Seventy-one years after the approval of the Society of Jesus by Pope Paul III in 1540 and 55 years after the death of its founder, Ignatius Loyola, the first Jesuits, the Frenchmen Pierre Biard and Ennemond Massé, set foot in what is now Canada, at Port Royal, May 22, 1611. “It is according to our divine calling,” Loyola had written, “to travel to various places and to live in any part of the world where there is hope of God’s greater service and the help of souls,” and in Canada these “Blackrobes,” as they soon came to be called, immediately began to reach out to the indigenous peoples in the vast new land. They went first to the Micmacs, next to the Montagnais, then to the Algonquins. They followed the wanderers. They made their way into the forests, along the waterways, across the portages and through the woods.
The history of the Jesuits in Canada from 1611 to 1924 and on through to the present day is a long and fascinating one.
By 1745, Gabriel Druillettes had preached to the tribes along the Atlantic coast, Charles Albanel had gone to those along Hudson Bay, while Claude Allouez, Jean-Pierre Aulneau, and Godefroy Coquart, scouring three thousand miles along the Great Lakes and on to the prairies as far as Lake Winnipeg, had made contact with some 23 nations of differing languages and customs. Most famously, Jacques Marquette had discovered the great waterway that would bring Christianity into the lives of thousands more in the heart of the continent.
The best-known of the early Jesuit Missions is the heroic failure of St. Jean de Brébeuf and his companions in Huronia. They had hoped to establish a Church there that would be at once fully Catholic and fully Huron. At Ste-Marie, in 1639, they built “a house of prayer and a home of peace,” a community where white and aboriginal people were to dwell together in harmony, where the rites and traditions of both Europeans and Hurons could be strengthened and enriched by the values of the Gospel. But their plans got caught up in tribal warfare, in the intrigues of the French and English courts, in the politics of the fur and brandy trades. They were destroyed by those they most wanted to serve. Eight have been canonized: Jean de Brébeuf, Isaac Jogues, Gabriel Lalement, Antoine Daniel, Charles Garnier, Noel Chabanel, Réne Goupil, and Jean de la Lande; and many others, including their native friends Joseph Chiwatenhwa and Kateri Tekakwitha, continue to inspire missionaries down to the present day.
For a brief time in 1805 and again in 1811 there was serious question of English Jesuits coming to Halifax, where Edmund Burke, the Vicar-General of Bishop Joseph-Octave Plessis of Quebec, wished them to open a college. He even forwarded passage money for two priests to travel from London. In 1806 Bishop Plessis himself wrote to Pope Pius VII and to the Jesuit Superior General in Russia, Thaddeus Brzozowski, begging that Jesuits be sent from England not only for Halifax but to work among the aboriginal people in Upper Canada as well. The General was very anxious to help. He committed four men, two from Russia and two from England, but the war in Europe and the dangers of travel made their mission impossible.
When the Jesuits did return to Canada, in 1842, it was at the request of Bishop Ignace Bourget of Montreal and, like their predecessors two centuries earlier, they came from France. A year later they were invited to Toronto by the new bishop there, Michael Power, who had meanwhile left them in charge of his parish in Laprairie. They went to Sandwich, Canada West, then to Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron. And again like their predecessors they spread rapidly.
In fact, their story began to unfold very much as did that of the Catholic Church in this country. They incorporated and grew strong in French Canada, travelled to the indigenous peoples, and followed the large numbers of Catholic immigrants who settled in Upper Canada and later on the Western prairie. Some worked only with the Indians, some only with the whites, but the largest number, especially in the nineteenth century, served both.At first, as in the old days, there was a college. This time it was in Montreal — Collège Ste-Marie in 1848, out of which would grow, eventually, three others: Loyola College in 1896, St-Ignace in 1927 and Jean-de-Brébeuf in 1928. Later, after frustrating attempts at Sandwich and Charlottetown, there would be others, colleges and high schools, at St-Boniface, Sudbury, Edmonton, Regina, Kingston, Winnipeg, Halifax, St. John’s, Toronto…. Again there would be missions: first on Walpole Island in 1844, then along the north shores of Georgian Bay and Lake Superior; at Wikwemikong in 1844, at Sault Ste. Marie in 1846, and in the region around Thunder Bay in 1848.
In most of these ministries the Jesuits were neither the first nor the only ones to serve. In education the Sulpicians and the Basilians were often there in greater numbers, and in many instances the Jesuits acted in close cooperation with Diocesan clergy and with congregations of religious women: the Congregation of Notre Dame, the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, the Grey Nuns, the Religious of the Sacred Heart, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, the Sisters of Christ the King, the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, the Sisters of Loretto, the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions, the Sisters of Saint Anne, the Sisters of Saint Joseph, the Sisters of Saint Martha of Charlottetown, the Sisters of Service, and the Ursulines.
Among the aboriginal people, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate were often there before and, more often still, did much more. The Jesuits nonetheless left their stamp. Many of the new Jesuits worked in English from the beginning. They were French for the most part, although before the 1880s when the majority of some 200 would be Canadian-born for the first time, they came also from Austria and Germany, Ireland and Switzerland, from Belgium, from Poland, and from the United States. But, especially at first, most became bilingual, and many worked almost exclusively in English Canada. An Irishman, Francis Dealy, was among the founders of Collège Ste-Marie in 1848, and the first novice to enter the Order in Montreal, Auguste Régnier, spent most of his Jesuit life working in English. By 1900, more than one-third of the 290 Canadian Jesuits were working in English, and among them were parish priests and preachers, Brothers, educators, missionaries, and scholars.
When the Jesuits first arrived back in Canada — at Laprairie, Canada East, May 31, 1842 — they were part of a French Mission eventually administered from the United States. They remained part of this “New York-Canada Mission” until 1879, despite having to bear the accusation — by Sir George Cartier, among others — of being “annexationists.” In 1879 they were attached to England, and then in 1887 became an Independent Mission when Pierre Hamel, who spent most of his life working in English, became Superior. In 1907, they were numerous and prosperous enough to constitute the independent Province of Canada, charged with six parishes, four colleges, and some twenty mission stations. By then they also controlled their own long formation program. They owned their own novitiate, Maison St-Joseph, built in 1853 at Sault-au-Récollet, Montreal, for the programs in spirituality and classics that constituted the first four years of training, as well as the final year of a Jesuit priest’s formation.
From out of “the Sault” in 1913 would be founded St. Stanislaus Novitiate, at Guelph, Ontario, for the Anglophone novices. The Canadian Jesuits also owned since 1884 the large Collège de l’Immaculée-Conception, Montreal, for the traditional courses in philosophy and theology which every Jesuit student had to follow. Out of it would grow eventually, in 1930, the English-speaking Jesuit Seminary, Regis College, Toronto, for the students in philosophy, and in 1943 for the theologians. But already by 1924 the number of men and ministries had almost doubled, the mission stations were up to thirty in number, the parishes totalled nine, and the colleges six. In that year the Province of Canada was divided in two along linguistic lines, with some 130 English-speaking members grouped together in the Vice-Province of Upper Canada, while 428 French-Canadians constituted the Province of Lower Canada. By the early 1960s Jesuit numbers had grown to some 470 in Upper Canada and over 800 in Lower Canada. As well, Jesuit institutions stretched from St. John’s to Vancouver.