Guillaume Couture: my Canadian hero

By  Roger Dupuy, Catholic Register Special
  • October 30, 2008
{mosimage}When I set out to in search of my roots, one person reached across 10 generations to touch me deeply. This is what prompted me to find out more about Guillaume Couture, a man of faith, courage, a friend of Canadian martyrs Isaac Jogues and René Goupil and one of my great grandfathers.  

On Sept. 26,  the morning Mass was offered in remembrance of Fr. Jean de Brébeuf, Fr. Isaac Jogues and their Jesuit companions. Guillaume Couture was one of the companions.  
Couture left France and arrived in the Québec City area in the late 1630s. Shortly after his arrival he became a lay missionary, or “donné,” and worked alongside Fr. Jogues and Goupil in the Huron missions of New France.

In the spring of 1640, Couture and four other donnés were sent from Québec to Huronia to help the Jesuits at Fort Ste. Marie. It was a long and tiring journey during which they often had to paddle against strong currents in less than ideal weather conditions, and always had to be on guard in case of surprise attacks by the Iroquois.

When they arrived at Fort Ste. Marie, near modern-day Midland, Ont., they were assigned various jobs. The Martyrs’ Shrine Message describes Couture as “a skilled carpenter, a deadly marksman with the musket and a sincerely pious man.” As a master carpenter, he was ideally suited to build and repair buildings, furniture and wooden tool handles.

In 1642, Couture was back in Québec devoting himself to the Huron missions along with Fr. Jogues, Goupil and other companions. His courage and strong faith were evident on one specific occasion when he and his companions were confronted by a band of Iroquois. They immediately dispersed in all directions, but when Couture realized that Fr. Jogues and Goupil were not with him he doubled back, and risking his life, he began to search for them. His faith in God and his devotion to his friends would not allow him to abandon them knowing that their lives were in great danger. Suddenly, he came face to face with a few Iroquois and, displaying his accuracy with the musket, shot one of the braves dead. The others captured him, beat him and brought him to join his companions who had also been captured.

Following their capture, these brave men of God were subjected to unimaginable tortures. While Fr. Jogues and Goupil were eventually martyred, Couture’s life was spared. Since he had killed a brave, he was given to the family, as the war council dictated. While keeping his vows as a donné, he lived with his adopted family, learning their language and customs. There, he displayed his skills as a marksman and carpenter. This, coupled with his enormous courage, earned him the respect and confidence of his captors. Knowing their language made him an asset as an interpreter in numerous negotiations with the French.

After about four years, Couture was given his freedom and he settled at La Pointe-de-Lévis, known today as Lévis, in Quebec. Settling in this area was an arduous task. He had to clear the land using the primitive tools of the time, face the hardships of isolation and rugged winters and an enemy that was never far away. After weeks of hard work his cabin was ready to be inhabited. Little by little the area began to grow with the arrival of other settlers. Since these settlers were all Catholics, the presence of a priest was paramount. According to Joseph-Edmond Roy in his book Guillaume Couture: Premier colon de La Pointe-de-Lévy, it was in Couture’s house that, on an Easter Sunday, Fr. Pierre Biloquet celebrated the first ever Mass at La Pointe-de-Lévis. However, it wasn’t until much later that a permanent church would be built.

In 1649, after having been relieved of his obligations as a lay missionary, Couture married Anne Aymart, their marriage being blessed at his house. Together they had 10 children and it is from their daughter Anne that I descend.

For several years, Couture continued his work as a voyageur and interpreter. For about 25 years he travelled extensively along the shores of Lake Huron, the forests of New England, the plains of Lac St-Jean and Hudson’s Bay and along the north shore of the St. Lawrence. Many of these expeditions were at the request of the government who knew him as a devoted, courageous man and a precise interpreter.

In 1666, his reputation gained him the title of Captain of Militia. In that role, as Thomas LaForest writes, he “was required to carry out the orders and proclamations of the Governor, command the troops, preside over census enumerations and convene citizens assemblies.”

In my research I found discrepancies as to the exact date and cause of his death. But it appears that he died of smallpox at Hotel Dieu Hospital in Québec City in 1702, at the age of 95.

Recently, my wife Bonnie and I visited old Lévis and located Couture’s statue. Looking at it and touching it was a very moving experience for me. He, together with the Canadian martyrs, suffered so much in order to plant the seed of faith in the new colony. Had it not been for their numerous sacrifices, courage and strong faith, our lives would be profoundly different today.

Each age has its heroes who set the standard for our aspirations. For me, my ancestor was one of those heroes. 

(Dupuy is a freelance writer in Newmarket, Ont.)

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