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Sainte-Marie among the Hurons

© By Mike Keenan

  "So this is where Brébeuf and Lalemand are buried?" I ask a young University of Toronto student dressed in period black Jesuit clothing. I stand in a long house at the site of a mound of dirt, crowned with a small cross.
     "Well, the flesh, but to be honest, the bones are elsewhere," he replies with a smile.
     "Relics?" I surmise.
     "Yes, the bones were entrusted to the Ursuline Order of nuns in Québec for safekeeping, but once Brébuf was proclaimed a saint, the Jesuits asked for them back. The Ursulines were not amused as they thought that they had done a good job and wanted to keep half, so at Martyrs' Shrine there's only one-half of Brébuf's skull (left side) while the nuns kept the other portion."
     As part of a discovery of rural Ontario, I visited Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, an historic site located in Midland and a must-see national treasure. Sainte-Marie was the 17th century fortress and headquarters for the French Jesuit mission to the Huron nation and Ontario's first European community. In 1639, Jesuits along with lay workers constructed a palisade that included barracks, a church, workshops, residences and a sheltered area for native visitors. By 1648, Sainte-Marie was a wilderness home to 66 Frenchmen, representing one-fifth of the entire population of New France. Sainte-Marie's history culminated in ultimate failure in 1649 when the Jesuits abandoned and burned what was their home for 10 years.
     I meander through buildings scattered inside the wooden palisades. Sainte-Marie is recreated on its original location, 1.5 hours northwest of Toronto on Georgian Bay. Costumed staff at 25 reconstructed buildings, including Ontario's first hospital dramatically brings to life the harsh history of this settlement.
     It's not a happy tale. Hurons were actually named Wendats and they consisted of many tribes. When the Jesuits converted some Wendats, it created disharmony amongst those who maintained their native lifestyle. And, as with the U.S. army that purposefully used blankets that carried disease to wipe out indigenous peoples, so the French unintentionally exposed the Wendat to many new diseases for which they were unprepared. That, along with Iroquois raids and scarcity of food, ultimately led to abandonment of the fortifications.
     There sits an interesting museum on this site. There, I viewed an exhibit that featured Pope John Paul's 1984 visit to Huronia, including memorabilia, television footage and a photo-gallery. An ecclesiastical court convened in 1904 for an entire year to examine Jean de Brébeuf's life, virtues and the cause of his death. The result of the inquiry was forwarded to Rome; however, Brébeuf was not canonized until 1930.
     One unique display that caught my attention was an exhibit of extremely narrow wooden cots where the Jesuits slept, two to a bed for warmth, given the freezing winters. These missionaries were hardy people.
     Sainte-Marie among the Hurons is one of two significant sites that comprise Huronia Historical Parks. The other historic site, Discovery Harbour, traces its roots back to the original Penetanguishene British naval and military base built as a result of the War of 1812 to safeguard access to Upper Canada.

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.

Photo Credits
Mike Keenan

If you go
This Destination
as seen on
Discovery Harbour: http://www.discoveryharbour.on.ca/english/index.html
Sainte-Marie among the Hurons: http://www.saintemarieamongthehurons.on.ca/english/index.htm
Town of Midland: http://www.town.midland.on.ca/
Wye Marsh: http://www.wyemarsh.com/
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Midland_(Ontario)

The entrance to Sainte-Marie is across from the Martyrs' Shrine Church. To visit, follow highway 400 north to # 93, north to #12 and the Midland area. Travel east on #12 for 5 kilometres. Sainte-Marie opens May 1st, Monday to Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (last admission is at 4:45 daily), and is open 7 days a week starting May 20th until October 9th. There is a restaurant and gift boutique. Admission is $11.88 per adult, $10.40 for students and seniors and $8.91 for youth (6-12 years). Families of four get an additional $1 off each admission price.

The Wye Marsh, located next door, offers one hour guided canoe tours for $6 per person (6 years and up).

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Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
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