From the early 17th century until the Seven Years War (1754-1763), the French Crown sponsored many Catholic missions among Native American peoples in New France.  At a time when European expansionism was both justified and energized by the Gospel call to “make disciples of all nations,” these missions were dedicated to spreading Catholic faith and worship and saving souls.  They were also intended to forge bonds of alliance between indigenous populations and the French, and thereby to facilitate and embody the French imperial project.  Over time, mission stations among the Innu, Wendat, Haudenosaunee, Abenaki, Anishinaabe, Illinois, and many other groups from eastern Canada and Maine to the Great Lakes region and the Mississippi Valley, were vital to the build-up of New France. 

French Jesuit missions

The most famous missionaries active in New France were priests and lay brothers of the Society of Jesus.  Between 1611 and 1764, 320 Jesuits were sent from France to North America.  After a short-lived Jesuit mission in Acadia, Jesuits were active around Québec by the mid 1620s.  Their mission took off in earnest in 1632 under the leadership of Fr. Paul Le Leune.  A convert from Protestantism, Le Jeune hailed from the province of Champagne and was a highly educated, well-connected man who spent many years in Paris before and after his time in Canada.

Le Jeune was the first author and editor of the Relations de la Nouvelle-France (1632-1673), a best-selling, annual book series published in Paris by Sébastien Cramoisy, the top royally-endorsed publisher of the era.  The Relations detail all aspects of Jesuit missionary activity, as well as French colonial activity and relations generally with Indigenous peoples at the time.  They remain valuable sources to scholars today for understanding what was happening on the ground in New France.  While unreliable at times given the blind spots of their authors, they also provide a window onto ways of life and points of view during a period when the Indigenous peoples involved did not have their own written languages.

Some of the most successful Jesuit missions, while never resulting in numerous conversions, were among the Wendat, Abenakis, and later on the Illinois.  Such success was largely owed to the Jesuits’ experimental, culturally adaptive approach.  They employed Indigenous languages, idioms, and artistic forms in liturgical contexts and when communicating Christian teachings.  The Jesuits also entrusted Indigenous men and women with lay leadership positions.  Some of the women, in particular, were attracted to Catholicism because it offered alternatives to marriage and child-rearing.  Famous among these was the Kanien'kehá:ka-Algonquin virgin-ascetic Kateri Tekakwitha, who was regarded as a saint by the Jesuits immediately after her death but not canonized by the Church until 2012.

Other missions authorized by the French Crown

While the Jesuits of New France have received the most attention, this is partly due to the degree to which they publicized their activities.  However, many other French-sponsored missionary groups were active in North America in the period.  These included Franciscan RécolletsCapuchins, priests of the Société de Saint-Sulpice, and many diocesan priests.  By the 1660s the diocesan clergy labored under the auspices of French bishops installed at Québec and were supported by the Paris-based Société des Missions Étrangères. 

Male and female laypersons of the Société de Notre-Dame de Montréal were active in mission work, too.  Furthermore, nuns were sent from France to North America.  French Ursulines, as well as Augustinian canonesses trained in hospital work, arrived in Québec in the 1630s and were among the first female missionaries in history to be sent overseas from Europe.  The first charitable hospital in North America, the Hôtel-Dieu du Précieux-Sang de Québecwas dedicated to providing medical and end-of-life care to Indigenous people.  That hospital was founded by the Duchesse d’Aiguillon (Cardinal de Richelieu’s niece) and was staffed by Augustinian nuns for several centuries. 

Indigenous collaboration and resistance

Indigenous converts and prospective converts were not only agents in the spread of Christianity.  Many also collaborated with the French in material and political terms.  As colonial settlements in the Saint Lawrence River Valley and other places never attracted large numbers of French immigrants, the French depended upon Indigenous military and trading partnerships, and intermarriage among French and Indigenous persons, to compete in North America with England and other powers.  The Jesuits, in particular, fostered such alliances and even engaged in wartime troop musters in mission stations they sometimes called “fortresses.”  Famous among these was Kahnawake, or Sault-Saint-Louis, near Montréal,  Its mostly Kanien'kehá:ka inhabitants fought in wars alongside the French against other Haudenosaunee who were allied with the English.

Up to the time of the Seven Years War, the collaboration of Indigenous and Métis Catholics and their kin was crucial to many French military victories.  But in the end, such support was insufficient in the large-scale mid-eighteenth-century conflict that led to the loss of New France to Great Britain. 

Of course, numerous Indigenous peoples also resisted efforts to convert them to Catholicism and to draw them into French alliances.  The Haudenosaunee nations, particularly the Kanien'kehá:ka, proved especially resistant over time.  Conflict with the Haudenosaunee resulted famously, during the 1640s, in the deaths of eight Jesuit missionaries, such as Isaac Jogues from Orléans.  These men were quickly honored as “martyrs” by their confrères, who encouraged devotion to them in Europe partly as a means of spreading word about their mission.  These “North American Martyrs” were canonized as saints only centuries later, in 1930.

More broadly, even in Indigenous communities friendly to the French, conversions often caused serious tensions—sometimes leading to violence—within kinship networks.  Numerous Indigenous nations remained unconvinced that their religious traditions and worldviews needed modification in directions the French encouraged.  Still others converted to Protestant forms of Christianity after contact with the Dutch and the English.  Over time, Catholic-Protestant rivalries, which had dominated European life for so long, exacerbated long-standing intertribal tensions and conflicts between Indigenous peoples and Europeans.  This was especially true in the borderlands between New England and French Canada in the decades before the Seven Years War.

Published in may 2021