With the sun receding on the evening of April 24, 1615, the ship bearing the first missionaries to Canada slipped out of the harbor at Honfleur, France, in consort with the return fleet of Samuel de Champlain.  While Champlain had spent the previous year establishing and securing royal favor for his “Compagnie des Marchands de Rouen et de Saint-Malo" and "Compagnie de Champlain,” he also sought “to find some good friars, with zeal and affection for the glory of God, whom I might persuade to send or come themselves with me to this country to try to plant there the faith, or at least to do what was possible in the way of their calling.”  Not feeling that he could afford the expenditure of sending and maintaining these religious, Champlain sought out other benefactors who might contribute to such a cause.  Louis Houel, the King’s secretary, took a great interest in this endeavor and secured the funds necessary in addition to making a generous donation himself.[1]  These contributing individuals

…gave the Sieur de Champlain fifteen hundred livres to purchase portable chapels, church vestments, and other necessary articles for beginning a mission…. [While] The merchants all generously offered to feed, support, and carry free every year, to the number of six, the Recollects who might pass to Canada to keep up the mission.

With funding secured, supplies purchased, support gained from the Pope, and having found four Recollect Franciscan missionaries willing to undertake the initial establishment, Champlain was ready to make sail to New France.  

    The Recollects were a reform branch of the Franciscan order, who took a more literal interpretation of the Rule of Saint Francis.  Having originated in Spain, the order had spread into France by 1585, and quickly established itself in Tulle, Nevers, Limoges, and Paris by 1603.  The four friars who would come with Champlain for the initial establishment of the missions in New France all came from the house in Paris, whose organizational province was known as Saint Denis.   Despite being located across the Atlantic Ocean, the convent which was to be established by the Recollect Friars in Canada was, administratively, a part of this same province.  

    Serving as commissary of the Canadian mission, that is to say its appointed head answerable to the Father-Provincial back in France, was Father Denis Jamay.  Accompanying him were fathers John d'Olbeau, Joseph le Caron, and lay brother Pacificus du Plessis. A lay brother was a friar who had not been ordained as a priest, and therefore could not perform a mass or receive confessions among other priestly functions.

    After a voyage of thirty-one days, the friars along with the rest of Champlain’s fleet reached the port of Tadoussac in Canada on May 25.  There they rested for two days before Denis Jamay, the commissary, sent father John d’Olbeau up the Saint Lawrence River to Quebec in order to make preparations for their arrival.  Having traced out a chapel and small house for their use in consultation with Champlain, the friar set about on its construction while waiting for his brothers to arrive a few days later.  Eager to go among the natives and determine the best way to undergo their missionization, Father Jamay and Father le Caron bypassed Quebec and continued on to Three Rivers where the French traded with the Indians.  This left Father d’Olbeau to construct the chapel along with Brother Pacificus, “which being finished, and the chapel in a fit state…had, on the 25th of June, 1615, the privilege of celebrating there the first Mass ever said in Canada."
[4]  Recollect historian Chretien Le Clercq relates that

“...The celebrant and his congregation were all bathed in tears (by an effect of interior consolation which God infused into their souls) to see for the first time descending in those before unknown lands, under the sacramental species, the Incarnate World and God.  Having prepared by confession, they received the Saviour in Eucharistic Communion; the "Te Deum" was chanted amid the roar of their little artillery, and amid the acclamations of joy with which that wilderness re-echoed on every side.  One might say it was changed into a paradise, all there invoking the King of Heaven, blessing his holy name, and calling to their aid the guardian angels of those vast provinces, in order to draw these nations more efficaciously to the knowledge and adoration of the true God."

While this was not the actual first mass to be performed in Canada, the individuals present and Father d’Olbeau himself genuinely believed that it was, as is borne out by a letter he wrote to a Father Didacus David back in France.[6]  Even though it was not the first ever, the mass was indeed the first to be performed by an established religious order in Canada and marked the beginning of concerted attempts to bring the faith to the wild frontiers of the French empire.  

    It is two weeks now before I myself embark on the long journey to New France, and while my mission is that of education and not conversion, I cannot help but reflect on how these four friars felt as they faced the uncertainty of a New World and in its face maintained faith in the potential that their endeavors would lead to great future.    

[1] Champlain, Samel de, The works of Samuel de Champlain, Vol. III (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1922-1936), accessed August 10, 2011. http://link.library.utoronto.ca/champlain/DigObj.cfm?Idno=9_96823&lang=eng&Page=0039&Size=3&query=Friar&search&startrow=11&Limit=All..
[2] Le Clercq, Chretien, First Establishment of the faith in New France (New York: J.G. Shea, 1881), accessed August 10, 2011.  http://www.archive.org/stream/firstestablishme01lecluoft#page/72/mode/2up .
[3] Ibid., 82-83.
[4] Ibid., 87
[5] Ibid., 88
[6] Ibid. 89-90

Jean-Guy Rioux
10/10/2014 19:38

HI, wow!! beautifull site, i work in the same subject Récollet in NEW FRance, i would like to comminicate whith you, to talking about this subjecr :) bye bye !


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