Cardinal Thomas Collins, archbishop of Toronto, celebrated a special liturgy Aug. 15 commemorating the 400th anniversary of the first Catholic Mass in Ontario near present-day Lafontaine. The open-air event attracted hundreds of residents from across Ontario to southern Georgian Bay. Photo by Andrew Philips

Cardinal Collins marks 400 years since first Mass in Ontario

By  Andrew Philips, Catholic Register Special
  • August 18, 2015

LAFONTAINE, Ont. - Four centuries ago, the first Mass west of Quebec was celebrated in the Huron-Wendat village of Carhagouha. On Aug. 15, Toronto's Cardinal Thomas Collins returned to that spot to mark the 400th anniversary of the event.

Reflecting on 400 years of faith tends to create a warm and special feeling, and for Collins, the archbishop of Toronto, it was no exception to the rule.

“This is a very holy place,” Collins said following the special anniversary Mass near present-day Lafontaine.

“I’m honoured to be here.”

Collins was joined by Martyrs’ Shrine director Fr. Bernard Carroll and Fr. Justin Desroches, pastor of nearby Sainte Croix parish, for the hour-long, open-air celebration held in a field that was once home to the Huron-Wendat site of Carhagouha. Held under bright blue skies with much of the congregation sitting on lawn chairs, the Mass featured a warm and inviting ambience complete with folkloric-style hymns, including a rousing zydeco version of "O mon die" to conclude the service.

Prior to opening the French-language Mass, Carroll set the stage for the congregation by outlining the important role the region played in the Catholic Church’s history. Reading from Samuel de Champlain’s diary, Carroll recounted the “extreme affection” the French explorer had for the region and its natural beauty along with how warmly he and his men were welcomed by the Huron-Wendat people.

During his homily, Collins recounted the important role played by Fr. Joseph LeCaron, who officiated the first Mass, which was attended by Champlain.

“Fr. LeCaron was a member of the Récollets (a reformed branch of the Franciscan family) and was followed to the region by the Jesuits,” said Collins, who later blessed holy relics brought to the service from the Shrine by Carroll.

The Jesuit missionaries who followed LeCaron and Champlain to the region are an integral part of Church and Canadian history and are honoured at the nearby Shrine. Among those who missioned to the Huron people were the Canadian Martyrs, Sts. Jean de Brébeuf, Gabriel Lalemant, Antoine Daniel, Charles Garnier, Noël Chabanel, Isaac Jogues, René Goupil and Jean de Lalande, who were killed, along with the Huron people, by the Iroquois when the two nations were at war.

Collins went on to outline the struggles people often face throughout their lives and the reward that awaits the faithful.

“We all have our little dragons we must battle,” he said, noting some must battle a variety of elements including violence, lack of charity and poor choices.

Collins urged those in attendance to continue on their journey of faith with courage and compassion.

“Even after a difficult life, we are welcomed (into Heaven) with open doors. Today, we celebrate throughout the world.”

Area resident Philippe Chartrand thanked everyone for their efforts to ensure the event’s success, singling out Desroches specifically for his “leadership and inspiration.”

One church group travelled from Mississauga for the service.

“It was important for us to be here,” said Paroisse de la Sainte-Famille parishioner Bernard Woo. “It’s a good day.”

(Philips is a freelance writer in Midland, Ont.)

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