The Coming of Echon

Father Jean de Brébeuf examined his position carefully as he knelt in prayer in the cabin built for the Blackrobes by the Indians of lhonatiria nearly two years before, in September of 1634. Memories jogged back and forth in his head--memories that went back ten long years before when he had arrived in New France as a Jesuit missionary burning with the hope of spreading the Faith to the natives. Three years earlier, De Brébeuf had come with his Jesuit companions to live and work--he hoped forever--among the Ouendats, the Indians whom the French called Hurons, because the men so often fashioned their hair like the head tufts of a wild boar. He had hoped to reach their hearts because he saw these natives as patient and hospitable. But even though he had learned their language well, and his words had impressed many of them as being good and true, the Indians still would not give up their evil and superstitious practices. Jean de Brébeuf could not yet point to one adult convert.

One of the really big problems was this business of free marriages, he reflected. It was their custom to exchange wives. Another problem was the established treatment of prisoners, in which the prolonged torture by burning and mutilation showed, he worried, a diabolical hold over them.

And still another of his big obstacles was their belief in the strange god--the dream. The dream was the master of their lives. Before they embarked on any project--such as hunting, fishing, war, trade, feasts--they would preface the plans with, "Wait till we have consulted the dream."

From what he had been told, and from what he had seen, Jean de Brébeuf was convinced that oftentimes the devil himself spoke to these poor natives in their dreams under different forms--as a crow or similar bird, a flame or a ghost.

Perhaps he had made a mistake in judgment in coming to this small northernmost village. He recalled his reasons. Two years ago the choice faced him whether he would set up the Jesuit residence here in this small village, or whether he should go to the capital village of the Bears.

But Father Antoine Daniel had made a brief visit to the Bear capital and came back with the news that the land was poor; after one more winter the inhabitants would again be moving the location of their village. Father de Brébeuf then had decided that he and his Blackrobes would stay with the smaller village.

Now the Bear nation had moved its capital to a better location. It was a fortified village, many times more populous than lhonatiria, surrounded by smaller villages. It had been named Ossosane. From Ossosane, trails to the Cord nation, the Rock Hurons and the Petuns were shorter and less dangerous and difficult than from lhonatiria. If, Father de Brébeuf thought, he had his residence at Ossosane, he and the other five priests, along with the four French workmen who lived together with him, could perhaps spread their missionary activities more easily.

Father de Brébeuf prayed for guidance. "I shall have to plan the move carefully. It would be disastrous to hurt the feelings of these people here." For on the plus side, he had not done too badly.

The natives had built him a cabin that first September, in spite of their protests that they never built houses so late in the year when the bark of the trees was dry. They had made the cabin thirty feet long and had built a wall of sticks to close off a twelve-foot room at one end, even while protesting that the Huron custom was to have an open aisle from front to back of their cabins.

But best of all, he was still alive, in spite of the vile stories spread about him by the jealous master magician that he was a wicked and powerful French sorcerer who was the cause of droughts and illnesses.

To the Hurons--both those who had met him and those who had heard him--he was Jean, which in their peculiar quality of speech became Echon, the Blackrobe who was a bearded, dark blonde giant, taller and stronger in legend than any Frenchman or Huron.

He was a mystery. He ate, slept and carried loads at the portages like a Huron. He had mastered their language. And the Hurons weren't quite sure why. But this much they made clear. If he did turn out to be an evil sorcerer, no one would hesitate to bury a hatchet in his head. Father de Brébeuf reflected on the situation. He would plan to move to Ossosane, but would carry the plan out slowly and carefully.

Meanwhile, he would make a visit to Ossosane, the capital and most populous village of the Bear nation of the Hurons.

Echon is coming!

The cry spread through Ossosane, "Echon is coming! Echon is coming!"

Chiwatenwa joined the other men as they began to gather in the enclosure between the longhouses. For some years he had been curious about this Echon who was said to have answers to questions about life and death. It would be most interesting to see this man.

Chiwatenwa stood in the background as Echon entered the village, and he carefully examined the appearance of this strange man. He was truly a giant, as they said, for he stood a half foot taller than most of the Huron braves. He wore a plain, high-necked black robe with long sleeves and a band around his broad waist, from which hung plain brown beads strung on a chain. His face was bearded, in contrast with the smooth-faced Indians, and his hair was the shade of sand. His eyes were the color of the morning sky on a clear day, and Chiwatenwa felt immediately that this man had some power greater than the strength of his great body.

Echon carried a pack with him, and after the first welcome greetings of "Haau" and "Quoy," he undid his bundle and began distributing gifts of knives, arrow points and procelain beads.

The Captain of the village spoke: "You will eat at our fire and then tell us your mission to Ossosane."

Echon nodded, and, as soon as the squaws had the wood prepared for the fire in the enclosure, Echon took out a tinderbox and lit the fire himself. The Captain and the chiefs grunted their approval.

After the tasteless meal of the usual sagamite, this time cooked with squash, Echon was given the permission to speak.

"My brothers, I have come with good news," he began. "I want you to think. Man did not create himself. He had a beginning. Someone--most powerful--created man. Is it not logical for you to desire to know this great Father who made you? Is it not logical that you must go back to Him--Citche Manitu --at the time of your death?"

Chiwatenwa watched Echon, spellbound. The eyes of the man were like night stars which gave light to his whole face. This Echon believes all that he says, thought Chiwatenwa, and he listened closely.

"All that your Father in heaven asks is that you love Him and obey His ten commands. If you refuse, you shall condemn your soul to be burned forever in the fires that can never die."

Chiwatenwa listened as Echon explained the Ten Commandments of the Father. Excitement brought a warm glow to his face. Most of the commands of the Creator were the very beliefs he had always held! In his thirty-three years, he had never taken what did not belong to him; he had not lied; he had not killed; he controlled his anger; he had been faithful to one wife. These were the beliefs he was imparting to his four sons.

Now a man had come who spoke with assurance and authority, proclaiming these teachings to be the commands of the one true God! With all his heart, Chiwatenwa wanted to learn more about the Father in heaven, the one true God. It was with great sadness that he saw Echon say good-by, after only seven days in Ossosane, and go back to the small village in the north.

As he reached the Jesuit longhouse, De Brébeuf knew that something was wrong on this late September afternoon of 1636. Before the cabin door were the signs of superstition--ugly masks and stuffed figures of men which were used by the sorcerers to scare away the demons of sickness and death.

With a tightness in his chest, De Brébeuf ran toward the cabin. Were his men ill?

Father Francois Le Mercier met him at the door. His face answered De Brébeuf's unasked question.

Within the cabin, lying on the bunks along the sides and slightly raised from the floor, were the priests Isaac Jogues and Pierre Chastellain, and the French workmen, young Jean Amyot, Mathurin, and Dominique. They were feverish, with severe headaches and cough, and they lay there, sweating profusely, damp and uncomfortable in the cabin which was like a dark tunnel with no outlet for the acrid smoke of the fire.

"It is influenza," said Father Francois. "There is an outbreak of the disease all along the St. Lawrence and as far as Ottawa."

"Father Pijart--and Father Gamier? The workman Petit-Pre?"

"They are well so far. They are with the sick in the village."

Father de Brébeuf immediately took charge. "Tell Petit-Pre to hunt--ducks, rabbits, whatever he can find."

For that day and all the next, Jean de Brébeuf nursed the five sick men. He made soups from the game which the workman shot, and took raisins and prunes from his small supply of dried fruits to give to the sick for extra nourishment. He bathed them to cool their fevers, and changed the cloths on their bunks when they became too damp from perspiration.

By morning of the third day. Father Charles Gamier staggered to his cot, burning with fever and weak from the sickness and pain in his head. Now Father de Brébeuf had six sick men to care for, and Father Jogues and Dominique seemed to be dying. De Brébeuf decided that the only remedy he could now try was surgical bleeding, a method used by doctors in those days to reduce fever and blood pressure.

With Father Francois' help, De Brébeuf declared he was willing to take the responsibility of making the incision in the vein. Father Jogues, courageous even in his extreme weakness, said,

"I saw a surgeon bleed a native. I think I could find the vein and make the cut myself."

Jean de Brébeuf looked at Isaac Jogues, his love for his brother priest showing in his face. He knew that Isaac would make the cut himself so that in case of error, the blame would fall on no one else.

By this time the news spread quickly that the paleface Frenchmen were sick, and natives came from all over to see this strange sight. Never before had they seen a Frenchman ill and dying. They entered the cabin, touching things, shouting, making strange noises, eating from the kettles, sitting on the bunks almost on top of the sick and dying men.

De Brébeuf was close to despair. His dying men needed peace and quiet and uncontaminated food, yet he could not send the natives away, for he would break the code of hospitality.

Then, as the sick men began to show signs of improvement, Father Francois collapsed. He was racked with chills, bathed with sweat, and his body was torn with the aching and pain of the disease.

Jean de Brébeuf watched him, saddened. Francois, who had sacrificed so heroically to tend the others-- would he be the first to die? Three days later the crisis had passed and Father Francois began slowly to recuperate.

While Father de Brébeuf had been tending to the sick in his cabin, he had not neglected the Indians. He and Father Pijart had brought nourishing soups and dried fruit to those sick in the other cabins and had baptized those children about to die. In his heart, though, Echon felt sick, too. This was a bad disease; the village would lose many.

Before long, Jean de Brébeuf knew that the illness meant new trouble for him and the other priests. The master magician, accompanied by a howling mob, sought him out.

"We know now why we are dying from this disease," he said to Father de Brébeuf. "It is you! You and the Blackrobes have brought the demon with you. You keep your doors closed in the morning; you sing strange chants; you have a demon that ticks in a round box. These make us die. You claim to love us, but you are here to kill us."

They went away and, immediately, all the chants and dances and feasts were carried out with a frenzy that horrified the priests.

When they tried to enter a cabin to tend the sick, they were greeted with: "Teouastato--1 do not wish it."

In the midst of the howls and the shrieks which went on day and night with the thumping of the dances to scare away the demons, the village informed Echon, "We shall kill you the first time we catch you in the act of causing people to die."

As the pestilence passed, some of the hatred and frenzy passed with it, but the seed of serious distrust of the Blackrobes had been planted. The idea was fixed in the minds of many Hurons that these men were the cause of their illnesses, and Echon, the chief, was the greatest sorcerer of all. The master magician and his apprentices kept up an offensive against the missionaries. The hysteria and hatred were proof of their success.

As soon as all the Frenchmen in his cabin were well again. Father de Brébeuf sent Father Isaac Jogues and the boy Jean Amyot to see what the feeling was now in Ossosane. "If they are friendly there, we will make plans to move our residence to the capital. I see little hope of making any progress in lhonatiria."

Ossosane received Isaac Jogues with a degree of friendliness. The people called him Ondessonk. When he returned to his superior. Father de Brébeuf, he gave a favorable report. Ossosane showed more promise for their mission work than any other place they had yet been.

A few weeks later, on Ash Wednesday, February 25, 1637, an Indian neighbor came and squatted at Echon's fire. He was about fifty years old; he had listened to the instructions; and he swore that he did not believe in the sorcerers and dreams.

Like a gift from heaven, thought Jean de Brébeuf, and he praised God as he heard the first healthy adult Indian ask for baptism.

On June 7, after many instructions and tests, this Indian was baptized with all the solemn ceremonies, and he was named Pierre. De Brébeuf thought it fitting that Pierre, the first adult Huron Christian, be named after St. Peter, the first Apostle.

Father de Brébeuf proceeded very cautiously in the matter of moving his residence to Ossosane. He talked indirectly and diplomatically about what he was thinking, as the Hurons did when they had something on their mind. Finally, he asked to speak at a council of Ossosane chiefs, and there he hinted at the possibihty of establishing a residence in their village.

Chiwatenwa attended the council. Enthusiastically, he lent his assent along with the others. They would welcome Echon; they would prove it by building him a longhouse.

On June 8, 1637, the cabin at Ossosane was completed. A group of fifty men and women from Ossosane arrived at Echon's cabin in lhonatiria. They put the carrying thongs across their foreheads and when the blankets, bags, boxes, barrels, pots, and kettles were attached, the chief gave a signal, and, chanting a song, they began their twelve-mile procession to Ossosane.

Father de Brébeuf still hoped that some good could be accomplished in the old village now that they had one convert, Pierre. He had therefore asked Fathers Jogues and Pijart to remain.

When Jean de Brébeuf saw the cabin at Ossosane, he raised his hand in a blessing. "We shall dedicate our mission here to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception," he said.

Before they were settled, there was an insistent caller at the door. Father de Brébeuf recognized the man who stood there with his four young sons behind him. He had seen this fine-looking, straight-backed and simple Indian brave--who came from a family of notable Ossosane chiefs--at the council.

"I am Chiwatenwa. I have heard the truths that you and Ondessonk have spoken. I greatly desire baptism for myself and my sons."

He had used a sure tone, serious, yet gentle. Father de Brébeuf stared at Chiwatenwa.

Here was the finest specimen of Indian manhood. Could he dare hope that here was a Christian heart? Could he dare hope for such a blessing, and so soon? Father Jean de Brébeuf began to dream.


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