Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Church at Nanrantsouak: Sébastien Râle, S.J., and the Wabanaki of Maine's Kennebec River

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Church at Nanrantsouak: Sébastien Râle, S.J., and the Wabanaki of Maine's Kennebec River

Article excerpt

French Jesuit Sébastien Râle arrived in Canada in 1689 and was missioned to the Wabanaki natives of the Kennebec River in what is now Maine. Râle accompanied the Wabanaki for thirty years, eventually dying with many of them during an English raid on their principal village, Nanrantsouak ("Norridgewock"). For three centuries, Râle's reputation, for good and ill, has depended primarily on perceptions of his role in the geopolitical and religious rivalries of the Europeans. The initiative of the Wabanaki themselves has usually been ignored. The author references recent scholarship from the native viewpoint, and original documentary sources, in an attempt to take the Wabanaki seriously as a local church-a community of Christians who, through the particular emphases of Râle's missionary method, came both to embrace Christianity and to make it their own in significant ways.

By the middle of the seventeenth century the Wabanaki1-the "People of the Dawn," occupying the territory from Lake Champlain eastward into what are now the Maritime Provinces of Canada-were a nation besieged. The devastation of six bloody wars with the English settlers along the Maine coast was still a quarter-century into the future, but a hundred years of increasing European economic pressure and fifty of direct European settlement on or near Wabanaki lands had taken their toll. Competing strategies for dealing with the Europeans, increasing dependence on their trade goods, the resulting rivalries and social dislocations, the ravages of previously unknown diseases, and the declining prestige of shamans apparently powerless in the face of all this had all contributed to a deep spiritual crisis among the Wabanaki.2 Since 1611, the Kennebec band, living along the banks of the river that rises at Moosehead Lake in -what is now northern Maine and empties into the Atlantic near the present town of Bath, had had at least passing contact -with members of the Society of Jesus. The acquaintance grew into a serious religious encounter after the Kennebec Wabanaki allied themselves wlthAlgonkian natives of the St. Lawrence valley in the 1640's, many of -whom had already been Christianized by Jesuit missionary activity3 In 1646, the Wabanaki requested and -were visited by their first "permanent" Jesuit missionary, Gabriel Druillettes, -who instructed them through the winter and returned for nearly a year in 1650.

For the ensuing forty years, there was no resident missionary in the Kennebec valley. The Wabanaki seem to have nurtured their new-found faith, to the extent that they retained it, in their ongoing commercial contact -with the French and St. Lawrence natives. During and after the first English war in 1675 ("King Philip's War") many of the Kennebecs migrated to mission villages built by the Jesuits near Quebec, -while those who remained in Maine were visited by Jesuit travelers such as the brothers Jacques and Vincent Bigot.4 But in the fall of 1693 or 1694, in the midst of the second English war ("King William's War"), a large group of Kennebecs was gathered into a Christian community at the village of Nanrantsouak in the middle of the Kennebec Valley by a Jesuit -whose name is now permanently associated -with the place and its people, Father Sébastien Râle.5

Râle would spend the next thirty years -with these Wabanaki people, mostly in and around Nanrantsouak. In the course of his mission, he was to become, in his own mind and those of many Europeans and Wabanaki, practically identified with his "sauvages" He would live with and as one of them, speak their language continually, teach and counsel them, pray with them, share their hopes, fears, exiles, and dangers, and eventually die with them. Yet, to French governors and English settlers alike, he would always be a European agent, keeping the Wabanaki aligned with French interests. His death came in August, 1724, in a raid on the village by an English squadron sent to rid the Kennebec River valley of the Wabanaki threat to their settlements, and what they considered its papist fountainhead. …

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