Catholic Church part of Canada's 'founding myth'

  • June 26, 2009
{mosimage}Canada Day celebrations will almost certainly praise this country as a tolerant, peaceable nation with a highly developed, secular and multicultural, democratic culture.

That wasn’t what St. Jean de Brebeuf had in mind when he established the first European settlement in Upper Canada in 1639. The mystic Jesuit priest and missionary had a vision of a Christian kingdom in the heart of North America — a theocracy, really — where European and Huron cultures would be mutually transformed by faith in Jesus Christ.

Brebeuf’s vision lasted just 10 years, and the Jesuits ended up burning down their tiny experiment at Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons near present-day Midland, Ont., in 1649 to prevent the village falling into the hands of the Iroquois (proxies for the Dutch, whose commercial interests in the fur trade opposed those of France).
Canada did remain a majority Catholic (and francophone) nation until the 1850s. Following the battle on the Plains of Abraham (1759) its kings and queens refrained from establishing the Anglican Church, or any church. Thus Canada began a tradition of personal freedom and state neutrality in religion.

Neither would Canada’s monarch in far-away London allow John A. Macdonald to name Canada a kingdom. The compromise made us a “Dominion” — a biblical term that was no more than a fig leaf over our true status in 1867 as a colony with limited home rule.

Saints, Blesseds, Venerable & more

St. Isaac Jogues (1608-1646)
St. Jean de Brébeuf (1593-1649)
St. Charles Garnier (1606-1649)
St. Antoine Daniel (1600-1648)
St. Gabriel Lalemant (1610-1649)
St. Noel Chabanel (1613-1649)
St. René Goupil (1608-1642)
St. Jean de La Lande (1600s-1646)
St. Marguerite Bourgeoys (1620-1700)
St. Marguerite d’Youville (1701-1771)

André Grasset (1758-1792)
Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680)
Marie de l’Incarnation (1599-1672)
François de Laval (1623-1708)
Marie-Rose Durocher (1811-1849)
Brother André (1845-1937)
Marie-Léonie Paradis (1840-1912)
Louis-Zéphirin Moreau (1824-1901)
Frédéric Janssoone (1838-1916)
Catherine de Saint-Augustin (1632-1668)
Dina Bélanger (1897-1929)
Marie-Anne Blondin (1809-1890)
Émilie Tavernier-Gamelin (1800-1851)
Bishop Vasyl Velychkovsky, C.Ss.R. (Ukrainian) (1903-1973)
Bishop Nykyta Budka (Greek-Ukrainian) (1877-1949)

Vital Grandin (1829-1902)
Alfred Pampalon (1867-1896)
Élisabeth Bergeron (1851-1936)
Délia Tétreault (1865-1941)

Causes For Sainthood
Jérôme Le Royer de la Dauversière (1597-1659)
Jeanne Mance (1606-1673)
Fr. Pierre-Joseph-Marie Chaumonot (1611-1693)
Br. Didace Pelletier (1657-1699)
Jeanne LeBer (1662-1714)
Sr. Rosalie Cadron-Jetté (1794-1864)
Sr. Marcelle Mallet (1805-1871)
Sr. Élisabeth Bruyère (1818-1876)
Sr. Élisabeth Turgeon (1840-1881)
Sr. Marie Fitzbach (1806-1885)
Sr. Éléonore Potvin (1865-1903)
Sr. Catherine-Aurélie Caouette (1833-1905)
Fr. Alexis-Louis Mangin (1856-1920)
Br. Théophanius-Léo (Adolphe Chatillon) (1871-1929)
Gérard Raymond (1912-1932)
Bishop Ovide Charlebois (1862-1933)
Sr. Marie-Clément Staub (1876-1936)
Fr. Eugène Prévost (1860-1946)
Br. Antoine Kowalczyk (1866-1947)
Louis Émond (1876-1949)
Fr. Victor Lelièvre (1876-1956)
Catherine de Hueck Doherty (1896-1985)
Pauline Archer-Vanier (1898-1991)
Georges Vanier (1888-1967)
Sr. Carmelina Tarantino (1937-1992)

But still on this Canada Day secular Canada has 10 saints, eight of whom shared Brebeuf’s dream, and all of whom lived under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience for the sake of the Kingdom of God. (St. Jean de La Lande was a lay man, but a “donne”  who gave his labour to the Jesuits and shared their life.)

Canadian saints do mean something to Canada, said Jesuit historian Fr. Jacques Monet.

“(They are) the example of how the Christian vocation to have our lives configured to that of Christ can be done in this place,” said Monet.

The search for a Canadian identity, if it’s got anything to do with our history, can’t ignore the saints or the church.

“In Canada, the Catholic Church was there from the beginning and exercising a great moral influence in what was going on and the way this country was developing,” said Monet.

For Catholics, Canadian history is both deeper and longer than 142 years.

“The Roman Catholic Church is part of the founding myth of this country,” said Monet. “In the relationship with native people, in the exploration of the country, the exploration and opening up of this huge space, this huge country. It’s very much part of the Canadian identity.”

All 10 Canadian saints, and most of the 19 blesseds and venerables, lived some part of their lives bridging the gap between native and European culture. They aren’t always happy stories. Marguerite d’Youville’s husband Francois illegally sold liquor to native people. Kateri Tekakwitha was scarred at a young age by the smallpox Europeans brought to her Mohawk community. Later she was shunned by her own people when she accepted baptism.

Brebeuf never imagined that the Huron people would become French, or that French missionaries and settlers would remain European. By living together and living their faith, they would create a new civilization.

It was the beginning of Canadian multiculturalism — the first tiles in the Canadian mosaic — said Jesuit Father Alex Kirsten, director of Martyrs’ Shrine.

“We see the mosaic was alive when they first went out, when the martyrs were alive, and it is alive even today,” said Kirsten.

It is nowhere more alive than on the hill just outside Midland, where the Martyrs’ Shrine has honoured the eight Jesuit martyrs since 1926. Wave after wave of Catholic immigrants to southern Ontario have established shrines on the grounds to honour saints and religious devotions they brought with them from the old country.

The Poles have brought the Black Madonna to Midland. The Italians will further cement their claim on the property with a new statue of the Jesuit missionary Francois-Joseph Bressani, to be erected at the shrine this summer. The Irish have a very Celtic peace pole.

But all the ethnic pilgrims to Martyrs’ Shrine come together in seeking blessings from the relics of the Canadian martyrs.

“For them, it’s a blend,” said Kirsten.“It’s kind of that their national heroes, whether they are saints or martyr-saints, have found a home in the house of the Canadian martyrs.”

Salt + Light TV CEO Fr. Tom Rosica doesn’t think Canada’s saints are merely a colourful chapter in Canada’s history. The Basilian who headed up World Youth Day in 2002 thinks those saints are important for Canada’s future.

“Young people need heroes and heroines who are authentic,” Rosica said. “The saints offer us great examples. The worlds of sports and cinema and spectacle really don’t uphold good heroes.”

Just as the Dominion Institute bemoans the ignorance of Canadian history among young people, Rosica worries that young Catholics have not been encouraged to adopt the Canadian saints as their own.

“Our nation in particular needs saints. We have a rich patrimony in Canada we know little about — especially English Canada knows little about the French saints,” he said.

It took 280 years for the church to recognize the heroic holiness of the Canadian martyrs, who were canonized June 29, 1930. We may have to wait for more anglo names to surface. Catherine Doherty’s cause for sainthood is well organized (, but she is not yet a venerable. Two-hundred-eighty years from her death would put her canonization at 2265.

“It would be nice if there were more anglo names,” said Monet.

But we should not neglect the saints we have.

“We owe them, after God, a great debt for the faith that we live by today,” Monet said.

St. Isaac Jogues
St. Jean de Brebueuf
St. Charles Ganier
St. Isaac Jogues
St. Jean de Brebueuf
St. Charles Ganier
St. Antoine Daniel
St. Gabriel Lalemant
St. Noel Chabanel
St. Antoine Daniel
St. Gabriel Lalemant
St. Noel Chabanel
St. Rene Goupil
St. Jean de La Lande
St. Marguerite Bourgeoys
St. Rene Goupil
St. Jean de La Lande
St. Marguerite Bourgeoys
St. Marguerite d'Youville
St. Marguerite d'Youville

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