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Athabasca University

Jesuit Relations

Photo of a Catholic nun

The Jesuits, or the Society of Jesus, is a division of the Catholic Church whose priests, friars and nuns take special vows of poverty and obedience. They played an important role in New France. The society was started in 1534 by St. Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish soldier who experienced a religious conversion. One of their primary interests is education. They are a highly learned division of the Catholic Church, classically trained in Greek and Latin, and still run colleges and hospitals.

In the 1500s and 1600s they were extremely concerned with spreading the word of God to all walks of life, including those peoples who had just been "discovered" through exploration. They traveled all over the world to educate new converts, from India and China, to Latin America and New France. They had the most success converting those in Latin America due to the fact that the Spanish were particularly brutal to the Natives living there. The Jesuits offered protection from the inevitable slaughter the Natives would have faced from the Spanish. In 1773, Pope Clement XIV dissolved the Society of Jesus, but it was re-established by Pope Pius VII in 1814.

The Jesuit Relations is a 73-volume collection of the letters and reports which Jesuit missionaries wrote back to France over a forty-year period from New France. In 1611, the first Jesuit mission is established in Acadia. From 1629-1632, the Jesuits were expelled because of the English occupation of New France. But in 1632, lead by Father Paul Le Jeune, the Jesuits returned to New France and worked to convert and educate the Native and the French population that lived there at the time. They continued their work until 1760, when the English took over New France once again and forbade the Jesuits from converting new members.

The Jesuit Relations is particularly interesting because they present a highly literate account of life in New France, as opposed to the courreur-de-bois and voyageurs who were the other primary inhabitants of New France. Their letters represent both a travel narrative (a personal chronicle of firsthand experiences) and an ethnographic description (an impersonal, encyclopedic catalogue of the customs and beliefs of some unfamiliar culture) about life in New France, in particular, the Native way of life. The Jesuit missionaries in New France were trusted because they were French (the English, during their first brief occupation were particularly aggressive towards the Natives, while the French needed the Natives in order to benefit economically from the fur trade) and because they took the time to live in the Native communities and learn the language. The Jesuits missionaries worked primarily with the Huron because they were a sedentary people.

From a literary standpoint, The Jesuit Relations is influential in European literature, providing the template for the later theory of the "noble savage." Also, the martyrdom of the Jesuits at the hands of the Iroquois, especially that of Jean de Brébeuf, fueled the literary imagination of French-Canadians for generations. We see in this example the beginning of the creation of mythology for a new country. Another example is the story of Catherine Tekakwitha, the first Native saint. She is another figure that, through The Jesuit Relations, becomes a mythological figure who haunted the literary imagination of this young country. (Lee Skallerup)

Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services

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