It was several years ago when I first read Fr.Myles Gaffney’s book Witness to Faith: An Introduction to the Life of Joseph Chiwatenhwa. This book tells the story of an Indigenous Catholic convert who was considered by the Jesuit missionaries to be “the Christian par excellence” and “the pearl of our Christians.” About Joseph, the Jesuits said, “It was in this Christian that we had our hope after God.”
More recently, I took another look at this book about this Huron saint and found this photo accompanied by my prayerful marginalia about hoping to visit the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ontario one day.
It was a joy, therefore, to make the pilgrimage there today with two friends to receive a tour by Fr. Robert Foliot, SJ.
Fr. Bert began by telling us about the church in which we sat that had been built 95 years ago in commemoration of St. Jean de Brébeuf’s arrival to Canada from France 395 years ago. The site was chosen because these are the grounds of the eight Jesuit missionaries who were martyred here in the 17th century.
We heard that Jean de Brébeuf came in 1625 and he fell in love with the Huron-Wendat people. He found them intelligent, good humoured, and hospitable. The Huron-Wendat people were also more apt to remain in one place compared to other tribes that were more nomadic. Fr. Jean de Brébeuf learned the Huron language to the extent of being able to write an entire dictionary of the language as well as translate the catechism and other liturgical texts into it.
Fr. Bert told us that, in Brébeuf’s time, the Jesuits wanted to be totally inculturated with the indigenous peoples they sought to evangelize, and that the approach in the 16th and 17th centuries was vastly different from the approach in the 18th and 19th centuries. He said that, in the former centuries, the Jesuits came with the primary mission of baptism. Then, in later centuries, there were increasingly colonial objectives of governments.
It was great to explore the Martyrs’ Shrine, particularly after setting my heart on it so many years ago because of reading the Chiwatenwa book. The extensive volumes in the Jesuit Relations chronicle much about Indigenous-Catholic relations that is worth learning and exploring. It is wonderful to have a Shrine commemorating lives of heroic virtue so that new generations can make contact with what is most edifying and exemplary in the lives of saints and martyrs.