A Hall of Halls

Civilization is not easily gained, as our early history and founding remind us


Review by Christopher O. Blum

Apostles of Empire: The Jesuits and New France. Bronwen McShea. University of Nebraska Press, 2019.

ONE OF THE archetypal images of civilization is found early in Beowulf, when the poet memorialized the noble desire of the Danish king Hrothgar, newly-enriched by the spoils of war: “his mind turned to hall-building: he handed down orders for men to work on a great mead-hall meant to be a wonder of the world forever; it would be his throne-room and there he would dispense his God-given goods to young and old — but not the common land or people’s lives.” This hall would be Heorot, “the hall of halls,” the scene of Queen Wealhtheow’s courtesy, Grendel’s depredation, and Beowulf’s heroic stand.

To those who have caught its romance, the story of Quebec follows a similar arc. There is the great-souled founder, Samuel de Champlain, the brave first family, the Héberts, and there are traders, coureurs-de-bois, soldiers, nuns, and natives. There are threats: the cold, the scurvy, the Iroquois, and the English. And there are the Black Robes, those mysterious men whose lives are seemingly so unlike our own, the Jesuit missionaries. Together, these were the agents by which the rocky crags, proud islands, and deep forests of the St. Lawrence valley were made a habitation suitable for men, another hall of halls, Canada.

The present season of travail is a propitious time to reflect upon what is required to found, to build, and to maintain a civilization. Rich resources for such reflection await the readers of Bronwen McShea’s Apostles of Empire: The Jesuits and New France. It is self-consciously a work of revision, by which the Jesuit missionaries are rescued from the conflicting pieties of past historians. The writers of the lives of the Jesuit martyrs can be forgiven their one-dimension portrayals, as their chief interest was to elicit wonder among the Catholic faithful. More recent historians have promoted different pieties, with some revering the native peoples in their pre-conversion cultures and others admiring later generations of missionaries for their far-seeing project of affirming native folkways against European mores. Dr. McShea aims to set the record straight by seeing the Black Robes in all of their messy contexts, from the salons of Paris where the funds for the missions were raised to the battlefields of North America where they fought to preserve the tenuous colonial experiment against their rivals, the Protestants and their native allies. “The Jesuits of New France,” on her telling, “were men planted knee-deep in an untidy world of politics, social pressures, and war.”

Apostles of Empire is artfully arranged. The book’s eight chapters follow the story of the Jesuit missions from the heroic first generation — the age of Brébeuf and Jogues — through the spread of the missions throughout much of the Mississippi valley by 1700, to the death in 1800 of the last of the missionaries, Fr. Jean-Joseph Casot. Yet the work is not a conventional narrative. Each chapter focuses upon an aspect of the missions that characterized its development for a season. In the early years, there was enthusiasm for the mission among its first supporters in France and, on the part of the Jesuits, a rush of excitement as they encountered and assessed a new culture. In her first four chapters, McShea chronicles and analyzes the work of the first four decades of the mission. As has been often observed, the North American tribes were considerably more primitive than other major targets of European missionary outreach, whether further south in the western hemisphere or in the far east. McShea’s careful unpacking of how the mostly well-born French Jesuits considered it essential to bring some of the elements of French culture to the American tribes makes good sense. Latrines and other such basic matters of hygiene may not be absolutely necessary to human well-being, but they do seem appropriate gifts to be made when they can be. And countless French Catholics were happy to underwrite the labors of the missionaries to make these and other contributions, in some cases extending even to the provision of dowries for native women. One of the strengths of the book, and the particular focus of its fourth chapter, is its treatment of those lay men and women who remained in France but should nevertheless be acknowledged as participants in the mission through their philanthropic gifts and prayers.


THE BOOK'S second half takes the story from the 1670s through the troubled period of colonial wars and to the loss of New France to the English, the suppression of the Jesuits, and the end of the mission. Two chapters examine different facets of the Jesuits’ engagement with the warrior ethos of the native tribes, especially the Iroquois. McShea shows a side to the missionaries that may surprise many of her readers, for there is evidence that the Jesuits admired the manly virtues of the tribesmen — and tribeswomen — even to the point of viewing them as superior in certain respects to the manners of the French colonists. For they believed that they saw a hierarchy in the tribes, with a native aristocracy displaying virtues that the mainly plebeian colonists neither aspired to nor possessed. She even hazards the bold interpretation that some Jesuit fathers opposed the French colonial policy of promoting intermarriage between natives and colonists because they held it to be inappropriate to wed the daughters of native elites to the sons of French tradesmen and peasants.

As the sorry reign of Louis XV wore on and the royal government took more interest in the profits of slavery than costly projects of civilization, the Jesuits who cared for the Canadian mission — either from posts in Paris or in the mission field itself — were increasingly critical of the French colonial effort. Some of the leading missionaries went decidedly native, such as the bellicose Father Sebastien Râle, sometime participant in Abenaki raids on Puritan New England. Just what it meant to promote the French Empire, the Catholic Faith, and the genuine interests of the various tribes became, by the mid-18th century, difficult to say. When Montcalm came to defend Quebec against Wolfe, he evinced marked disdain for native braves. But to the Jesuits, however rag-tag these soldiers were, they were Catholic, and they were French.


WITH Apostles of Empire, McShea invites her readers to reconsider the Jesuit missions in New France. She seems to have read the entire run of the Jesuit Relations — all forty years of those annual reports from Quebec back to Paris — and a considerable number of other works by missionaries besides. She is a deft analyst of the rhetoric of these documents. Her reader is led to appreciate the desire of the French public to participate in the Jesuits’ noble endeavor and to wonder with them at the challenges and consolations that the missionaries experienced, from beautiful tales of conversion and charity to harrowing accounts of menace and martyrdom, all against the backdrop of the bitter winters, the wild cataracts, and the dark north woods. Was it all mere rhetoric? Were they tall tales spun out by self-serving conquistadors? Or the self-deluding ravings of narrow-minded zealots? The thoughtful reader of McShea’s book cannot come to such conclusions. The Jesuits who wrote of the missions did so to promote them, that is, to raise funds that would pay for them. And so there is indeed an irreducible intermingling of the sacred and the secular in their writing, just as there was in the missions themselves. For we men and women are composed of body and soul. And if the love of God and neighbour is the good of our souls, our bodies nonetheless stand in need of goods too. Sometimes those goods are bought with money — goods like boats and shovels — and sometimes those goods can only be bought by the lives of the courageous — goods like political liberty, which in the concrete may mean not being ruled by the Iroquois or the Dutch. To see the Jesuit missionary effort encompassing all of these goods is to see it as it was and had to be.

At this late hour in the history of North America, these essential goods are seemingly in greater peril than we have known for at least a generation and perhaps several lifetimes. If civilization is to endure as a hall of halls — that is, a legal and cultural framework within which men and women may peaceably pursue truly human goods — it will be thanks to the work of a new generation of missionaries, men and women who like the Jesuits and their French patrons, share its high ideal and are firmly committed to the gritty work of its defense. It is indeed a fitting time to consider the varied labors and the tremendous costs by which civilization came to these shores. It is the merit of Apostles of Empire to prompt its readers to that work of remembering, which is far too important to be considered an exercise in nostalgia.

Originally published in the Autumn-Winter 2020 edition of THE DORCHESTER REVIEW, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 76-78.

Christopher Blum is Academic Dean of the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado. He is the translator of several volumes from the French, including St. Francis de Sales: Roses among Thorns (Sophia Institute, 2014), and is co-author of The Past as Pilgrimage: Narrative, Tradition and the Renewal of Catholic History (Christendom Press, 2014).

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