Canada Day often seems a rather tepid, bureaucratic affair celebrating the day Great Britain’s Parliament managed to pass a law granting four small North American colonies the right to elect their own politicians to a single House of Commons — not a shot fired and no declaration of independence. But why limit ourselves to such a paltry notion of Canada’s origins?
If the United States was a project of the English Reformation, led by Puritans landing on Plymouth Rock, Canada was born of the Catholic Counter Reformation, led by the Franciscan Recollects and Jesuits who launched themselves deep into the continent by canoe, discovering new people, learning new languages and dreaming new dreams.
The first thing those missionaries did was dedicate this new world to St. Joseph.
March 19, 1624, Franciscan Recollect friar Father Joseph Le Caron celebrated a mass and held a feast with the Huron in what is now Ontario.
“We held a great feast in honour of St. Joseph where all the inhabitants were included, several wild (Aboriginal). This feast was held as a vow we made to St. Joseph, choosing him as patron of New France,” Le Caron wrote in a letter back to his French superiors.
Now if ever there was just one moment that we might call the start of nation-building in the true north strong and free, this March 19 feast might be it. The English weren’t there yet, but Le Caron brought together the new European presence and the ancient Aboriginal people to celebrate.
Devotion to St. Joseph was then a young movement in the church, unknown in medieval Europe. The human father of Jesus was mostly ignored before the Franciscan Pope Sixtus IV formally established a feast day for him in 1476. But it wasn’t until 1621 that Pope Gregory XV declared March 19 an obligatory feast for all Catholics.
Only three years later, Canada was entrusted to St. Joseph.
By choosing St. Joseph, Le Caron wasn’t introducing just any sort of Catholicism to the Huron. This was a new brand of Catholicism.
Before Luther and Calvin, before the Wars of Religion closed out the 16th century in chaotic bloodshed, and well before the Council of Trent, there was a Catholic Reformation. It began with study of the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible, with the humanism of Erasmus of Rotterdam and with the mendicant orders of Dominicans and Franciscans.
High school history classes and educational TV mostly teach the Renaissance in terms of new styles of painting, but that’s the tail wagging the dog. The Renaissance was mostly theological, and it was distinguished by an intense search for the true Jesus hidden under layers of medieval custom and tradition. This elite, scholarly pursuit was accompanied by a popular spirituality among illiterate peasants and newly urbanized merchants and trades people as ordinary people sought closer, more emotional ties to Jesus.
Longing for intimacy with God reached its height in the 16th-century writing of St. Teresa of Avila, who had a great devotion to St. Joseph. Devotion to the Holy Family was promoted in preaching and writing by Franciscans and Jesuits throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1399 Franciscans had been the first to celebrate a feast day for St. Joseph, long before it became a universal celebration. By the middle of the 17th century Jesuit Jean Pierre Médaille could think of no other saint for his new congregation of women in Le-Puy-en-Velay, France — the Congregation of St. Joseph.
After the disaster of schism in the western church, and all the bloodshed that accompanied it, Europe wanted a new Catholicism — a religion that was first and foremost about Jesus and not the kings and princes who administered church properties and played politics with Rome. This was the Counter Reformation that launched at the same time as Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain were discovering and establishing New France.
If ever there was a chance to break with old Europe, to put the new Catholicism to the test, it was the extraordinary missionary challenge of New France. By the 1630s, St. Jean de Brebeuf was in Huron territory dreaming of a new Christian kingdom nestled among the Great Lakes. The Wyandot Christian kingdom would not be a colony or subject of any European power. Brebeuf’s Christ could be incarnate in any culture and spoken about in any language.
Brebeuf’s mystic dream ran smack up against political reality when the Iroquois, armed by the Dutch, overran Ste. Marie near modern-day Midland, Ont. The Jesuits decided to burn their mission rather than let it fall into the hands of invading forces.
From that first dream of a new Catholic realm dedicated to St. Joseph in 1624 to the violent end of the Jesuit Mission in 1639 was just 15 years. But those years formed a vision of Canada as a peaceable kingdom with no hard lines drawn between people, where Brebeuf, a young French priest, could be given the Huron name Ekon and be known for how well he spoke their language.
This Canada was something new — a clean break with the past. And it was all in the care of St. Joseph, the quiet working man who cared for and protected his wife Mary and his adopted Son. The father who shaped the hidden life of Jesus.