May 23, 2019 — In Saint Francis Xavier Church in Kahnawake, on the south shore of Montreal, the origins of the Jesuit missions in New France and of the first indigenous saint live side by side. Visitors can admire paintings and relics of the missionaries while visiting the shrine dedicated to Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, where her relics can be found. To enter this church today a national historic site, is to step nearly 300 hundred years back in time to a story of relations between different peoples.
The Origins of Saint Francis Xavier’s Mission and of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha’s Shrine
In 1625, the first Jesuits settled in the Saint Lawrence Valley and started establishing missions in various allied indigenous communities of the French, such as the Wendats or the Innus. However, relations with the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) and the French were strained or hostile for a long time; this is one of the reasons why the Jesuit missionaries could not establish themselves in these communities to work there on a more long-term basis. In the 1650s, some Jesuits such as Fr. Chaumonot went on reconnaissance trips to see if it was possible to establish missions, which was eventually done over the following years.
The Jesuit mission of Saint Francis Xavier changed places several times. This mission was first set up in 1667 in Kentake (known today as La Prairie). The Kanien'keha:ka (Mohawks) who lived there then moved four times from their village for economic, agricultural or political reasons. Kahnawake was not established in its present location before 1716. The church was erected four years later, followed by Fort Saint-Louis in 1725; in fact, a wall of stone that was part of this fort can still be seen today. According to historian Jean-François Lozier, the missionaries exercised a form of leadership whilst also following the decisions and needs of the community. Many of the community’s inhabitants had converted to Catholicism, namely an indigenous Catholicism.
Several Jesuits worked at Saint Francis Xavier, including Fathers Frémin, Chauchetière and Cholenec, who personally knew Kateri Tekakwitha. After having been baptized in Ossernenon, the village where she grew up, she fled to the Jesuit mission in 1677, then established near what is now known as Ville Sainte-Catherine. According to the missionaries, she quickly grew in her faith. After a few years of devotions and mortifications, she died in 1680 at the age of 24. Steps were rapidly taken to document her life and miracles and she was the subject of devotions. Tekakwitha was declared venerable in 1943, blessed in 1980 and finally a saint in 2012. First buried in the mission where she died, her relics were placed in a wooden box and then in 1972, they were placed in a marble tomb located in the right transept of Saint Francis Xavier Church.
The Church Today
Let us return to the present in Saint Francis Xavier Church. Today, this building has two parts. The first, namely the boutique and the museum, is in fact what remains of the XVIIIth century church. The present church is an extension begun in 1820 by two Jesuits, Fathers Joseph Marcoux and Félix Martin. Over the years, they added the new sacristy, the new tower and the steeple.
When you enter the church, the Jesuit legacy along with Saint Kateri’s is very present. On both sides of the altar we find statues of Saint Ignatius of Loyola and of Saint Francis Xavier. To the right, there is a huge reproduction of a painting of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha which is said to have been painted by Fr. Chauchetière. Therein lies the shrine where one can pray before the tomb of Kateri. This shrine is very well known: according to a museum volunteer, several hundred people from around the world come to visit it every year.
One must also take the time to admire the decor of the Church. The ceiling was painted by the Italian artist Guido Nincheri. It is embellished by scenes from the New Testament and images of significant Jesuits such as Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier.
Another interesting element: the stations of the Cross, made in Milan, whose descriptions are in Mohawk.
Visitors can then enter the museum. The objects displayed there show the ties between the European missionaries and the Kanien'keha:ka. Jesuit objects imported from France (monstrance, crucifix, books) are side by side with indigenous artefacts and musical manuscripts in Kanien’keha (Mohawk language.) These remind us that the missionaries were able to learn Kanien’keha and write this language down on paper thanks to the Kanien'keha:ka. In fact, these manuscripts were used by the modern Mohawk Choir la chorale moderne en mohawk established in 1871.
The Impact of the Jesuits and of Saint Kateri in Kahnawake
However, outside the walls of the church, what is the impact of the Jesuits in the community? Sandra-Lynn Kahsennanó:ron Leclaire, resident of Kahnawake and Masters student in History at McGill University as well as Fr. John Meehan, SJ, shed light on this subject.
According to Ms. Leclaire, today, it is mostly the elders of Kahnawake who are interested in Saint Kateri’s shrine. In fact, several residents do not even know about it. To her knowledge, religion is starting to disappear in the community and “several people are uncomfortable with the history of the Jesuits as founders of the community and are rejecting it.” The Jesuit presence that was most felt is, according to her, through the linguistic manuscripts of the missionaries which were kept in the church for a long time. Used by members of their community to study their language, they are now kept, for the most part, in the Jesuit Archives of Canada.
For John Meehan, even if the Kahnawake community is divided between Catholics, Protestants and Traditionalists, parishioners still have strong ties to the Society of Jesus, even 15 years after the departure of the last Jesuit. “Many parishioners have good memories of the Jesuits who worked at the mission and some of them know of other Jesuit work with indigenous peoples, especially the Anishinabe Spirituality Centre in Espanola, near Manitoulin Island.” Their deacon, Ron Boyer, comes from this region and was formed by the Jesuits at this pastoral centre. “The opposite is also true, namely that the Jesuits in Montreal wish to deepen their collaboration with the Kanien'keha:ka. Loyola High School has long offered scholarships to students from this community.” Father Meehan adds that at “Collège Brébeuf, students read works by indigenous authors in their classes and are interested in deepening their knowledge of indigenous
Even if relations between the Kanien'keha:ka and the settlers were and sometimes remain conflictual, the history of Saint Francis Xavier Church and of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha’s Shrine is a story of coming together which still exists today. A visit of the city, church and shrine, rich in history, is really worth the detour.
To visit or make a pilgrimage to the shrine, consult their website here.