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Proclaiming The Gospel to the Indians and the Métis

Procliaming The Gospel to the Indians and the MétisChapter One:

If the missions of New France provided the Society of Jesus with a glorious chapter in its annals, the Canadian North West enabled a French order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate to earn the accolade, "specialists in difficult missions," as a result of an impressive record of dedication and service in the midst of highly adverse conditions.1 Originally created in 1815 by abbé Charles-Joseph-Eugéne de Mazenod and named La Société des Missionnaires de Provence, the congregation's initial goal was to evangelize the poor and lower classes and reanimate a moribund Catholicism in southern France through religious exercises and the preaching of popular missions in the parishes and countryside.2 Mazenod believed that the lower classes and the poor constituted a "precious" but unfonunately abandoned portion of the Christian community that had to be redeemed.3 Ten years later, in 1825, as Mazenod was seeking pontifical approval for the order and its rules, he decided to change the name to Oblates de Marie Immaculée to avoid confusion with other religious communities that also incorporated the term oblates in their title.4

Given the original purpose of their order it is not surprising that the Oblates who came to the Canadian North West were not trained to carry out their work among Indian and Métis populations. In post-revolutionary France the intellectual quality of theological studies in the grands séminaires left much to be desired. To begin wirh, there were few priests for the pastoral work rh:ll had to be done and, hence, Ihe length of theological studies was to reduced to an absolute minimum. In addition, those who in charge of the preparation of the clergy were themselves poorly trained and lacked specialization because the Revolution had closed the faculties of theology.5

At the time he established the congregation, Mazenod was well aware of the lamentable state of affairs in French seminaries and he attempted to remedy the situation when the first Oblate scholasticate opened in Marseille in 1827. Mazenod deplored the hasty and incomplete formation of candidates for the priesthood and insisted that those entering the Oblate order receive a solid education in both ecclesiastical and religious subjects regardless of where they were sent to serve. However, secular subjects such as anthropology, sociology or linguistics were not to be found in the scholasticate's curriculum and a century would pass before their importance was recognized and missiology, the science of missions, became a discipline in its own right in Oblate institutions.6 Mazenod was not averse to adding instruction in the English language to the curriculum after the Oblates had established themselves in England and in other parts of the Brirish Empire such as Canada.7

While the post-revolutionary era had contributed to a less than ideal preparation of the Oblates as clergymen, it also accentuated their ultramontane beliefs as did the section of their constitution and rules that stressed obedience to the Pope. It was not surprising that the theological texts in use in the seminary at Marseille reflected a staunch ultramontane perspective.8 Equally uncompromising was the conviction that the Roman Catholic Church was the only source of grace and salvation while the pretensions of all other denominations were deemed false and their adherents ipso facto were heretics.9

Consequently, it was argued that there could be no salvalion outside the Roman Catholic Church and, furthermore, baptism, as an initiation into the Church and a revelation of its divine truths, was a necessary prerequisite to that salvation. This unequivocal premise influenced every facet of Oblate missionary activity and it contributed to the development of a missionary strategy whose primary objective was to carry the message
of redemption as quickly and as efficiently as possible to non-Christian populations. Regardless of the cost and sacrifice, it was deemed necessary to continue the mandate that Jesus Christ, on the eve of His ascension into heaven, conferred upon his apostles through the injunction to teach and baptize all nations.10

This mandate would be continued until the end of time by the Church Christ established through the intermediary of its representatives. The Church's mission, like Christ's, was to extend and consolidate the Kingdom of God by bringing the message of redemption to humanity and by actively involving individuals in their own salvarion.11 Within this
historical context the Oblate, as a member of the Roman Catholic Church, was the legitimate and official representative of that institution among non-Christians and, hence, responsible for the establishment of the Church in their midst. As a missionary. the Oblate was God's envoy, a pioneer, whose work would lay the foundation for the extension and consolidation of the Kingdom among non-Christians.12 An 1881 Oblate directive on missions clearly identified the objective of missionary activity as the conversion of souls, the re-animation of faith and the strengthening of the Kingdom of God to ensure earthly happiness and the acquisition of eternal salvation.13

The directive went on to suggest the special characteristics the Oblate required in order to successfully discharge his mandate. Following the example of the saints, the Oblate mustr acquire and strengthen within himself the following traits: gentleness, chastity, humility, mortification, the love of souls, and a true piety.14 As the earthly representative and delegate of God the missionary was to reflect the glory, honour and virtues of
Christ. The missionary was to possess the zeal of the apostle Paul and Saint Francis Xavier and to imitate the former who was himself a follower of Christ.15

Announcing the message of the Gospel to peoples who had never heard of Jesus Christ and leading them to redemption was the most sublime and invigorating endeavour for the Oblates who were already convinced that they represented the true Christian Church. The co-operation and association with Christ in bringing about the salvation of mankind
was deemed to be l'oeuvre des oeuver16 and it produced a spiritual ecstasy that enabled the Oblates to accept overwhelming challenges and, in the process, to endure incredible sacrifice and hardships. The challenges, the hardships, the suffering were lot only accepted but openly sought because they were viewed as a means whereby God was resting the Oblates to ensure that they were worthy of following in the footsteps of
the Apostles.

Mazenod was convinced that the vocation of the Oblates was part of this authentic apostolate that, through the message of the Gospel, brought about a knowledge and love of God and Christ in the hearts and minds of the people to whom it was addressed. Alter the initial announcement of the Good News, the Christian message was to be reinforced
by teaching catechism to children and preaching popular missions among the poor. The "popular" or "parish" missions were a medium by which the Oblates preached and instructed the local population in their own language and in terms that were comprehensible to the people. Religious services accompanied the sermons and instructions. The preaching of popular missions was deemed to be the most efficient means of transmitting the message of redemption. Mazenod was opposed to the preaching of flowery and moving sermons that would have no lasting impact on the masses whom he was trying to reach. He preferred that the faith be implanted in them in a more lasting manner and that the knowledge of Jesus Christ crucified be indelible.17

Given their French background and ultramontane perspective, it was not necessary for the Oblates to be theoreticians and elaborare a complex conceptual model of their role as missionaries or present a systematic account of their conception of the Church. Using Vital-Justin Grandin, one of the early French Oblates who came to the Canadian North West as a case: study, Claude Champagne demonstrated that the Oblate missionaries were primarily pastors and men of action.18 As the legitimate and official delegates of the Roman Catholic Church, the Oblates were responsible for continuing Christ's commission to teach and baptize all narions by means of religious instruction, preaching and missions.

Mazenod regarded his Oblate associates as "true apostles" selected by Christ because, in the manner of the apostles of the biblical era, they were the first to carry the redemptive message of the Gospel to individuals who previously had been under the influence of Satan. So convinced was Mazenod that his Oblates were continuing the work of the Apostles that he exhorted them never to lose the least rosette from their crown. Furthermore, they were to find encouragement and consolation in their communal life and in the rules that governed their activities and never allow themselves to be overcome by the trials and tribulations of their earthly existence.19 While all of the "foreign missions" that is, missions among non-Christian populations, came to be held in high regard by
Mazenod because he perceived in them a reflection of the work of the first Apostles, the missions of the Canadian Nonh West were even more highly esteemed because of their primitive state, their isolation and hardships. Furthermore, the true apostolic tradition was to be found in the missions of the Canadian North West where missionary and bishop performed manual labour as had Saint Paul.20

Initially me Oblates limited their work to Provence but, by 1831. members of the congregation had expressed the desire to carry their missionary work beyond that region. The arrival of the Oblates in eastern Canada in 1841, the Oregon Territory in 1847, Ceylon in 1847, Texas in 1849, South Africa in 1852, and Brilish Columbia in 1858 was not only a concrete manifestation of this desire, it also provided a new orientation for the congregation. Henceforth, the Oblates would become increasingly committed to these mission étrangéres especially those that contained non-Christian aboriginal populations. In 1850, Mazenod had already discussed the necessity of amending the congregation's constitution to reflect this new dimension in apostolic activity and, in 1853, a special appendix was added to the second edition of the Constitution et Régles.21

This was Bishop Mazcnod's Instruction relative to foreign missions that reiterated Oblate philosophy and procedure in rhe light of the experience and insights acquired in missionary activity overseas. As such, the Instruction was not a radical departure from traditional practice but a refinement of the congregation's primary objective of reviving the faith among the poor and providing for their religious needs through the intermediary of missions and religious excrcises. The foreign missions were in fact a natural extension of religious instruction and exercises at the parochial level.22 The Instructional accorded a high status to foreign missions that were regarded as "eminently suitable" to securing the glory of God and enhancing the status of the congregation.23 It was recognized that not every Oblate was competent for this type of ministry and only those who demonstrated special characteristics would be selected. The desired qualifications included a strong sense of vocation, a desire to serve in the foreign missions, as well an appropriate characrer and behaviour. In addition. the candidate had to be in good health and possess the neccssary strength to carry out his duties and face the hardships that might be encoumered in the process.24

In the field, the Oblates were not only responsible for evangelizing non-Chtistian populalions but also for inculcating among them a behaviour and lifestyle that reflected Chrisrian virtues. For example, they were to regularize marriages in conformity with the precepts of Canon Law, to instil in children the fear of God and the necessity of avoiding temptation and sin, to inspire a sense of piety in women, and temperance and honesty among men. It was deemed important to train aboriginal populations in the necessities of communal life because, while this was a desirable goal in itself, it also would enhance apostolic work and contribute to the welfare of the mission. Consequently, the Oblate's were to convince hunting populations to abandon their traditional lifestyle, learn to build homes for themselves, cultivate the land and, in the process, become "civilized" in accordance with accepted Euro-Christian values and traditions. Since prosperity was equated with the level of education a society received, the Oblates were to establish a school in each mission in which the young would be instructed in the rudiments of Christianity and at the same time receive a practical education to prepare them to live in a sedentary civilized society. While the Oblates were to concern themselves with promoting the material welfare of their charges, they were not to assume a leadership function in temporal matters because such matters were to be left to the people themselves.25

To facilitate the process evangelization and the acquisition of fundamental Christian truths, the Instruction urged Oblates to follow the apostolic tradition and evangelize the people in their indigenous language. After having mastered the language, the missionary was to prepare a resume of Christian doctrine in the form of a series of questions and answers. Neophytes were to memorize this summary and it would be explained gradually to them in terms and at a level of comprehension that were appropriate. Missionaries were also to incorporate these fundamental Christian truths into hymns and have them sung by their charges. The Oblates were to compile illustrated catechisms and to use any other means to more efficiently transmit the Christian message and to render it more forceful.26

With respect to the format of the regular mission the Instruction stated that it begin in the morning with the celebration of Holy Mass attended by persons of both sexes followed by the singing ofhymns and a sermon. The purpose of this morning instruction was to present the neophytes with a simple but meaningful introduction to the precepts of the Christian faith by discussing the Apostle's Creed, the Ten Commandments and participarion in the Sacraments. A second meeting would take place the same morning to instruct those who had not yet been baptized. Later in the day, adults would be confessed, children prepared for their First Communion, quarrels would be settled and domestic difficulties resolved. In the evening there would be another common religious exercise that everyone should mend. The subjects to be discussed included the individual's purpose on earth, the malice of sin, death, the Last Judgment, heaven, hell, and the life and passion of Christ. During this evening session the missionary was to use all his skills to instil among the neophytes a true fear of offending God. At the same time, he was to inculcate a loving devotion for the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The final day of the mission was to be a special event. There would be a general communion in the morning, followed by the baptism of adults and children around mid-day. After the evening sermon there would be the renewal of baptismal vows and promises. The mission would terminate with the solemn benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, a majestic ritual that produced a lasting impression in the minds and hearts of participants.27

The Instruction also contained very pragmatic procedural recommendations for the activities of Oblates serving in the foreign missions. In an area where the Oblates administration was not established in a regular manner all missions were placed under lhe immediate jurisdiction of a vicar of missions.28 At the local level, the domicile of missionaries was called a residence and was placed under the authoriry of a director or superior. In those missions where the Oblate missionary was alone, the vicar of missions had to provide a lay brother or another missionary as a companion as soon as possible. Oblates who found themselves separated from other members of their communiry had to compensate by being more zealous and arduous, occupying themselves with their religious obligations and practicing Christian piety. Oblates were to devote one day a month to spiritual meditation and every year they were to come together for a retreat. Vicars of missions were responsible for maintaining a watchful eye on the health of those under their jurisdiction.29

Young Oblates who were beginning their missionary careers were to work under the supervision of a mature and experienced missionary. The establishment of a mission was ro be confided to individuals with years of missionary experience. The Instruction also cautioned against the premature baptism of neophytes. It recommended tbat baptism be given only to those who had been sufficiently inslructed and who offered positive indicadons that they would persevere in the Christian Iradition. A similar caution was to be exercised vis-a-vis dlOse who wished to present themselves for their first communion.30

Regardless of the distance separating the Oblates and members of their hierarchy, the Instruction insisted on regular communication between the constituent parts. Each missionary, for example, was to write to his director of residence once a month, to his vicar of missions once every three months, and to the superior general at least once a year.31 This pattern of communication contributed to breaking down the barriers of solitude and isolation and it reinforced the spirit of communal religious life in those instances where circumstances rendered it impossible, Inadvertently, this directive created a voluminous correspondence that now rests in the various Oblate archives and has become an invaluable historical source for researchers. Many of these letters and reports on missions were reproduced in the order's quarterly publication, Missions de la Congrégation des Missionnnaires Oblats de Marie Immaculée, and constitute a significant body of literature on the foreign missions in general and the Canadian missions in particular. This publication was inaugurated in 1862 by Joseph Fabre who succeeded Mazenod as superior general. Fabre continued Mazenod's practice of frequent communications with all members of the congregation and he established Missions to provide Oblates with a means to communicate with one another and to comment on their endeavours. A special invitation to collaborate was extended to Oblates engaged in missionary activities.32 Like Mazenod, Fabre exhorted Oblates in the foreign missions to send him reports of their activities, Fabre stipulated two conditions: the reports had to be simple and tme.33

The Instruction is not a theoretical, abstract document and it reflects the pragmatic character and nature of its author and the congregation he created. From its origins the Oblate order had two main goals: the personal sanctification of its members and missionary endeavours.34 This apostolic effort was to be fulfilled through sacerdotal activities, Religious life, on the other hand, would not only enhance the priestly function; it would also conrribure to personal salvation.35 Regardless of where they served, the Oblates committed themselves to a programme of comprehensive apostolic activity based on the preaching of missions and conducting religious exercises among the local population. Within this context, the Instruction was not a new orientation for missionary activity but a refinement of existing practices based on the experience acquired in evangelizing aboriginal peoples in Canada, Ceylon and South Africa. This internal Flexibility and pragmatic philosophy, combined with Mazenod's innovative spirit, enabled the Oblates to improvise and adapt to the circumstances of the Canadian North West. This adaptation is even more remarkable in view of the fact that the missions of Red River and Quebec developed simultaneously and independently and so the experience and expertise acquired in one region could not assist missionaries in the other. Furthermore, missionaries tended to come directly to Quebec of to the North West and there was little exchange of personnel between the two regions. The Oregon missions and later those of British Columbia also developed independently of and in isolation from the missions of western and northern Canada, While the evangelization of the Indian and Métis populations of the
North West was the primary occupation of the Oblates, they had to assume auxiliary obligations such as the establishment of schools because the area initially lacked such institutions, be it at the parochial or regional level. As Catholics, the Oblates could not remain indifferent to the plight of orphans, the sick and the old, whose unattached or nonproductive status within the Native community destined them to a bleak future. The schools, orphanages and hospitals they established required financial support and at first the Oblates turned their requests to sources within the Catholic community such as l'Oeuvre de la Propagation de la Foi ad l'Oeuvre de la Sainte Enfance.36 When these sources became insufficient, the Oblates turned to the Canadian government that had jurisdiction over maners affecting Native populations in particular and the North West Territories in general. This alliance between church and state made it possible for religious groups such as the Oblates to provide and sustain much needed services at a time when few were interested in or concerned with the welfare of the First Nations people of Canada.

As a person constantly in contact with the Indian and Métis populations the Oblate missionary was an early witness to the destructive consequences of the presence of the white agricultural frontier on these two indigenous communities.37 The disappearance of the buffalo and the erosion of the old ways and traditions were not only creating an upheaval within aboriginal societies, they were also threatening the less solidly entrenched Christian values among the neophytes. Through the extension of Christianity the Oblates hoped to ensure the salvation of the Native populations. By providing a practical education in their schools the Oblates hoped to prepare them for the socio-economic transformation that was taking place in their traditional hunting grounds.

Individuals with less faith, dedication and determation would have refused the challenge contained in the congregation's mono, Evangelizare pauperibus misit me,38 that found its concrete expression in rhe missions of the Canadian North West.


Raymond J.A. Huel, "The French Antecendents" in Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and the Métis. The University of Alberta Press, Western Canadian Publishers. 1996. Reprinted with the permission of the author and publisher.

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