Tag Archives: Jesuits

The Church of the Dead

I have not posted to this blog as much as I have in the past. I am on sabbatical, working on a history of the Onondaga Nation that I began long ago. I won’t finish it during the semester I have off–it is just too big a project–but I hope to make some substantial progress.

I have been working my way through the Jesuit Relations, the annual writings of the French priests who began ministering to the Haudenosaunee in the middle of the seventeenth century. The first Jesuits arrived at Onondaga, at the very center of the Iroquois League, in 1654. They remained even after many of the converts left for mission settlements in the St. Lawrence Valley. After most of the devoted left, Father Jean de Lamberville found himself facing the Onondagas’ “ill humor and savage whims,” as well as their outright rejection. “The chief fruit that I have gathered,” he wrote, “has been among the dying.” Mostly, he baptized dying children. “This is the most certain fruit we gather in this country,” he wrote, “where it is desirable that the children should die before obtaining the use of their reason.” It is a constant theme in Lamberville’s writings. “The Church of Onnontague,” he wrote, “has been blessedly diminished this year by the death of some Christians who have gone to increase the number of the blessed.” Because of his medical skills, Lamberville often was granted access to the sick. Few of these “escape who are not baptized before they die.”

Lamberville baptized thirty-nine Onondagas in 1671, “twenty of them entering, soon after, into the possession of glory.” Of the twenty-seven people he baptized in 1672, “They all died, with the exception of three.” In 1673, he baptized eight “aged persons,” all but one of whom died. In a letter to his superiors written in June 1676, Lamberville reported that he recently had baptized forty-five children, “forty of whom are before God.” He admired, he wrote, the ways God adopted “for the salvation of his elect,” as he presided over a church composed of dead children.

We are facing a national crisis in history education, as Republican lawmakers across the country rush to downplay the Holocaust, erase slavery, deny the diversity of this country’s many stories, and proscribe the teaching of ideas they find suspect. History can be difficult work at times, carried on in defiance of those frightened men and women who worry that a frank discussion of our nation’s sins may not lead to forgiveness. And at times, writing history can be emotionally exhausting.