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CANADA/ Brutal Blessing: "Saints of the American Wilderness"

ALLISON SALERNO on “Saints of the American Wilderness”, a book about the Jesuit missionaries to Canada in the 17th century, their brutal lives, and how those lives can help us.

(detail of the book cover) (detail of the book cover)

Let me tell you, there is no way I would have our 12-year-old child read this book. I ordered "Saints of the American Wilderness" by Rev. John A. O'Brien because our younger son has chosen Antoine Daniel as his Confirmation name and I was planning to read the book with him. Antoine Daniel is one of eight Jesuit missionaries martyred in 17th century Canada.

It is so brutal in its details that many times I had to put the book down and take a breather. That said, adults should read "Saints of the American Wilderness" if they want to understand the sacrifices our ancestors made to bring the message of Christ to the North American continent. Be forewarned: within the first few chapters, we read detailed, and I mean detailed, accounts of cannibalism, finger chewing, sadistic torture and on and on. These details are not gratuitous. They go a long way in helping the reader understand exactly what these French men faced as they evangelized among the Hurons of what is now Ontario.

Two things moved me deeply while reading this book.

First, these highly educated, sophisticated men - France's elites, really - had nothing to gain and everything to lose in the sense of worldly benefits by becoming missionaries in the American wilderness. And while some might criticize the French, English and Dutch colonialists for exploiting native peoples, these Jesuits had no motive except one: to bring the word of Christ to the Hurons. This was no easy task:  The Hurons' "vocabulary...was limited to concrete, sensuous objects; they had no word for a supreme being."

Second, no matter what fate befell them; illness, torture, near-starvation, these men somehow always could see the light of Christ imbedded in the reality in front of them.  For example, in the fall of 1644, when Jesuit Father Francis Bressani, visited Sainte Marie a few months after being the Iroquois, he came bearing scars on his face, neck, legs and arms. His hands were missing fingers and some of his fingers had been chewed off by the Iroquois. One of the Jesuits remarked "his mutilated hands have made him a better preacher than we, and have served more than all our tongues to give a better conception of our faith to our Huron Christians."