Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs: Part II of Our Interview with Emma Anderson

Today is Part II of our interview with Emma Anderson about her remarkable new book The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs, recently published by Harvard University Press. By the way, another very interesting discussion of the book may be found here

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
Probably just that, that there is always more than one way of looking at a historical event, no matter how familiar it may seem to be.  I wanted to challenge the reader to think through the bloody events of the 1640s in a new way, one which does not simply cast native people as the mindless or demonic deus ex machina of these Europeans’ deaths, but which takes into consideration native beliefs and practices regarding torture, death, and rebirth: beliefs which share striking similarities to Christian notions of martyrdom, but also differ from them in important ways.  I also wanted to show how the veneration of saints in any given time and place tells more about the venerators than it does the saintly figures being venerated.  I sought to demonstrate, in looking at the ups and downs of the martyrs’ cult over the centuries, and charting the history of challenges to its basic assumptions from native communities, how a given figure`s sanctity is effectively made anew in each generation.  When saints can no longer speak in a fresh and relevant way to the contemporary concerns of their venerators, their cult will fade, if not perish altogether.  This book, then, not only re-examines the deaths of these figures from a fresh perspective, but also details the history of a kind of spiritual relay race as the torch of their veneration is passed from runner to runner down the centuries.  I was very much struck, writing this book, how much individuals made the critical difference between a cult surviving and perishing.   
Yes, perhaps a good case in point is Catherine de Saint-Augustin (1632-1688). Prior to reading your book, I was not familiar with Catherine de Saint-Augustin and the critical role she played in the early history of martyrology. Can you tell us a little more about her? 

For my dime, Catherine de Saint-Augustin, a nursing nun who came to colonial Canada at the tender age of 16 and who died twenty years later, at only 36, is easily the most fascinating (and the most under-studied) North American Catholic woman of the seventeenth century.  Among anglophone scholars, she has largely been eclipsed by her older, charismatic contemporary, Marie de l’Incarnation, who is an astounding figure in her own right.  The difference in relative scholarly attention to the two figures probably results from the fact that virtually all of Marie’s truly stupendous output (she wrote thousands of letters, many to the son she had abandoned to come to Canada) have been translated into English, whereas Catherine’s more modest epistolary output, some of it preserved in her 1671 biography, La Vie de la Mère Catherine de Saint-Augustin, Religieuse hospitalière de la misericorde de Quebec, penned by the Jesuit Paul Ragueneau, has yet to appear in English.

Catherine is fascinating both in her own right and by virtue of how she served as a midwife to the colonial martyrs’ cult.  Preserved in the pages of Ragueneau’s adoring account, Catherine is a vivid, deliciously individual figure.  Even the stultifying genre of hagiography, which often seems determined to squishes the unruly nuance and idiosyncrasy of individual personality into the one-size-fits-all of sanctity cannot fully sanitize Catherine’s headstrong determination or her larger-than-life imagination.  Catherine fought both her biological family and her religious superiors to come to Canada as an adolescent, and then endured her own depression and anxiety to remain here for the rest of her life.  She lived a kind of spiritual double-life, filled with secrecy and intrigue.  During the day, she was a much-admired Hospitalière nun, devotedly serving the spiritual and physical needs of the patients under her care.  Nocturnally, however, Catherine enjoyed a terrifying and exhilarating mystical life featuring both the thrill of spiritual contact with Jesus and his saints – including a particularly intense relationship with the recently deceased Jesuit Jean de Brébeuf – and the agony of repeated bouts of demonic possession.  Seen as the ultimate fulfillment of decorous self-abnegation by her sisterly peers and even her female superiors, who allegedly knew nothing of her vivid mystical life, Catherine’s visions and ability to commune with the martyrs, already seen as the spiritual patrons of the Canadian colony, made her one of the few early female power brokers in New France. Indeed, by anointing herself the martyrs’ earthly heir, Catherine was able to command the first bishop of New France, François de Laval, to participate with her in novenas in the martyrs’ honour.

Catherine’s contribution to founding the cult of the martyrs was distinctive and seminal.  Paul Ragueneau (the same Jesuit who was later to immortalize Catherine herself in his 1671 Vie) focused his own work largely on recounting the historical lives and deaths of his deceased comrades.  Catherine, however, drew colonists’ attention to what the martyrs could do for them now and in the future.  She encouraged the people of New France to see these fallen Jesuits as thamaturges: living spiritual figures who could intercede with the heavenly court on behalf of colonists.  To this end, she finely grated the relics of Jean de Brébeuf, which she kept as an amulet around her neck, into the soups and stews she served the invalids under her care, thereby achieving cures, conversions, and exorcisms.

But, as I understand it, the cult of the Jesuit martyrs was at very low ebb during the eighteenth century before coming back, almost miraculously, so to speak, in the nineteenth century. How and why were the martyrs brought back to life when they were?

Yes, that’s absolutely right.  Though Paul Ragueneau and Catherine de Saint Augustin had built up a healthy colonial cult of the martyrs immediately following their deaths during the 1640s, the eighteenth century brought unprecedented challenges to their veneration, both in colonial Canada and overseas in the martyrs’ French homeland.  Initially, it seemed very counter-intuitive that these spiritual patrons of New France could long survive the downfall of the very colony that they were supposed to protect.  The Conquest changed everything for Quebec.  Important new restrictions on the power of the Catholic Church meant that, among other things, the Society of Jesus in Canada seemed to have died off in 1800, with the death of the last Canadian Jesuit, Jean-Joseph Casot.  But, as traumatic as it was, the 1759 fall of Quebec proved to be only the first blow to the martyrs’ infant cult.  Back in France, during the Revolution, relics of these Jesuits martyrs, such as the thigh bone of Gabriel Lalemant, were actually used as instruments of iconoclasm during the sweeping popular revolt against clerical power.  We can see the nadir of the martyrs’ cult in a little-known (and quite horrifying) work of the famed Spanish artist Francisco Goya, who painted Jesuit martyrs less as triumphant spiritual heroes than as meat in the process of being rendered by their native captors.  The spiritual climate which had fostered the birth and development of the martyrs’ cult seemed to have been snuffed out by conquest, revolution, and a changing cultural climate which eyed askance many of the Catholic Church’s most treasured concepts, including that of martyrdom.

But in the nineteenth century the martyrs’ cult came roaring back again.  Not only would it be reasserted in Quebec, its ancient cradle, but the cult of the martyrs would spread for the first time to the anglophone United States.  In Quebec, an ingenious interpretation of recent historical events was largely responsible for the martyrs’ resurrection.  Historians of the “clerico-nationalist” stripe linked together the Conquest and the French Revolution in a uniquely creative way, arguing that, because God in his foreknowledge had anticipated the Revolution, he had pre-emptively used the English to sever Quebec from the insidious and atheistic influence of her Gallic homeland.  The 1759 defeat of New France, from this perspective, was not a defeat at all, but a spiritual victory, allowing the martyrs to be re-embraced as a tangible symbol of this paradox.  The Jesuit order was triumphantly re-established in 1842 and almost immediately the Society’s historians, notably Père Felix Martin, started piecing together the order’s dispersed textual treasures, many of which praised the lives and deaths of these martyrs.  The cult had been reborn and, through the efforts of historian John Gilmary Shea, it would become important, for the first time ever, to American Catholics. 

In a sense, John Gilmary Shea was the Catherine de Saint Augustine of the 19th century.  Though he didn’t do anything as dramatic as ritually grate relics into soup, he resembled Catherine in that he was integral in spreading and strengthening the cult of this small group of slain colonial Jesuits.  Shea was the foremost American Catholic historian of the nineteenth century, and his original writings and his translation of original manuscripts related to the martyrs encouraged their veneration by a whole new client base: American Catholics. Like their Quebecois co-religionists, American Catholics were eager during this period to project a powerful collective identity.  They also wanted to fight the anti-Catholic tenor of much of the historiography of the time: historiography which deprecated Catholicism as anti-American and anti-freedom and depicted American Catholics as Johnny-come-latelies without any real roots in the continent.  American Catholics responded by highlighting the irreproachably Catholic pedigrees of important American “founding fathers” like Columbus and, increasingly, the martyrs themselves.  Deeply interwoven into the history of the continent, these “manly” Catholics became a key means through which American Catholic identity was expressed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.