Journey back at Sainte-Marie-Among-the-Hurons

In the shadow of a hilltop shrine in Midland, a stockade sits beside a river. Within its bastions, a score of carpenters, blacksmiths and farmers toil in dusty 17th-century garb. Native Hurons tend longhouse fires, soldiers oil muskets in the barracks, and black-robed priests trudge the footpaths between the church and chapel.

All are enacting daily life in this settlement as it existed 364 years ago when the Jesuit missionaries founded it. For 10 years stretching from 1639, it was home to nearly 70 Frenchmen, including priests, troops and artisans (a fifth of New France’s population), plus thousands of visiting natives who were given board and baptism within its palisades. Then, the black robes and their mission were suddenly destroyed.

The Jesuits had travelled a long way to die. To reach this westernmost French outpost within the New World, the first European settlement in Ontario, they had to endure a three-month sea voyage from France, followed by a gruelling 1,250-kilometre canoe trip from Quebec.
Unhappy fame
But Sainte-Marie gained an unhappy fame when Iroquois caught up in the bloody fur trade wars massacred eight Jesui and hundreds of Huron converts. One of the mission’s last martyrs was its founding father, Jean de Brébeuf, an honorary Huron chief. On March 16, 1649, he was tied to a stake, beaten, tortured, baptized with boiling water, then scalped. He died “without uttering a cry” hours later.

The body of this beloved black robe who had brought Christianity to Ontario was buried in Sainte-Marie’s chapel. Surviving priests razed the desecrated mission and fled. Two months later, they exhumed Brébeuf’s bones, which were then swathed in silk and carried to Quebec as sacred relics. After the British conquerors of New France expelled the black robes, the martyr’s skull was left with Quebec’s Ursuline nuns. When the Jesuits returned in 1840 and demanded it back, a compromise was reached: they sawed the skull in half.

It was more than two centuries after Brébeuf’s death before any Jesuit returned to the Sainte-Marie mission. In 1884, Father Pierre Chazelle wrote: “May God grant that soon the ruins of Sainte-Marie be ours and profaned no more.” But it wasn’t until 1926 that his prayer was half-answered when the twin-steepled stone church called the Martyrs’ Shrine was built atop a Midland escarpment overlooking the mission. In 1940, Chazelle’s prayer was fulfilled when the riverside site of Sainte-Marie itself was returned to the Jesuits.

Sainte-Marie-Among-the-Hurons is more than history. It is the site of the dawn of European civilization in Ontario, the first blending of two cultures – French and Huron – in the province and the cradle of Christianity west of Quebec.
Next page: A historically significant site

Finally, in the 1960s, the Ontario government recognized Sainte-Marie’s significance as a major historical site. Signing a 99-year lease (at $l a year) with the Jesuits, the province agreed to rebuild the mission as it originally stood. In 1968, the reconstructed fortress was opened to the public. Each summer, more than 300,000 people visit Sainte-Marie-Among-the-Hurons and the Martyrs’ Shrine above it.

Beside the stockade sits a museum with artifacts, slides and films depicting Sainte-Marie’s birth, life, fiery death – and archaeological resurrection. Step outside, cross a footbridge and stride into history. Within a breastwork of stakes are more than 25 weathered buildings and a native encampment. At one end, beside a five-sided bastion, stretch two huge furnished Huron longhouses. At the other end are the farmers’ quarters and a slope-roofed granary. In between are hospital, apothecary, church, chapel, refectory, cookhouse, stables, Jesuit residence and the shops of the shoemaker, tailor, blacksmith and carpenter, all still teeming with life.
Guides provide answers
Sainte-Marie has nearly 40 costumed guides who answer questions while going about their daily chores. Farmers in broad-brimmed hats weed vegetable gardens, sweating blacksmiths hammer ploughshares beside sparking forges, natives fashion clay pots beside their wigwams, carpenters saw planks. Soldiers patrol the barricades, and black robes in the chapel relate their history. And often in some corner, archeologists are digging, adding new artifacts to the 250,000 found so far.

Martyrs’ Shrine on the nearby hill has wonders of its own. Beyond the charming old church with cheerful priests leading afternoon singalongs, vast green parks harbour handsome bronze statues depicting the Way of the Cross, the site where Pope John Paul II preached to a multitude in 1984.

And the final requiem for St. Jean de Brébeuf. In 1993, before 10,000 worshippers, the Jesuits of Quebec returned the left side of his skull (with a reconstructed right half) to the Martyrs’ Shrine. After 344 years, the black robe who brought Christ to the Hurons had come home.