Northwest Indian Evangelization by European Jesuits, 1841-1909

By McKevitt, Gerald | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Northwest Indian Evangelization by European Jesuits, 1841-1909


McKevitt, Gerald, The Catholic Historical Review


"All of my life," wrote the Jesuit Nicole Point, "I have felt my heart throb at the very sound of the word,'America.'"The young Frenchman who penned those words while en route to the United States in 1835 voiced a sentiment shared by many nineteenth-century Europeans who longed for missionary careers. Felix Barbelin, who emigrated from France to America in 1831, was so eager to proselytize, his sister recorded, that "he used to practice leaping over chairs, that he might be able to spring clear the ditches in America, whither he was always desirous of going." The future founder of the University of Notre Dame, Father Edward Sorin, entertained the same fantasy, writing in 1842,"I see nothing in the world comparable to the life of a missionary among the savages." Steeped since childhood in exotic accounts of Indian life found in the works of Chateaubriand and other romantic writers, Europeans were further inspired to become missionaries by their religious training. Visits by recruiters and a steady stream of literature about converting Native Americans produced a fascination with the frontier that reaped a bountiful harvest of missionaries for the United States.1

The rush of Europeans to frontier America was part of a global migration that saw Christian missionaries scatter to the four corners of the earth in the nineteenth century in unprecedented numbers. "Comparable in size and morale with the expeditionary forces of any great power," in the words of one historian, an army of missionaries achieved remarkable results as Christianity "flung its outposts farther afield and won more converts than in any earlier period of like duration."2 For the Catholic Church, this burst of energy constituted a striking reversal to what had preceded. At the close of the eighteenth century, Catholic missions had been in a state of near collapse, a consequence of the French Revolution, the temporary suppression of the Jesuit order, and Napoleon's thrashing of the papacy. By the end of the Napoleonic era, the total number of European Catholic priests in all the missions of the world numbered only 270. Yet by the mid-nineteenth century, the Church, led by a succession of strong popes, emerged a revivified and highly centralized institution. As Stephen Neill records in his classic History of Christian Missions "No one at the beginning of the century could possibly have imagined that this apparently moribund Church would produce from within itself those astonishing new manifestations of energy." Not only did missionary work revive; it became international to an unprecedented degree. In the United States, much of that transformation was effected by clergy from France, Belgium, Holland, Ireland, and Italy.3

Among male religious orders engaged in ministry to Native Americans, none provided more European volunteers than the Society of Jesus. The most popular destination for Jesuits was the Rocky Mountain Mission in the Pacific Northwest. Founded in 1841 by the Belgian Jesuit Pierre-Jean De Smet, its dominion embraced the modern states of Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Idaho. Personnel were drawn from many nations, but the majority came from Italy, driven from their homeland by the upheavals that accompanied the process of national unification known as the Risorgimento ("Rebirth"). During that movement, which climaxed in 1870 with the fall of papal Rome, anticlericalism drove members of many religious orders from their homeland. When the kingdom of Piedmont in the north began expelling clergy, many Jesuits from the order's Turin Province took up missionary work in the United States, beginning in 1854 when the gesuitipiemontesi assumed administration of the Rocky Mountain Mission.

Although the Rocky Mountain Mission was overseen by the Jesuits' exiled Turin Province, its ethnic membership was strikingly diverse. So appealing was the prospect of converting Indians that men from a wider spectrum of countries volunteered for duty there than in any other Jesuit enterprise in the West. …

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