them the opportunity when he was in the area.”

This happened during an era when French Catholics, or Acadians, were being deported by the British army. At the same time, Prendergast added, Mi’kmaq helped some Acadians escape to Quebec. Prendergast said the important contributions the Mi’kmaq made to the Church were often emphasized during his years in Halifax.

“The vicar general would always say ‘we always thank the Mi’kmaq people for the treaty they had because it allowed us to have the sacraments.’ This led the Irish who were in the town to insist that they be given emancipation so they could actually own property, build a church and practise their faith,” said Prendergast.

Prendergast saw that faith proudly displayed by past chiefs who attended Mass and also insisted he attend and officiate their installation as chief.

“It was always important to them that the archbishop came,” he said.

The June 24 ceremony at the Port Royal National Historic Site included a Mass said by Newfoundland Archbishop Martin Currie, with the Pope’s representative, Apostolic Nuncio Pedro López Quintana, Bishop Brian Dunn of the diocese of Antigonish, and other Catholic bishops. The Mass was followed by a re-enactment of Membertou’s baptism and Mi’kmaq cultural demonstrations.

“It’s so wonderful to have a purpose for celebration and our purpose being celebrating our faith,” Moore said.

Dunn said the Mass at Port Royal, which gathered native people in the presence of the Grand Chief and the Grand Council, was also a highlight for him.

“The Grand Chief highlighted his commitment to the Catholic faith and it was almost as if the words of Chief Membertou were being repeated 400 years later,” Dunn said in an e-mail. “The presence of the Mi’kmaq at the various Masses gave me great hope, for these celebrations remind me that many of the Mi’kmaq people are committed to gathering as a people of faith.”

The Mi’kmaq, he added, recognize the importance of celebrating special events in their lives, as well as the sacraments.

“The whole community gathers for the celebration of wakes and funerals. Many of the reserves have special missions on the occasion of the Feast of St. Anne. Whenever they gather, they believe it is important to have a meal and they are quite generous in their spirit of hospitality.”

Every year the Mi’kmaq in Antigonish organize a pilgrimage on Chapel Island on the feast day of St. Anne. Quebec’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet is scheduled to attend the pilgrimage this year on Aug. 1.

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