Quebec – An Ursuline Epic Part Four

Quebec was then but a tiny outpost on the edge of an unknown, illimitable wilderness. It had been in precarious existence for only some thirty years. Its founder, the staunch and pious Champlain, had died a little over three years before, leaving it with barely a hundred inhabitants. It had only three small public buildings, Fort St. Louis, the storehouse of the Cent Associés, and the parish church of Notre Dame de la Recouvrance, from whose belfry he caused the angelus to be rung three times a day —a custom still religiously observed in Quebec. Beyond this one narrow foothold of France, on the mighty river which came from no one knew what vast inland wilds, Canada was little but a name. Only ten years before La Mere Marie arrived the Kirkes had taken Quebec without a blow ; because they had a handful of men to serve the few tiny guns aboard their two little ships, while Champlain despaired of standing a siege on a barrel of fish and half a dozen sacks of potatoes. New France had hardly become even a footnote to history. With what an airy charm of royal condescension does Charles I add the unconsidered trifle of ” The County and Lordship of Canada ” to the other estates of good Sir William Alexander, Earl of Stirling and Baronet of Nova Scotia !

But, among her few, Quebec counted almost as many heroes as early Rome or Sparta. And bravest of the brave, the Jesuits. Here was an untamed, new, defiant world to wrestle with. And here the Church, Antæus-like, rose stronger from each fresh contact with the primal earth. Nothing could stop her indomitable pioneers ; neither cold nor heat, hunger, thirst and fatigue ; not the lurking danger which dogged their every step, nor the fiendish death by torture which so many of them suffered nor yet the silent, awful isolation in which their work was done. They crossed a waste of waters to enter an even wilder waste ashore. Quebec was, in fact, as much a point of departure and landfall for an inland journey as a coast sea-mark is for an ocean voyage. Within each new horizon, far and near, the forest veiled the mysteries of Earth as closely as the sea ; and, like the sea, lay still in calm, or surged in wash and back-wash of green surf beneath the storm. And, whether in calm or storm, it closed impenetrably round each man who ventured within its labyrinthine depths. The Iroquois—so tiger-like in craft, stealth, spring and wild ferocity—filled with mortal dread everyone else whose way led through the woods. But not the Jesuit. He had no human hand to help him there ; yet the bravest soldier was never more confidently eager at the front. As, in the time of Cæsar, every Roman legionary knew that the might of a whole Empire lay waiting for his call at need and as, in Nelson’s day, every blockading British man-of-war went boldly into action, single-handed and against any odds, sure that every consort would soon be sailing to the sound of the cannonade ; so every Canadian Jesuit pressed forward undauntedly, among all the ambushes and strongholds of a pitiless foe, ever upheld by the confident belief that he was no mere lost and isolated man, but one of the pioneers and van guard of the advancing army of the Lord of Hosts.

The Ursulines held their first triennial election, and their choice naturally fell on La Mère Marie. Their first convent was a mere hovel, near the site of the present Notre Dame des Victoires, and their first Indian school in it was broken up by a terrible attack of small-pox. In 1641 the first stone was laid on the site of the present convent. But the next spring Madame de la Peltrie, burning to carry the cross still further into the wilderness, followed Maisonneuve to the founding of Montreal and left the Ursulines of Quebec almost penniless in their half-finished building. Even M. de Bernières answered La Mère Marie’s appeal by advising her to send away her pupils and workmen, give up everything and come home, unless Providence should raise up a second benefactress. However, she immediately wrote back to say that having once put her hand to the heavenly task she would never give it up alive. She kept her Indian pupils, urged on her workmen, and, in every detail of duty and leadership, plainly showed how fully confident she was that Canada was only at the beginning of assured success, instead of at the end of utter failure.

After an absence of eighteen months Madame de la Peltrie came back, never again to leave Quebec. She found the new convent inhabited, the school open, and La Mère Marie as full of determined hope as ever. There was little comfort in the new home, a building 92 feet long and 28 feet wide. Two open fires barely took the frost out of the air stoves were only introduced twenty-six years later. Yet the devoted life went on with increasing vigour. New nuns came out : some from the mother-house at Tours ; another from Ploërrnel, in the Breton “Land of Pardons.” In 1648 the convent was at last finished, after seven years of hard work and much anxiety from lack of funds.

Meanwhile, Quebec grew slowly half mission, half trading post, and wholly bureaucratic. On New Year’s Eve, in 1646, the first play performed in Canada, Corneille’s Le Cid, was given before the Governor and the Jesuit Fathers. Two years later the Governor-in-Council appointed Jacques Boisdon —bibulous cognomen !—first and sole innkeeper, on the following conditions :—” That the said Jacques Boisdon settles in the square in front of the church, so that the people may go in to warm themselves, and that he keeps nobody in his house during High Mass, sermons, catechism or vespers.” In 1663, the population had increased to goo souls, of whom 150 belonged to religious communities.

The thirteen disastrous years from 1650 to 1663 were the nadir of Canada’s fortunes. More than once the colony nearly lost its flickering life altogether. The Iroquois scourged the land like a plague. Not a man was safe outside a fort. All that were left of the once powerful Hurons crouched miserably under the protection of Que-bec. La Mére Marie was ever foremost in succouring them and bringing their children into her school. She took lessons herself in Huron from Father Bressani, who had escaped death at the hands of the Iroquois as by a miracle, after having suffered the extremity of torture, But, just as her classes were well established, the convent was burnt to the ground. The nuns hardly escaped with their lives, running out barefooted and half-clad into the intense mid-winter cold. La Mere Marie issued her orders as calmly as if going through her regular routine. She went all over the building to make sure that everyone was safe, paused one reverential moment before the altar, and then walked out as the flames met behind her.

Next day the Hurons assembled in full council to see how they could help the “Paleface Virgin Saints.” To their grief they found that the whole merchantable wealth of their nation now consisted in two long strings of porcelain beads, each containing twelve hundred. But, headed by their chief; they went in procession to the Hôtel-Dieu, where they were received by La Mere Marie, surrounded by her Ursulines, the Hospitalières, and Father Raguenau, who records the address de-livered by Taiearonk. a Saintly sisters, you see here but the walking corpses of a mighty nation, which is no more. In the country of the Hurons we have been eaten and gnawed to the bone by famine, war and fire. Alas ! your misfortune re-calls our own, and with your tears we mingle ours. In our old home the custom was to give one present to unfortunates like you, to dry their tears, and then another to fortify their hearts anew. All that we have we offer you. First, a string of beads to comfort you, and root your feet so firmly in this land that all your friends across the great water will never be able to draw them out and take you away. And next, another string, to plant a new House of Christ to outgrow the old one, and be a place of prayer and teaching for our children.”

After the chief had ended there was a long, sad silence, before La Mère Marie responded in words which breathe the very spirit of the Book of Ruth. She told the Hurons how she would never desert them, but fill her days with willing service for their need, and how, when she died, her body would remain among them in Quebec, as her heart and soul did while she was alive.

Other friends pressed to her aid. Father Vignal, her chaplain, though now an old man, set to work on the Ursuline farm near the famous Plains of Abraham, and was rewarded by a bountiful harvest, which fed the teachers and scholars for the succeeding winter. Madame de la Peltrie sheltered the whole community in her own house, which was no more luxurious than the convent, though she was a very rich woman. The Governor, the Jesuits, in fact the whole colony, did everything in their power. But their power fell far short of their good will. Men were scarce, money scarcer; so La Mére Marie and her zealous nuns cleared away the débris with their own hands, and prepared the site for rebuilding. The new convent rose quickly from the ruins of the old. Within a year the nuns were back : all except La Mère de St. Joseph, whose delicate frame at last had given way under repeated hardships, and whose epitaph might be fitly taken from the letter La Mére Marie wrote home : Ma douce et angélique amie.

In 1660 Canada was apparently doomed. Only four years had passed since the Iroquois had swooped down on their prey again and nearly killed out the last, palsied remnant of the Hurons at the Island of Orleans. The lines of war-canoes had glided snake-like down the St. Lawrence to their vindictive massacre, under the very guns of Quebec, the crews screaming savage defiance at the bewildered Governor, who cowered behind the walls of the Château St. Louis. And now every threatening warpath was once more astir with painted Iroquois, wild for a final glut of blood. The rumour ran that their grand council had de-creed the extermination of all the Christians in Canada, and that their whole assembled horde was coming hot-foot down the valley of the Ottawa. Night and day the shadow of death closed in from the vast encircling forest, darkening the terror of suspense. All Quebec stood to arms. The Ursuline convent was garrisoned by eighty men and twelve huge watch dogs, trained to hunt down and tear in pieces the hostile Indians. La Mère Marie, resourceful as ever, told off her nuns to different duties, and reserved for herself the most dangerous of all—the carrying of powder and shot in action.

As Canada turned despairingly at bay, her necessity brought forth a champion, the faithful, undauntable Dollard, Sieur des Ormeaux. He and sixteen others in Montreal volunteered to go up the Ottawa and hold the Iroquois by a life-and-death defence, long enough to let the colony have some time for preparation. At the Long Sault Dollard was joined by a hundred Christian Hurons under Anahotaha. The allies then took post in an old Algonquin fort, which, unfortunately, was too far from water. Symbol-loving souls afterwards saw a mystical assurance of salvation in the strange recurrence of the sacred number, seven. For seven days and seven nights seven hundred Iroquois furiously attacked the seventeen Frenchmen who defended the stockade. The attackers fell in heaps under the steady fire. A letter of La Mère Marie’s tells how those seventeen fought for Christ and Canada DAs que l’ennemi faisait /rive, ils étaient – a genoux ; et sitôt qu’il faisait mine d’attaquer, ils étaient debout, les armes h la main. Worn by unceasing vigils and tortured by thirst, they still held out. But resounding war-cries announced the arrival of another five hundred Iroquois ; and they then prepared to sell their lives as dearly as they could. The enemy advanced and called a parley, during which some apostate Hurons persuaded most of their Christian tribesmen that an immediate change of sides was the only way of escaping certain death by torture. This desertion reduced the garrison to the seventeen Canadians with only eighteen Indians. In the thick of the final assault some Iroquois got in so close that they could chop at the foot of the stockade without being exposed to the fire from the loop-holes. Dollard then tried to dislodge them with a musketoon full of powder. But this, unfortunately, miscarried. The musketoon blew up inside the fort, killed and wounded several of the defenders, and left a breach wide open. The Iroquois at once swarmed in from all sides, though, even then, they could not close with their stead-fast opponents. Anahotaha, worthy comrade of Dollard, charged and killed five with his tomahawk. But, as he regained the ranks, he fell, mortally wounded, beside the burning palisade. “Lay my head on the fire,” he implored with his dying breath, a the Iroquois must never get my scalp !”

Dollard fell next. A last desperate scuffle, and all was over. The Iroquois were dumbfounded at the resistance they had met with and disheartened by their enormous losses. Their next council broke up after deciding that a country defended by such heroes was too dangerous to. attack. They slank back to their wigwams; while a contrite apostate Huron escaped to carry the tale of death and victory throughout the waiting settlements. Thus ended Canada’s Thermopyloe.

The colony dragged through the misery of three more years. Then came the memorable earth-quakes, which threatened an almost greater ruin. One effect of this stupendous and widespread upheaval may still be seen at Les Eboulements, where the whole face of a mountain fell headlong into the St. Lawrence. In Quebec the shocks recurred violently for seven months, and the terrified people thought it was the end of the world. The first great shock scared the roisterers at the carnival out of their senses. The second threw all the Ursulines to the ground while they were singing matins. Throughout this long, heart shaking ordeal trembling women and children kept coming to La Mère Marie, as to the one human sanctuary that could preserve them from the Avenging Angel. Not since the Great Famine, nearly four hundred years before, when long processions of naked Flagellants scourged themselves through every high street and market square in Europe, had there been such universal contrition. The priests could scarcely leave the thronged confessionals, even to eat and sleep. Again the cry of a Back to France ! ” went up, and was piteously echoed from the whole stricken colony. But two winged souls rose to the foreseeing heights of prophecy, and two clear voices called on the people to stay their panic and have steadfast faith in Canada. One was the voice of Laval, the first bishop, who set a supreme example by founding, in this terrible 1663, the great seminary which still bears his name and carries on his work with un-diminished vigour. The other was the voice of La Mère Marie, who, for the third time in her life, stood between a discouraged people and apparent ruin, and nerved them to one more effort for the salvation of their country.

The unshaken faith of both was fully justified. The tide of fortune was already on the turn, This very year New France became a Royal Province. And in 1665 de Courcelles, the New Governor, arrived. With him was Jean Talon, the great Intendant, well called the Colbert of Canada. The pitifully weak garrison was strongly reinforced by the famous Régiment de Carignan, fresh from its victorious Hungarian campaign against the Turks. The gallant Marquis de Tracy arrived as the personal Viceroy of Louis Quatorze. Two hundred and twelve new colonists of title or fortune came out to take up concessions of land. And, most important of all, perhaps, there was a very much larger number of more humble immigrants, who were destined to a long and successful career under the well-known name of habitants. With these arrivals a different régime began. The first great hero-age was over.