The Catholic Church In Mississippi During Colonial Times

By B. J. Barkers

In the month of December, 1540, De Soto entered the State of Mississippi, somewhere near the site of the present city of Columbus. For about five months he wandered through the wild woods of Mississippi, when he left the State to cross the mighty river, near where Memphis now stands.

It is an historical fact that several priests, secular and regular, accompanied the army of De Soto. They acted as chaplains to the soldiers, but their great number shows that it was their intention also to preach the Gospel to the natives. Did they hold Catholic services in the present State of Mississippi? Nobody can reasonably doubt, that already in 1540 mass was said on the soil of our State. We know the name of only one of those priests, Rev. John de Galleyas. Very likely they all perished while on that unfortunate and luckless expedition.

For more than a hundred years the Catholic church made no effort to reach this territory again and preach the Gospel to the Indians. In 1673 the Catholic priest again is seen in Mississippi; the famous Father Marquette came down from the Great Lakes and explored the Mississippi river as far down as the Arkansas river. But his voyage was more a trip of discovery and preparation; it is not likely that he made any serious effort to communicate with the Indian tribes of this State.

After the return of Father Marquette to Canada the Bishop of Quebec and many zealous priests were certainly anxious to reach the newly discovered regions and preach Christianity to those pagan nations. But the diocese of Quebec extended from Canada way down to the mouth of the Mississippi. Millions of pagans inhabited that territory. In Canada the missionaries were at work already; also in the territory north of the Ohio river. It is no wonder that after only twenty-five years, in 1698, the Bishop succeeded in making arrangements to evangelize the southern part of the Mississippi valley.

At that time the seminary of foreign missions at Paris in France had established a branch in Quebec, in order to train missionaries for the New World.

By letters of July 14, 1698, Bishop Saint Vallier entrusted the new southern missions to the priests of this seminary. Father Francis Jolliet de Montigny was appointed superior. Revs. Anthony Davion and Francis Buisson de Saint Cosme were his companions.

Father Montigny settled among the Taensas, a tribe allied to the Natchez. During the first year he baptized 85 children. Later he resided among the Natchez Indians, but attended still to the Taensas.

Father Davion built his chapel in the extreme southern part of our State, in what is now known as Wilkinson county. The spot where he settled now bears the name of Fort Adams. On a high rock he planted a cross; this rock was later called Loftus’ Height, but went for a long time by the name of Davion’s Rock. This father visited also the Yazoo Indians.

Father Saint Cosme began a mission at Tamarois. Later he took Father Montigny’s place among the Natchez.

As was to be expected, those priests suffered at first terribly with fever; but they did not abandon their charges. The following year their number was increased by the arrival of Revs. Berzier Bouteville and Saint Cosme, a younger brother of the Father Saint Cosme mentioned above.

In 1699 the French took possession of another point of Mississippi. On the shore of Biloxi Bay, near to where Ocean Springs is situated, a fort was built by them. Rev. Father Bordenave was the chaplain of the garrison; according to the testimony of the military commander his life was exemplary; every day he said mass for the French settlers and was untiring in his zeal for the salvation of their souls. But we do not read that he attempted the conversion of the Indians.

The year 1702 witnessed the first massacre of a Catholic priest on the soil of Mississippi. Father Nic. Foncault, of the seminary of foreign missions, had been laboring for two years among the Arkansas Indians. He set out on a trip to Mobile with his servant and two Frenchmen. But they were all murdered by their Indian guides; robbery was the incentive of the assassination. Father Davion, coming up the river, discovered their remains on the bank, and gave them Christian burial. The place of interment is not known.

Five years later the mission lost again two priests. Father Saint Cosme, the elder, who had worked so faithfully among the Natchez, was forced by sickness to go to Mobile. While sleeping one night on the banks of the river, he was foully murdered by the Sitimachas, near the present site of Donaldsonville. The very Rev. Father Berzier started about the same time for Mobile from his Tamarois mission. He reached that point safely, and brought the sad news of the death of Father Saint Cosme. He returned to his missions, but soon after that he fell sick and died on November 9, 1707.

In 1708 Father Davion was, at the instigation of the English, so harassed by hostile Indians, that he was forced to leave his mission in Mississippi. He went to Mobile.

The difficulties in the Mississippi mission were great, and the laborers few; the work of the Quebec priests had produced but little result. An effort was made to revive the missions. The seminary of foreign missions at Paris selected the Rev. Dominic Mary Varlet, a very able and energetic man, to make a visitation of all those missions. He began his visitation at Quebec, where the Bishop appointed him his vicar-general with full powers. He spent six years in the missions, and returned to France in 1717. But history does not mention the good his visitation did to the missions.

But soon a change would take place in the management of the missions. The Duke of Orleans, regent of France for King Louis XV., who was not of age yet, gave letters patent to a trading company called “The Company of the West,” of which the notorious John Law was the head, at least for a few years. In article 53 of the contract the company obligated itself “to build at its expense churches at the places where settlements were formed to maintain there the necessary number of approved ecclesiastics, in order to preach the holy Gospel there, perform divine service and administer the sacraments.” In 1722 the company took up the matter. The year before the Jesuit Father Charlevoix had traveled through the French colonies in North America (he officiated also at Natchez) and after his return in France had told of the great spiritual destitution of the colony. In consequence of his report the following measures were taken by the company: The Jesuit fathers and the priests of the seminary of foreign missions would withdraw from the southern part of the Mississippi valley and confine their labors to the territory north of the Ohio. The Bishop of Quebec would remain the Bishop of the entire French colony, but would be given a coadjutor bishop, who, as vicar-general of the diocese of Quebec, would take special care of the extreme southern missions. Rev. Louis Francis Duplessis de Mornay, a Capuchin monk, was appointed coadjutor bishop of Quebec, and he invited the Capuchin fathers of the Province of Champagne in France to take charge of the missions of Louisiana, of which Mississippi formed a part. They accepted, and some Capuchin fathers arrived in Louisiana; but their number was small, and soon they found out that they did not have a sufficient number of subjects to take proper care of the missions. The company made a new arrangement: The Capuchin fathers would take charge only of the French settlements, and Jesuit fathers from France would be entrusted with the missions among the Indians.

As far as Mississippi is concerned the following appointments were made:

The Capuchin Father Philibert was assigned to duty at Natchez.

The Jesuit fathers were sent to the Indian missions: Father Matturin le Petit to the Choctaws; Father Souel to the Yazoos; Father Bandouin to the Chickasaws. Later Father le Petit was recalled to New Orleans, and Father Baudouin took his place among the Choctaws, where he labored for 18 years, assisted for some time by Father Lefevre.

Those fathers worked very zealously in their different missions. A naval officer of this period says of them:

“I cannot help doing the justice due to the Jesuit fathers in regard to their missions. Nothing is more edifying for religion than their conduct and the unwearied zeal with which they labor for the conversion of these nations. Picture to yourself a Jesuit, four hundred leagues away in the woods, with no conveniences, no provisions, and most frequently with no resource but the liberality of people who know not God, compelled to live like them, to pass whole years without receiving any tidings, with savages who have only the countenance of human beings, among whom, instead of finding society or relief in sickness, he is only exposed to perish and be massacred. This is done daily by these Fathers in Louisiana and Canada.”

In the year 1729 a great calamity happened to the missions. The French commander at Fort Rosalie (Natchez) did not treat the Natchez Indians fairly. They became dissatisfied and angry and entered into a conspiracy with the Yazoo Indians to exterminate all the French in the country. On the 26th of November the horrible massacre of Fort Rosalie took place; all the men, soldiers and settlers, were killed, the women and children carried off in captivity. The priest Father Philibert happened to be away from home. But the Jesuit Father du Poisson was stopping at Natchez; he was on his way from his mission in Arkansas to New Orleans. On Sunday he said mass for the Natchez people and preached to them. He was prevailed on to stay a day longer, because some Catholic was in danger of dying. On Monday after mass he started out for the house of the sick person, to give him the last sacraments. On the way he was assaulted by a powerful Indian, hurled to the ground, and his head was severed from his body.

The Yazoo Indians did their part. On December 11 Father Seoul came home from some trip. The Indians ambushed themselves, and when he appeared riddled his body with bullets, killing him on the spot. The following day they surprised and massacred the garrison of the French post. Another priest, Father Doutrelou, was shot at by the Yazoos and severely wounded, but he made his escape.

This insurrection was of course followed by wars between the whites and Indians. The Natchez tribe was punished and exterminated. In 1736 an expedition against the Chickasaws was set on foot. French divisions would march from north and south and after meeting attack the Chickasaws. The arrangement miscarried. The northern division tried by itself to fight the whole force of the Chickasaws; they lost the battle and were annihilated.

Father Lenat, a Jesuit, accompanied the army as chaplain. He could have escaped, but the commander and other officers had been taken prisoners, and he would not abandon them in their last hour. He remained to give them his spiritual assistance in their agony, and he perished with them at the stake. This probably happened in what is now Lee county.

But the misfortunes of the missions were not yet at an end. In 1763 they received another terrible blow. In France itself the government was in the hands of men, Catholics in name, but Voltaireans and infidels at heart. They began to persecute the Catholic church, and as usual, the Jesuit fathers were the first victims. Their order was suppressed in 1761. Two years later the supreme council of the province of Louisiana thought they had to follow the example given in France: All the Jesuit missionaries were hunted down, carried to New Orleans as criminals and shipped to France. All their churches and chapels were leveled to the ground, and of course all that was valuable in church or house was confiscated. And the missions were left bereft of their zealous shepherds.

In the meantime war had been going on between England and France. France lost all her colonies in North America, New Orleans and surrounding territory excepted. Mississippi was now a part of the English province of West Florida, and the missions, tried already so sorely, had no chance of being revived under the rule of that nation, who still enforced the penal laws against Catholics in the old country. By special treaty France ceded New Orleans to Spain.

During the glorious war of the thirteen American colonies against England, France materially assisted the Americans in their struggle for liberty. For this reason England declared war against France; and Spain, wanting to assist France, declared war against England. At that time Bernardo de Galvez was Governor of New Orleans, and began to fight England in the West Florida province. His success was complete; in 1781 the English commander surrendered the whole province to Spain. After peace was concluded though, the United States claimed the province as territory ceded by England to them. In 1795, October 27, by treaty between the United States and Spain, the province of West Florida, and with it Mississippi, became a part of the Union.

As might be expected, as soon as Spain had conquered West Florida, measures were taken to reestablish the Catholic religion, though the government granted liberty of conscience. Claiborne states:

“There was in fact more toleration and freedom for Protestantism in the Natchez district, than for Catholics and dissenters either in Old or New England.”

The Bishop of Salamanca was instructed to send missionaries to the new colony. Four Irish priests were selected for the work: Revs. Wm. Savage, Gregory White, Constantine McKenna and Michael Lamport. They arrived in Natchez before 1790, but when the province was ceded to the United States they returned to Spain; and once more the Catholic church in Mississippi was left without priests.

This brings us to the end of the colonial times. For nearly a century missionaries had labored in Mississippi, and, it is sad to say, nothing had been accomplished. The reasons for this failure are many.

The instruction and conversion of Indians are difficult tasks, even under favorable circumstances. But during all that time the country was continually in an unsettled condition. Three European powers, England, France and Spain, were always fighting to get the mastery in the American colonies. They sought and obtained the help of the different Indian tribes, and were the cause of fierce quarrels and petty wars among the natives. Moreover, France, especially, followed the rule that anything was good enough for the Louisiana colony. Soldiers were needed, settlers wanted, but inmates of workhouses, criminals, worthless women, all who were low and vicious, were shipped to the colonies; those people remained in the colonies what they had been in France, and by their wicked and vicious lives undid all the work the missionaries had accomplished. Another cause of failure was this: The southern part of the French colonies always was under the jurisdiction of a Bishop living thousands of miles away. Nobody is to blame if these missions were more or less neglected, and the few scattered missionaries had not the proper moral support of the church authorities. All those things taken together made the work of the missionaries a failure. But if we cannot exult on account of great successes, we certainly are bound to admire those devoted men who, for a hundred years, kept up a heroic and hopeless struggle to establish Christianity in our State.

Back to: Mississippi History

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