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Education and Voyage to Québec.

Historical context | Education | Voyage to Québec | In Québec

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Menard's canoe voyages

René Menard was born in Paris, September 7, 1605. Chivalry had been waning for a century, but officers in the army, and some companies of swordsmen, still wore armor made by the old armor makers, the St. Legers. Matchlock guns were in use, which soon were to be superseded by the wonderful new invention of wheellock muskets, which in turn were to give place, toward the close of the century, to flintlocks. It is certain that no one seeing the new baby, on that day in September, would believe that he would take part in the life of Indian villages in far-away America, which centuries later were to be identified as to their time and age by the type of gun locks which were picked upon these Indian sites. The King of France was Henri IV. Very earnest and zealous religion had the highest place in universities and even in courts of kings.

In those days the Latin Quarter of Paris, instead of being the abode of artists' frivolity, was the place of a four-hundred year old university, where Latin was the common language for students from many nations. Doubtless a prayerful mother and the great Notre Dame Cathedral and other churches, where were treasured the chivalry, the heroic adventures and the saintliness of France, had their influence on the character of René Menard as his inquiring mind opened up through childhood to the influences of his surroundings. But before going further, let us picture the Seine River as it flowed through Paris. Floating on the river were barges from interconnecting streams, bringing the produce of France to the capital city. No one could live in Paris without seeing these barges propelled past the shallow places by men with long poles and by other men, walking on the bank, pulling with long ropes. Doubtless, as this boy René began to show superiority in his school studies, his parents felt proud that he would belong to the scholarly class which was aloof from manual labor, such as could be seen in the lives of these river men. But strange things happen in life and the scholarly course, which led him through the university, brought him to be one of those many 17th century Frenchmen who, in order to reach supreme objectives, helped pull boats up most of the navigable rapids in Eastern America. There is little doubt that the riffles in the Seneca River saw him helping Indians to pull boats upstream more than one hundred and fifty years before the Erie Canal was planned, and more than two hundred years before the Barge Canal had made it deep water.

On November 7th, 1624 and two months after his 19th birthday, when according to French law he was of age and was free to make his own decisions, he became a novice in the Society of Jesus. Only young men of great promise in mind and spirit could enter this Order; not all of them succeeded in completing its thorough and difficult course. After two years' novitiate in Paris, during which time he was free to withdraw from the Order, if he wished, he was sent in October, 1626, to the college conducted by the Jesuits, which Henri IV had founded in La Flèche. Recently the buildings of this college have been used as a military training school. At La Flèche he spent three years studying arts and sciences. At the completion of this course he would be equal to the American college graduate who has taken the degree of Bachelor of Arts. But in truth this is only a commencement of Jesuit education. In October, 1629, he was sent to teach Latin at the Jesuit College of Orléans, the place of Joan of Arc. [Note: the printed text reads "birthplace," and in my copy, "birth" has been struck out by the author.] In October, 1632, he was sent to the old university at Bourges, where he spent four years studying theology. Insight into his mental quality is given by the fact that he not only distinguished himself in theology and philosophy but that he stood high in literature.

Let us pause here, at Bourges, to make a surmise about a lost coin. Bourges was a Roman military camp from the year 52 B. C., when Julius Caesar took it from the Gauls under Vercingetorix. "Omnis Gallia divisa est." etc. Roman ramparts, built in the 4th century, today form the walls of houses in the old part of the town. A Roman trench passes close to the very great St. Stephen's Church, the magnificent forerunner of the little St. Stephen's Mission at Mud-Lock on the Seneca River. So much is fact; now for a guess--and let all historians remember that this is only a guess: -- some Roman soldier lost a bronze coin, part of a month's pay, in the old Roman camp at Bourges; 1400 years later René Menard, then a student and teacher of Latin, on an afternoon walk, found the coin and treasured it as a pocket piece. Now for a fact: in the summer of 1931 a bronze coin, bearing the profile of the Roman Emperor, Antoninus Pius of the date 165 A. D., was dug from an Indian grave near the site of one of Father René Menard's missions, namely that at Great Gully Brook, Cayuga County, New York. This coin is now in the Municipal Museum, Edgerton Park, Rochester, N. Y. This surmise about the coin would apply equally well to Father Stephen De Carheil, also of Bourges, France and of the Cayuga mission at Great Gully.

After Bourges there came for René Menard a year in Moulins, teaching rhetoric and two years teaching literature. A very gracious letter to the writer of this article has come from the Reverend A. Monier-Vinard, S. J., which tells that the college has now been rebuilt in the suburbs of Moulins at Yzeure-Allier. Following Moulins came a year of prayer and retreat in the house of his Order at Rouen. René Menard in fact represents a thoroughness of training of mind and spirit rarely equaled in our usual courses of education. Few men of education need to step down in recognizing the training of Fr. René Menard.

His residence at Rouen carries us back, in thought, to several centuries before his time, when Englishmen caused Joan of Arc to be burned to death. In a few years, after his course was completed, Fr. René Menard was to see Indian captives tortured to death in much the same way. One of the familiar sights of Rouen in the days of René Menard, as well as now, is the tall spire of the cathedral which spire was called "Tour de Beurre," or Tower of Butter. Back in the 15th century pious people were induced to pay toward the building of this steeple by being allowed to eat butter during Lent, doubtlessly to the great delight of the farmers who, during Lent, continued to sell butter in the market place in front of the beautiful church.

Tower of Butter! In student days it pointed to Heaven and directed toward prayer and devotion; but in later years, when the missionary explorer was stormbound in a camp with the hissing waves of a great lake cannonading against a bleak rocky point and with the last ration of boiled moss and porcupine eaten, the Tower of Butter becomes a picture of plenty, torturing his imagination as he dreams of food.

Sailing shipNearly a score of years later Fr. Étienne De Carheil was a teacher and the young La Salle was a student in this college at Rouen. Stories of New France and reports of early mission life among the Indians were being circulated in the schools of France in the time of René Menard. The names Otawak, Nipisirien, Irocois and Hures and Kébec were coming into the conversation of French and Latin discourse at the dinner tables of the colleges. In March, 1640, Fr. René Menard set out in the ship Espérance from Dieppe for *Canada and Québec. On the ship were also four nuns, who expected to serve in the Ursuline convent and in hospital in Québec, and Father Du Peron and two lay brothers. Fr. Menard writes "Accordingly there were four nuns who embarked in the vessel Espérance." M. Couper was master. From the 26th of March to the 28th of April, it seemed as if the demons were trying to stop the passage of these good men and women to Canada. For a month they did not get away from the sight of the coast of France. Nearby, another ship had anchored, the Valance, which went to pieces with the loss of twenty men. After the storm a new start was made and new excitements were encountered. Several hostile English frigates appeared, threatening to capture them. News of the hostile ships reached the Premier of France, Cardinal Richelieu, and at his suggestion the King sent 40 vessels of the French Navy, which conducted the religious emigrants out of the English Channel. From there onward a quiet voyage took them past Newfoundland to Tadoussac where the Saguenay River comes out of its grim canyon and where white porpoises play in the blue waters of the very wide St. Lawrence. While the Espérance and the two other vessels which had come with her were delayed at Tadoussac ("demeurés Tadoussac"), waiting for wind and tide to carry them onward up the less wide part of the river, Fr. René Menard and Brother Dominique Scot embarked in a longboat to carry the news to Québec of the fleet's arrival. What a relief, what a vacation for those two eager young men to be out of school and out of the smelly ship and to be in an open boat on the majestic St. Lawrence in the month of July, where unspoiled forests filled the breezes with a worshipful incense. Even by this time Québec had known famine and capture by an English fleet under Admiral Kirk, and the constant fear of Iroquois attack, so that when the ships arrived at this pioneer town, where log cabins showed traces of quaint old France and when the people of that town knew that relief and food and letters and reinforcements had come, the whole town crowded into the church and sang the Te Deum. It was the 8th of July, 1640, when the fleet arrived at Québec.


A. Melançon, S. J.: "Liste Des Missionaires -- Jésuites; Nouvelle France et Louisiane: 161l-1800".

Henry Colin Campbell: "Père René Menard" Loaned by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

R. G. Thwaites, Editor "Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents" 78 volumes. Referred to in the following pages as Jes. Rels. See Index, under Menard and Menart

*(Jes. Rels. XVIII p. 62.)

Immediately upon Fr. Menard's arrival in Québec, he began to study the Algonquin language in preparation for that missionary work which was to lead him in almost endless journeys over the Great Lakes and into the Finger Lakes region of New York.

The fact that he chose the Algonquin language, or that he was possibly called upon by his superior to study the Algonquin language, years later was to be the cause of saving him from a martyr's death at the hands of the Iroquois. The speech of the Algonquins contains sounds which are made with closed lips and the Iroquoian languages are throaty and open-mouthed and could be spoken if the lips were cut off.

Since the letters M, B and P are not Iroquoian, such names as Québec, Nipissing, Manitoulin, and Muskoka, places connected with the life of René Menard, indicate Algonquin contacts. The Hurons were of Iroquois stock and had settled habitations in the limestone rock country south and west of where Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching empty into Georgian Bay through the Severn River, a corn growing country. North of this river the granite rock begins, where corn will hardly grow, and where the multitudinous lakes made hiding places for the Algonquins who had been driven out of the territory south of Lake Ontario more than 300 years before by the powerful and terrible Iroquois warriors. In learning the Algonquin language Fr. Menard was preparing for the hardships of no fixed residence in a country where mercury freezes in winter.

At the residence dining table in Québec, Fr. Menard, being of an eager and studious mind, absorbed all the information he could from the older missionaries. Upon the intellectual and aristocratic faces of these older fathers and over the pallor, caused by their scholarly and monastic life in their student days, had been written the impressions of adventure and hardship.

Blistering heat, stinging cold, the smoke of Indian cabins, the far-away look of those who search out lonely places and the tight muscle lines around the mouth, indicating strain at packs and paddles, showed that these members of the Company of Jesus were practicing the active and soldier-like piety which is the ideal of their order and which has made them among the chief explorers of Northeastern America.

Their conversation touched lightly and in a matter-of-fact manner on dangers of torture by the Indians, dangers in rapids, dangers of starvation, dangers of wet feet in sub-zero weather causing freezing and death. As René Menard listened, the divine fire burned in his heart and he hungered to be at his work; but he wondered if his body, which was not so robust as the bodies of some of the others, would fail him in the great work and the glorious adventures which he wished to undertake.

In the Arch-Episcopal residence in the city of Québec there is the baptismal record of the residence of the Jesuit Order in Trois-Rivières. The residence was founded in 1636 and the record, which is in Latin, begins in 1638. Toward the close of 1640 baptisms are recorded as being performed by Fr. René Menard. Evidently his time in Québec was short; for soon he must have moved to Trois-Rivières.

This place became his home, to which he returned whenever he was not far away on the long and strenuous trails of the wilderness. Trois-Rivières, the third town of New France on the St. Lawrence River -- the others being Tadoussac and Québec -- (Montréal had not yet been founded) is 90 miles downriver from Montréal and 60 miles upriver from Québec, at a point where the St. Maurice River comes down from the Hudson's Bay watershed. Here tribes from every direction came to trade.


["Omnis..." This is a paraphrase rather than an exact quote from Julius Caesar -- Ed.]

[Top: John S. Allen's Home Page]
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Contents © 1934, Alexander M. Stewart; new material © 1997 John S. Allen

Last revised 21 August 1999