This summer, thirteen “able bodied” missionaries, Canadian Franciscans, made a historical, and transformative, pilgrimage along Quebec’s Saint Lawrence River from Montreal to Percé (Perce Rock) and back. Led by Fr. Guylain Prince, OFM, of Trois-Rivières, the “young friars” (four of these men have not yet made their Solemn Vows) delved deep into their Religious Order’s history, rediscovering the heroic stories documented by Canadas’ pioneers of the Christian faith. While camping, hiking, prayer and fraternal fellowship, were essential to the pilgrim experience, it was the humbly promulgated history of the Récollets, known since 1893 as the Franciscans (Order of Friars Minor), that would have the profoundest impact on these servants of the Word for today, tasked as was St. Francis of Assisi, to renew God’s Church in their own time and place.
Most Canadians, especially Canadian Catholics, have a sense of the significance of the Jesuit contribution, which has been anything but small, to the shaping of the Church and social fabric of Canada over the last four hundred years, but few have the slightest idea of what Franciscans have done. The first priests and brothers to venture into the continent, on board with Samuel du Chaplain in 1615, Franciscan Friars (then known as Récollets) have served God and Canada in noteworthy and inspirational ways. Primary sources paint a picture of adventurous and dedicated labourers of the Gospel who were unpretentious and consistently aligned with the faithful, while so often at odds with both Ecclessial and Civil authorities of a Colony.
Several notable events make the case for recognizing the Franciscans as Canadas “first Missionaries”. Franciscan, or Récollet, Priests presided at the first documented Eucharistic Celebrations, the first baptisms, and the first marriages – all between 1615 and 1629 – in New France. It was a Récollet, Joseph LeCaron, who in 1624 first announced to the world that Saint Joseph had been chosen as Patron of Canada. And, the Récollets claim the first martyr, Nicolas Veil, drowned by the Huron in 1625.
While this latter event would indicate some initial tension between the friars (or Europeans in general) and Canada’s first peoples (particularly the Hurons), a reading of Gabriel Sagard (Le grand voyage au pays des Hurons, 1632), Nicolas Viel’s companion, paints a harmonious vision for mutual evangelisation between the French and Native Peoples. In Sagard, one finds a deep respect for not only first nations culture but their religion, as well as a call for integration, which includes intermarriage between natives and settlers. The Récollets, along with Champlain, had a dream that would, unfortunately, be stifled by forces contrary to the authentic mission of disciples.
Rooting and renewing their own missionary identity, our pilgrim friars for today were graced to rediscover legends of a once emerging French Canadian Church. The learned about Brother Didace Pelletier and Emmanuel Creshel, for example. Long considered the Saint of Saint Ann de Beaupre, Pelletier, a Récollet carpenter, was believed to be responsible for the miraculous healing of Quebec City’s second Bishop, Jean-Baptiste de Saint-Vallier. For his part, Emmanuel Crespel, is known less for his piety and more for his leadership. The once provincial Superior of the friars in the Colony, Crespel spent the winter of 1736-37 playing not only chaplain but nurse and doctor to 54 fellow shipwrecks on the Island of Anticosti, in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Less than half of the stranded would survive to see their families or friends again.
Driven out twice, and finally forbidden, by the British Royal Government, to recruit vocations, Canada’s last living Récollet would die in 1813, but the fruits of their labours would endure. For nearly 70 years, the Franciscan third order, also known as the Secular Franciscans, kept a the hope of Saint Francis alive and regularly pleaded with their bishops to bring the friars back to Canada. Finally in 1881, the Abbé Leon Provencher of Cape Rouge, invited the Flemish Franciscan Friar Fredéric Jansoone, OFM, to preach missions throughout Quebec, and the next (and still ongoing) chapter of Franciscan missions to Canada would begin.