Sainte Marie among the Iroquois testimony to Jesuit faith


Photos by Paul Finch
Staff Photographer

Le Moyne College was founded in 1946, but the influence of Father Simon Le Moyne has been present in the region now called Central New York since the 17th century.
The Sainte Marie among the Iroquois museum remains a tribute to the Jesuits’ enduring tradition in Central New York.

The historical value of the site is evident. However, the real value for John Anderson, a volunteer who has been associated with Sainte Marie among the Iroquois for over 30 years, is the story of faith that inspired the mission.

“From an emotional standpoint, it’s the faith journey,” Anderson said. “That’s the one part of this story that has never been told in terms of what [it meant] for men of faith to sacrifice every comfort they knew in the world to come here. What were their expectations? How do they interpret the world around them from a faith journey perspective? Right now, with the interpretive program we have up there, we’ve kind of unveiled this faith journey perspective from the actual writings of the missionaries who were here and how they were viewing the world from that. It’s a very empowering and driving message and story when you look at that perspective from a human drama standpoint.”

The interpretive center exhibits a variety of images and interactive elements that portray the Jesuits and their support staff and how they interacted with the Native Americans around Onondaga Lake.

Anderson underscored the Jesuits’ courage in evangelizing among people who had shown animosity toward them. He described the “faith journey” as a process by which the Jesuits sought to strengthen their own faith as they witnessed to God among the Iroquois.

“This mission that came here was in response to hostility and to the years of wars that were devastating to the New France colony. These were the very people who the martyrs were dying for,” he said. “They came here to establish themselves and they felt it was the blood of the martyrs that watered the seed of the church in the land where the evil one was master — being the Iroquios. From the onset they looked at this from a faith journey perspective.”

Father Louys Cellot, provincial of the Jesuits in the New World wrote at the time, “We go to establish ourselves among the Iroquois. I think that, in mentioning those barbarians, I say all that can be said; for their name alone shows the risk we run and the glory, which will accrue to God from the expedition of that design.”

Anderson was employed by Onondaga County’s Department of Parks and Museums while attending college. After graduation, he accepted a full-time position at Sainte Marie among the Iroquois and within a year he was hired as site manager. After he was offered a position with the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office, Anderson still retained his connection to the museum, but on a volunteer basis.

Anderson is currently a board member and vice president of the Friends of Historic Onondaga Lake, the parent organization of the center, and he is also the interpretive committee chairperson.

Although he is a law enforcement officer by trade, Anderson’s true passion is the story of Sainte Marie among the Iroquois.

He became fascinated by the story while working at the center. “The story itself is pretty fantastic in terms of the adventure that these men went through and the significance that that site had for our local history and regional history,” Anderson said. “The most captivating part for me is what these men went through as a human experience and even more so for me, the faith journey. What did they sacrifice to come through so dangerous a journey to come here to the heartland of the very people who were persecuting them. These were the [Iroquois].”

In 1653, the Onondagas offered peace with the French and invited them to set up a community in their midst. In response, several Jesuit priests ventured south from New France to join the Native Americans living around Onondaga Lake. After several years of tenuous peace, the Iroquois grew impatient that traders had not followed the priests and threatened to void the verbal treaty in February 1656.

One of the Jesuits, Father Claude Dablon, took it upon himself to encourage the French in Montreal to establish a presence in the region. In order to reach the city, though, Father Dablon had to brave remarkably adverse conditions. During his journey, Father Dablon fell into Onondaga Lake twice. On one occasion he fell out of his canoe and on another he fell through the ice while trying to cross a frozen patch on foot.
Although several of his Onondaga guides died during the journey, Father Dablon survived the arduous 28-day journey. Father Dablon’s trek from Onondaga Lake to Montreal marks the first chapter in the history of Sainte Marie among the Iroquois.
Anderson said that the French in Montreal considered Father Dablon’s survival of the ordeal nothing short of miraculous and a sign from God that the Jesuits should establish a presence among the Onondagas.

“It was an unbelievably harrowing experience,” said Anderson. “It was just an amazing episode — he survived it but not all of his guides did. The fact that he survived such an unbelievable journey through the wilderness in the winter, they looked at that as a near miracle and the finger of God telling them to come down here.”

Shortly thereafter, on Sept. 7, 1656, a party of Jesuits, donnes (skilled laborers who donated their services to the Jesuits) and soldiers ventured into the region and established the Sainte Marie mission on the shores of Onondaga Lake.

Among the Jesuits were Fathers Simon Le Moyne, Joseph Chaumont and Dablon.
In 1656, Jesuit Father Jean de Quen in Montreal described the region inhabited by the Iroquois as a “place where the Evil One and cruelty have reigned, perhaps, since the deluge.”

Father Le Moyne was particularly important to the mission because of his extraordinary linguistic and diplomatic skills. After spending several years among the Huron, Father Le Moyne learned their language and it did not take him long to learn the Iroquois tongue.

Father Robert Scully, SJ, a history professor at Le Moyne College, has been on the board of directors of the Friends of Historic Onondaga Lake for the past year. Father Scully noted common wisdom suggests that Father Le Moyne was “quite gifted in terms of his language skills and his sense of diplomacy.”

One need look no further than the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, N.Y., to see that the Jesuit experience in the New World could be hazardous.
“It’s instructive that Simon Le Moyne was not martyred,” Father Scully said.
In 1658, the Jesuits and their support staff fled the area when the Mohawks began threatening the compound.

The Jesuit community at Le Moyne College and Saint Marie among the Iroquois would seem to have a built-in natural partnership. But the two entities only recently began working to establish more concrete connections. Several years ago, the museum acquired two Jesuit rings that were found near the site. After learning about the rings, the college reimbursed the museum. In addition, the college donated a mural depicting Father Le Moyne’s first meeting with the Iroquois, which is the first element a visitor sees upon entering the interpretive center.

Sainte Marie among the Iroquois is a living museum. Its interpretive center offers a variety of interactive exhibits that convey a sense of the initial encounter between the European missionaries and the Native Americans near Onondaga Lake. After the mural, visitors proceed up a set of stairs through a mobile featuring a Native American fishing in a canoe surrounded by the lake’s fauna including eels, which were present at the time and were a staple of the Onondagas’ diet.

Among the other exhibits are replicas of ships from the period, dioramas depicting life in both Iroquois villages and the Jesuits’ compound and a bark tent. Leaving the interpretive center, the visitor has an opportunity to glimpse life from that period. The center features a consecrated chapel in which couples have been married and Masses have been celebrated, an operational smithy, a carpentry shop, a military barracks and a building that housed the fort’s surgeon and cook.

Budget constraints have curtailed the center’s ability to maintain a full-time staff, but Onondaga County recently approved a part-time position for Sainte Marie among the Iroquois. Anderson said that the center will be open on the weekends and for events. Currently Sainte Marie among the Iroquois hosts educational programs, Masses and weddings.

For more information on Sainte Marie among the Iroquois, call the Onondaga County Parks Department at (315) 451-7275 or the site itself at (315) 453-6768. The staff offers programs to churches and schools or other institutions with an interest in learning about the historic period.

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