The Canoe Brings Terror
Christmas of 1638 was a memorable day for the Christians of Ossosane. Father Jerome Lalement had told them that they could attend midnight Mass in the chapel of the Jesuit longhouse.
The believers in Ossosane had been growing, thanks to the efforts of Joseph Chiwatenwa and Marie Aonetta, and so there were about thirty-six Indians who came to the chapel this night for midnight Mass.
It was a cold, starry night with a thick layer of snow covering the earth. The Christians walked over the snow, crunching it with snowshoes tied on to their feet which were well protected from the cold by boots of rabbit skin.
The chapel was decorated with evergreens and candles, and the priests had arranged a Nativity scene. Never had the Indians seen such magnificence!
Father de Brébeuf surprised Joseph when he placed his hand on the beaver skin cape which covered Joseph's shoulders and fell to his waist.
"Echon! You are back from the Cord nation!" he cried.
"I had to come for midnight Mass in the chapel, Joseph. During the Mass will you speak the prayers and again explain to the others what Father Lale-ment's actions mean?" "Echon, it will be a joy."
As the Mass went on, Joseph spoke so beautifully and truthfully, that later, Father Lalement wrote to his superior in Quebec: "We are beginning to regard Joseph as an apostle rather than a barbarian of these countries. He has not only intelligence, eloquence, integrity and reputation, but also the knowledge of our beliefs and a love for them in an eminent degree."
After the Mass, Father de Brébeuf spoke of the meaning of Christ's coming. Then he made an announcement.
"Now I have a little surprise. Agatha, Cecelia, and Therese--come." These were the three nieces of Joseph Chiwatenwa. The girls, modestly dressed in fur leggings and long-sleeved deerskin dresses which hung to their knees, came forward. Echon whispered to them, and the girls nodded their heads delightedly. Echon spoke to the congregation.
"We are going to sing a hymn to Jesus. This is the Christmas story, and we will sing it to the melody of an old French tune."
The four voices blended in the candlelit wooden chapel, the high sweet voices of the young girls given a fullness by the rich baritone of Echon's.
'Twas in the moon of wintertime, when all the birds had
The mighty Gitche Manitu sent angel choirs instead. Before their light, the stars grew dim, And wand'ring hunters heard the hymn: Jesus your King is born, Jesus Ahatonhia!
'Twas in a lodge of broken bark the tender Babe was
found, A ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped His beauty
And as the mighty braves drew nigh, The angel song rang loud and high: Jesus your King is born, Jesus Ahatonhia!
Ye children of the forest free, ye sons of Manitu, The holy Child of earth and heav'n is born today for you. Come kneel before the radiant Boy Who brings you beauty, peace and ]oy: Jesus your King is born, Jesus Ahatonhia!
As the last strains of the plaintive melody faded, the chapel was filled with the silence of great joy. Joseph felt a deeper understanding of God at this moment than he ever had before, and moving to his knees, he spoke with silent words:
"My God--now--in a special manner, I give thanks to You--because You have permitted me to know You. At last now I consecrate myself to You--who loves us to the utmost."
As Joseph prayed, consecrating himself to God, his joy was clouded by a sudden vision of a sullen dark face with piercing eyes, crowned with bizarre tufts of hair--Teondechoren.
"Dear God, help my brother. My prayers shall be for my nation, but most particularly for my brother. Give Teondechoren the grace to defy the devil!"
The trip to Quebec in the late spring of 1639 was difficult as usual because of the rapids in the river and the many portages which were necessary when land broke the continuity of the water route.
Joseph Chiwatenwa and Father Francois Le Mer-cier had made the journey to Quebec in order to obtain supplies for the Huron missions. They had se-curely wrapped and tied the boxes and packages of cloth, blankets, beads, knives, linen, and other supplies needed by the priests, and now they were ready to return the eight hundred miles to Ossosane.
One package was most precious to Joseph. It contained relics, holy pictures, altar vessels, candles and vestments. He considered it his great privilege to guard this bundle.
As he and Father Francois were ready to enter their large and well-loaded canoe, a vessel from France arrived at Quebec. Joseph watched the passengers emerge. They were nuns.
The women near the shore, who also wore black robes, greeted the new arrivals joyfully, embracing them and filling the air with happy voices. "How they love one another!" exclaimed Joseph. "Yes, Joseph, how brave they are to come to this unknown country because they love God and all whom He has made," answered Father Francois.
"I saw how these holy women cared for the Mon-tagnais children and their mothers. They gave them blankets and food, and stayed with them night after night when they had been sick. This is what first gave me the desire to find such love, and when I heard Echon for the first time, I knew he had the answer I was seeking." Joseph paused. "Father, do you think it would be possible for one of my nieces to come and live here with these Sisters? I am thinking mostly of Therese who is so good."
Father Francois beamed. "I do not think, Joseph, I know it would be a cause of great joy for the Ursulines to have a little Huron girl in their convent school. We shall speak to Father Lalement about this."
They began the arduous journey back to the Huron land, skimming over the water in their bark canoe, following the shore line. When they came to the frequent rapids, Joseph skillfully maneuvered the oars to keep the boat from overturning or being swept under the wild waters. At times the muscles of his arms ached with weariness, and his bare chest would glow in the day's sun from the perspiration of his body.
In the island-dotted waters of the Algonquin country, Joseph saw a sight which greatly alarmed him. The river was calm and Joseph had relaxed, enjoying the scenery of rocky shores against a tree-lined background. Suddenly his body stiffened. He narrowed his eyes to try to see more clearly what had happened to the figures lying on the beach.
"Father, there is trouble! I am rowing in to the shore."
Father Frangois and Joseph skimmed over the water in their bark canoe
Before they put their feet on land, the travelers knew what the sight meant. The bodies lying on the shore were those of Algonquin Indians abandoned to die. A slight movement now and then indicated that some were still alive.
Joseph and Father Francois ran to the Indians. One look at the disfigured, festering bodies told them the story. It was smallpox! The dreaded and feared
plague so fatal to the Indians had struck again!
They gave water to the few who were still alive, but these people were so far gone with fever that they could neither speak nor understand. Reluctantly, with prayers on their lips, Father Francois and Joseph went back to their canoe.
The days went by slowly as they tediously conquered the miles that separated them from Ossosane. Their food supply was very low, for they had taken only a minimum so as to use as much space as possible in the canoe for the mission supplies. For this reason, too, they had left behind their heavy hunting equipment. Joseph had been prudent, though, for on their way to Quebec he had securely hidden leather pouches of dried fish and corn in seven places along the way.
As he recognized a familiar beach, Joseph said to Father Francois, "It is here I hid the first package of food which we shall need."
They pushed the canoe well up on the stony shore. Father Francois began picking twigs for a fire as Joseph headed for a brush-filled cliff which rose some distance away.
His lean and muscular body moved quickly through the low brush and sparse trees. There was a concealed cave underneath the cliff which Joseph had found earlier, and it was here that he had hidden the food.
He ran directly to the spot and then he stopped, frozen in worried surprise. The covering brush had been trampled and pulled; the cave was clearly visible! Falling to his knees, Joseph thrust his arm out and into the cave. Frantically, his hand patted the floor. His fingers closed upon the leather pouch, but before he could utter the words of thanks, his fingers pressing on the leather told him that the pouch was empty.
Joseph walked dejectedly to Father Francois and dropped the leather pouch to the ground next to the fire.
"It will be at least three days till we reach the next cache."
Father Francois went to the canoe. He came back holding a handful of corn.
"We have enough corn to share one handful a day for the next three days." The eyes of the priest crinkled in his red rugged face. "We'll manage, Joseph. Don't worry."
"I do not worry for myself. Father, but I have failed you. For myself, if I lose something, I say to God, 'My God there is nothing precious in the world but You. If only I do not lose that which makes my soul pleasing to Your eyes, I am always too rich.'" Joseph smiled at Father Francois, who could only nod his head in amazement at the words of this Christian Indian.
Three days later, the story was the same. The cache of food had been stolen, and now the Indian and the priest had no food left at all.
"Does this make you sad, Joseph?" asked Father Francois.
"No, I know it is a favor from heaven. God does not fail the beasts which live in the woods, and yet they have neither fields, nor a place where they may hide their provisions. God will give us food or take our lives, as He wills it."
They continued their journey silently, for their hunger weakened them, and talking, too, took energy. Now and then along the shores, they could see again the terrible sight of Indians abandoned to die of smallpox because of the fear of contagion among the natives.
At each portage they had to make four trips to bring the canoe and all the packages to where the waterway continued. Joseph insisted on carrying the heaviest burdens, and, laden to the last ounce of Tlis strength, he trudged barefoot over stones and through brush and forests.
Of the seven caches of food, five were stolen, but finally, in late July, Father Francois and Joseph Chiwatenwa did manage to drag their starving bodies to the shore near Ossosane. Their face bones were prominent from the hollows in their cheeks, and their eyes were sunken, but despite their sufferings, they were happy. For none of the packages they had brought from Quebec had been lost, and the missionaries now had relics and altar supplies for the new chapel which was to be built according to Father Lalement's plans for the new Jesuit residence.
"But there is bad news. Father," Joseph reported to Father Lalement. "We saw much smallpox along the way. Soon it will strike the Hurons, and then there will be more trouble for us than ever before."
The priests and the Christian Indian looked at each other. Their eyes showed plainly that they all had the same vision--the frightening picture of the wild and superstitious sorcerers' cures, and the hatchets of hate poised over their own heads.
Father Jerome Lalement had found the perfect location for the central residence which he planned to build. Sainte Marie would rise up on the shore of the beautiful Wye River which joined Georgian Bay to the north with a small picturesque lake to the south. The place was ten miles east of Ossosane, about eight hundred miles from Quebec.
Father Lalement's plan was to enclose an area about 800 feet long by 200 feet wide with palisaded walls. These walls would not be oval in shape like those of the native tribes, but would have clean, square corners in the tradition of European fortifications. Within would be a French compound with French-style wooden buildings, and an area for two longhouses for the use of the Christian Indians.
Excitedly, Father Lalement had talked about his plans. There would be cellars for storage, a blacksmith shop for making tools, a carpenter's shop to turn out planks and furniture, a beautiful chapel, a building to be used as a hospital, and even running water, for his plans included the construction of a canal. He had written of his plans for the Jesuit residence in New France to a young man who wanted to be a donne. When Charles Boivin arrived next year, the building would zoom, for this young man was also a master architect.
In seven or eight years, Sainte Marie would be a flourishing, prosperous establishment, providing economic security and a spiritual haven for both the Jesuits and the Christian Indians. This was Father Lalement's dream.
Joseph Chiwatenwa, back from Quebec and refreshed by the loving care of his wife Marie Aonetta, watched the building of the new residence with fascination.
The palisades were built with logs, as were those of the Indian villages, but the plan was European. The workmen first dug a trench, scooping the earth with a shell or wooden shovel, the primitive tools of the Indians. They then took the logs which had been cut in nine-foot lengths, chopped one end of them to a point, burned these awhile to prevent rotting, and then placed the timbers into the trench, blackened end down. The loose earth was then banked tightly against the upright timbers.
The palisades stood in three rows, interlaced into one another and reinforced within by large thick pieces of bark. To finish each section, the French workmen made short forks from tree trunks, placing them next to the palisade and then laying the thickest logs across these forks, to make a parallel reinforcement all along the bottom of the palisade walls.
Joseph marveled at the building plans of the Europeans. He was especially interested in the building of the very large wooden cabin which, for the present time, was to contain the chapel.
In making the outside walls, the workmen dug holes for thick square upright posts at ten- and twelve-foot intervals. Two rows of horizontal two-inch planks were nailed to the post, and the space between the rows was filled with clay and stone for insulation.
Even more amazing to Joseph than this manner of making walls was the marvelous way the French had of Joining stone together into a solid piece. Joseph helped trim limestone, then watched carefully as the workmen mixed mortar and laid the stones in place to make the altar and fireplaces.
By the middle of August, Father Lalement declared that the first building of the central residence, Sainte Marie, was now ready for occupancy. The priests packed their belongings and reluctantly closed off the entrance to the longhouse which had served as their home and chapel at Ossosane. La Conception would now serve only as a temporary residence.
Father de Brébeuf and Father Chastellain still were assigned to stay in the wretched little cabin in the Cord capital for the fall and winter. One of the donnes, Robert Le Coq, was on his way to Quebec for more supplies. That left twelve priests and workmen to live in the large new cabin at Sainte Marie.
Joseph Chiwatenwa helped carry the missionaries' belongings to their new quarters. He walked along at the side of Father Francois.
"Now, Joseph," the priest said, "you will see how a religious community of men should live. We will be able to have here the retreats which are so necessary for our spiritual refreshment."
Joseph looked down at Father Le Mercier. "What is a retreat. Father?"
"It is a period of time when you put the world out of your mind, and keep silence, so that God may have the chance to talk to you."
Joseph's eyes brightened. "Would it be possible for me to have so great a good?" His voice was plaintive. "All my life I have always been occupied. If I died at this moment I would have so little profit for eternity. If only I could make a retreat!" "I will speak to Father Lalement for you." Father Francois convinced his superior that Joseph was indeed ready to make an eight-day retreat.
"How marvelous it is that the very first one to make a retreat at Sainte Marie is a Christian Indian," exclaimed Father Lalement. "Father Le Mercier, you will be his spiritual director for these eight days."
During the first meditation, Father Francois sat on a mat next to Joseph and said, "Now, Joseph, why have you come here? Give your answer to God."
Joseph closed his eyes and answered, "My God, I come here to know Your holy Will, and resolve whatever cost there be to fulfill it--though it were to cost my life."
"Do you put your trust in any other but God?" "How insignificant is the support of men! Those who loved me most in the world and from whom I derived most--my mother and my father--are dead. God alone in His goodness has served me as father and mother. When I was in no way thinking of Him, he thought incessantly of me." Joseph's voice grew low. "From the end of the world and from beyond the seas, God has called men who have come for me, and for me almost alone. My God, how great is Your love! Shall I lean on another than You?"
Father Francois listened in utter wonderment as the Christian Indian talked on.
"My God, I am nothing. I come here to hear You. Speak then in the depth of my heart and tell me 'Do that!' I will do it my God, though I should die for it." During the meditation on heaven Father Francois was again edified by Joseph's thoughts as he spoke aloud to God:
"My God, I do not desire to imagine the good things which You reserve after this life for those who serve You, for I have no sense. If I fancied heaven as a place where there are fine cabins, handsome beaver robes, deer and bears to eat, I would not make You richer than men. The riches of men are nothing like Yours--for Yours are the riches which will give contentment forever."
In the next few days. Father Francois began to feel that perhaps he himself was the one being directed as he listened to Joseph voice sentiments on the Christian life that gave evidence of his understanding and holiness.
On the fourth day of the retreat, Joseph was warming himself by one of the large stone fireplaces in the chapel, for it was a cool, early September morning. The sudden loud sounds of unfriendly voices within the cabin shattered his peaceful silence.
Quickly, he ran from the chapel, his bare feet noiseless on the wooden floor. He opened the door which closed off the chapel from the rest of the cabin, and the noise became shrill in his ears. A band of hostile Indians, almost naked and painted gaudily, their necks and waists decorated with wampum belts, were noisily investigating the cabin, handling the furniture and taking the objects which struck their fancy.
"You are taking what does not belong to you," protested Father Le Mercier.
In reply, one of the Indians struck the priest on the side of his head, causing him to reel.
Joseph ran to Father Francois and steadied him. His brilliant eyes lit up with the fires of justified anger.
The sight of the Christian Indian surprised the others. "Who are you?" asked the Indian who was leading the group. "Why do you help the Black-robes? Don't you know that they are ruining our country?"
Joseph drew himself up to his full height. "You have no sense," he said slowly and deliberately. "You --and all those like you who refuse to believe in our loving Father--you and the sorcerers--are the cause of our nation's ruin!"
The painted leader clamped his mouth in hate, and the muscles of his body rounded as he clenched his tomahawk menacingly. There was one other Indian who moved forward to stare at Joseph, who continued to speak in spite of the threat.
"We are hke children during this life. We are without understanding. We value only useless pastimes. Now I have begun to know God and all I can ask is, why is He not known?"
Father Francois found himself amazed once more as Joseph Chiwatenwa talked on about God and the Faith. In the end, the Indians who had come in as wolves left meekly as lambs. The one who had moved forward to stare at Joseph stayed on at the cabin to take instructions. One day he was to be baptized and named Louis.
On the last of his eight days away from the world, Joseph confided to his spiritual director, "I no longer fear death at all, and I would thank God if I saw myself at the end of my life, so firm is my hope that I shall go to heaven."
"And do you fear death for your relatives?" "No, Father, provided they die in the grace of God." Joseph looked directly into Father Francois' deep brown eyes. "Father, I must go and talk to my brother Teondechoren. Will you come with me?" "But Aonetta will be waiting--"
"I must see Teondechoren." They walked the ten-mile distance back to Osso-sane to Teondechoren's cabin, leaving in the coolness of the very early morning to arrive in the sun-soaked heaviness of a late August afternoon.
Teondechoren was squatting in the shade outside his longhouse with a group of other Indians. They were gambling with the wooden discs painted white on one side and black on the other and which rested in a wooden bowl. Teondechoren slammed the bowl on the ground. The discs flew up and then fell to the ground.
"White is the winner--ah ha!" Teondechoren's voice was high and jubilant. He collected his winnings with one hand, and with the other, he patted his oqui, the head of a serpent, thanking his charm for the luck it had brought him. Joseph and the priest walked over to him. "I want to talk to you, my brother." Teondechoren looked up at Joseph, then turned his head with the tufted hair slowly and scornfully. "We are hungry."
"I will not break our code of hospitality," Teondechoren said, sweeping his hand in a sign to the grumbling Indians that the betting game was over. "My squaw will prepare some food." "She is a good woman, your new wife?" Teondechoren drew his lips down and gave a nod of his head.
Joseph and the priest sat down on the ground next to Teondechoren.
"My brother, it is true that I am younger than you, but the grace of God which I received in baptism obliges me to talk to you as if I were the older one."
Teondechoren did not look up as Joseph continued, "I want you to know that if our people have spoken evil of me in the past, it will be much more so in the future. For now, Teondechoren, I have really begun to know God and I will spare nothing in His service."
"Why do you come to tell me this?" "Because I think I will be in constant danger. Already I have been called one of the causes of the ruin of the country. My enemies say that the French have taught me the secrets of their spells and that I am now a master of them. There have even been rumors that my head has already been split." "Chiwatenwa!" Teondechoren glared at him. "I am still your older brother, and in my heart I do not wish to be your enemy. Give up your foolishness now. You have brought disgrace to our family. But if you renounce the Blackrobes now, we will get rid of them and you will be once more a great leader of our people."
There was a moment of silence. Then Joseph answered, "You are wrong, Teondechoren. I am not a disgrace to our family. On the contrary. If I am killed, the day will come when my memory will be honored --and it will be said forever that I was the first in our country who preferred losing life to losing the liberty of living openly like a Christian!"
"I would prefer my brother to be a live Huron leader rather than a dead Christian!"
"You are wrong, Teondechoren, but I do not want to argue." Joseph paused. "I came only because I want to tell you to rejoice when you hear the news of my death. On earth I can only pray imperfectly for you. But in heaven I shall be able to do much more. I will have more knowledge of your misery, and so more compassion for you. Then I will call even more loudly on God, that you will accept Him." Teondechoren stared at Joseph, astonishment written on his face. His squaw brought out the sagamite in bark bowls and the three men ate silently. When Father Francois and Joseph stood and said good-by, the priest noticed the glint in Teondechoren's eyes. He couldn't be sure if it came from malice or tears held back.
Father Francois stayed in Ossosane until the middle of September, and then he went back to the haven of Sainte Marie. He arrived in time to hear the hushed, excited voices of men afraid.
A canoe was anchored on the low bank of the river near the residence, and Father Lalement and a few workmen were gathered around it. Father Le Mercier eased his way through the small group. And then he saw what had put fear into the voices and the faces of his fellow men.
Lying in the canoe was the sight that he and Joseph had seen on the way back from Quebec--the sore-covered figure of a dying Indian.
"It is smallpox," said Father Lalement, his voice sounding hollow. "It will be in all the villages soon. The Indians will be filled with terror. They will call upon their devils. They will blame us and curse us--" "And they will plot to kill us," Father Le Mercier added, shuddering slightly as he and his superior walked to the Indian in the canoe who plainly had only a few hours to live. They began to storm heaven for his soul.