I am here in gorgeous Georgian Bay, at Belle au Clair beach in the Township of Tiny, which is named for one of the dogs of Lady Sarah Maitland, the tall, red-haired asthmatic wife of the Governor-General. Neighboring townships are named for her other dogs, Tay and Floss. There is a traditional prayer recited by the locals on Canada Day, expressing gratitude that her dogs were not called Spike, Killer and Vicious.
At Belle au Clair beach, stately pines stand erect at the point where the white sand dunes meet the sandy soil that loves oaks, and the water is tropically warm on account of the shallowness of Lake Huron, but in order to connect to Wi-Fi I have bicycled three relatively flat miles to the Tiny Fire Station in Lafontaine which is not named for the author of the fable of the Bees and the Hornets.
From the cottage at Belle-au-Clair to this Fire Station is exactly 1/200th the distance traveled by the intrepid Father Jean Brebeuf, the Jesuit missionary, ‘Apostle to the Hurons’, who paddled and portaged from Trois Rivières in Quebec to the Huron Country around Georgian Bay.
This tubercular but determined young man arrived in Canada in 1625. At that time, the Hurons were engaged in friendly trading with the French; all the while warring with their traditional enemies, the Iroquois. Brebeuf set out to learn the Huron language and wrote the first French-Huron Dictionary, which includes seven different words for bear, to distinguish the age and temperament of the bear in question, as well as a 23-letter word for “a splay-footed female who used to be my wife”. By 1647 Brebeuf had managed to convert thousands of Hurons from their heathen ways to the rituals of Christianity. He even composed a Huron Christmas Carol, in which the friendly Indian Christmas tree is an eerie foreshadowing of the clear cutting of their vast pine forests. The denuded lands were later replanted and reinvented as Christmas tree farms, and this leads us directly to the fact that every December a Quebecois, hawking his hewn conifers, inhabits every street corner in Manhattan.
But this happy state of affairs (caroling Hurons living in harmony with bilingual frog-eating blackrobes) could not last forever. By 1648 the Iroquois were winning the war with the Hurons, and in 1649 Jean de Brebeuf and another Jesuit were captured and tortured to death. It was said that the Iroquois were so impressed by his courage under duress that they cut out his heart and drank his blood, in order to ingest his strength. The Iroquois may have remained adamantly unconverted, but apparently they had their own form of communion.
A few days later his body was recovered, and some forward-thinking Hurons – anticipating Brebeuf’s canonization as well as the touristic value of his bones – boiled his body with lye and gathered his bones as relics.
And that is how Jean Brebeuf’s skull came to reside in a gold Gothic reliquary at the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ontario where I dragged my three friends, a former Christian Scientist, an Anglican and an atheist, for all of whom this Papist relic-worshipping is anathema.
Actually, it only the left half of his skull that inhabits Martyrs’ Shrine. Was this decided because that part of the skull encased the left brain that enabled Brebeuf to learn several Native American languages? Not that fluency in their tongue stopped the Iroquois from hanging red-hot tomahawks around his neck.
And where is his right skull?
A Klondike bar would have been perfect after viewing the skull of Brebeuf, but sadly The Martyrs’ Shrine Café was closed. Nous etions desolées. Imagine the menu possibilities.