Grand Keptin Antle Denny used the celebration of 400 years of Jesuit presence in North America to ask the Jesuits for help in preserving Mi'kmaq language. (Photo by Michael Swan)

Jesuits mark 400 years of ministry in Canada

  • May 23, 2011

PORT ROYAL, N.S. - Canada's Jesuits returned to the scene of their earliest footsteps in Canada to help mark 400 years of service in Canada May 22.

About three dozen Canadian Jesuits and some 100 guests gathered to mark the landing, 400 years to the day, of Jesuit Fathers Pierre Biard and Ennemond Massé at Port Royal in what is now Nova Scotia. Halifax Archbishop Anthony Mancini presided at a jubilee Mass that was part of the day-long celebrations at Port Royal National Historical Site.

The reconstructed Habitation on the shores of the Annapolis Basin, near the Bay of Fundy, provided a back drop for a brief dramatic re-enactment of Biard and Massé’s landing at the site. The original Habitation had been built by French fur traders in 1604 but had been abandoned to Mi’kmaq control when the Jesuits arrived. It became the base for two years of missionary activity before the Jesuits returned to France.

The arduous, expensive and dangerous journey to North America in 1611 was typical of what Jesuits have always done, and still do, said Fr. Jean-Marc Biron, provincial superior of the Jesuits in Quebec.

“Even in those times, Jesuits had to work to the frontiers,” Biron said. “We still, as Jesuits, work on the frontiers — not just the geographical ones.”

Whether it’s rebuilding in Haiti or serving the poor in Canada, Jesuits today are seeking ways of serving Christ that take them outside all that's comfortable and familiar, to the edges of society where Christ needs to be present, said Biron.

“Their mission was the Jesuit mission to find God in all things,” said the Jesuits’ English Canadian provincial superior Fr. Jim Webb in a homily at a thanksgiving Mass.

“They recognized the spirit of Christ present among the native people they came to serve. That’s a legacy that continues to this day.”

English Canadian Jesuit provincial superior Fr. Jim Webb. (Photo by Michael Swan)Nova Scotia’s Lieutenant Governor Mayann Francis praised the Jesuits’ 400 years of faith and zeal.

“God has blessed us. Let us not squander that in an age of distraction,” she said. “Let us embrace those blessings we enjoy in this province.”

As the Jesuits remembered their first steps on North American soil, they also celebrated the welcome they received from the Mi’kmaq people. Biard and Massé had arrived within months of Chief Henri Membertou’s historic decision to seek baptism for himself and his family — becoming the first native Christians in Canada. The Jesuits spent two years in Mi’kmaq country nurturing the faith of the aboriginal community while they were completely dependent on Mi’kmaq hospitality.

The Mi’kmaq came to the celebrations asking the Jesuits for a favour.

“Maybe it’s time for the Mi’kmaq to ask for your help in preserving our language,” said Grand Keptin Antle Denny.

The Mi’kmaq language is one that's in crisis, said Denny. About 70 per cent of Mi’kmaq speak English and very few young people are comfortable in their own language. Linguists have told Denny the language will be extinct in 20 years.

“We want to be with them in spirit,” said Webb. “We would be happy to co-operate.”

Webb told The Catholic Register it’s difficult to say what practical steps today’s Jesuits could take to help preserve the language, but he noted that work on languages has been part of Jesuit history in Canada. Canadian Jesuits translated Ojibway stories into English and the Bible into Ojibway in central Canada. A Canadian missionary to Nepal was responsible for translating the liturgy into Nepali.

A travelling exhibition chronicling the Jesuits four centuries in Canada will make its way across Canada. The exhibition — The Jesuits in Canada, 1611-2011, Men for Others — consists of between 150-200 pieces, including documents, rare books, objects and photographs illustrating the Jesuits' ministry. It is in Port Royal until June 13. From there it goes to Shawinigan, Que., until Sept. 25, with further dates and venues to be announced.

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