Saturday, 30 June 2012

Sainte-Marie among the Hurons

It's been a month since I've had a chance to write a new blog post - a fact I'm not too proud of! But I'm now back from a two week holiday in America and Canada and determined to get back into the swing of things.

In fact, I'm actually hand writing this post a few days before it'll get typed up and posted whilst events are fresh in my mind, for today I visited a truly superb historic site in Midland, Ontario called Sainte-Marie among the Hurons. The site is a reconstruction of a French Jesuit mission called Sainte-Marie, which, for ten years from 1639, stood on the very spot where the re-created buildings now stand. The Jesuits had travelled far from their homeland in order to convert the native people, the Wendat (or 'Huron' in the French language), to Christianity. In order to do this the Jesuits lived alongside the Wendat, learning their language and customs, all the while preaching to them and educating them in the ways of Christianity. Many Wendat did actually convert. The community was successful for ten years but due to increasing attacks by the Iroquois, the traditional rivals of the Wendat, it was abandoned and destroyed in 1649. The buildings of the mission have been faithfully reconstructed using the remaining archaeological evidence and contemporary Jesuit writings, but you'll also discover the traditional homes of the Wendat: the wigwams and communal longhouses.

The buildings of the Jesuit Mission

Inside the Jesuit living quarters

The Refectory

It's a wonderful place to visit. Within most of the buildings, such as the soldier's barracks,
the chapel and the Wendat's longhouses, you'll find incredibly knowledgeable guides dressed in period costume. On the blazing hot day that I visited, some of the guides must have roasted as they walked around in the long black woollen robes of a Jesuit priest, several layers of thick material and woolly hats! These guides could answer any question thrown at them, and believe me, we threw them some humdingers. Be it about what the Jesuits ate, how the Wendat and French viewed privacy in different ways, what the buildings were made of (the weather proofing filler in the walls was made of a combination of bear fat, ash and clay, in case you were wondering...), where the Wendat's descendants live today, what their clothes were made of, etc, we asked, the guides knew. They were fantastic. And this is what makes Sainte-Marie such a splendid place to visit. At one stage my travelling companions and I found ourselves sitting in a dark, smoky Wendat longhouse, next to a burning fire, chewing the fat with one of the guides, whilst the sun streamed in through the smoke holes in the roof. The temperature may have been in the late 20s outside, but it was surprisingly refreshing next to the fire! Knowledge was shared in a way that kept both us, the visitors, and themselves interested.

'Chewing the fat' in a Wendat longhouse

One could wander freely among the buildings touching the bark on the wigwams, having a go with replicas of seventeenth century carpentry tools and talking to the cows and chickens in their pens who sensibly stayed in the shade out of the heat. For a brief time, twenty-first century life seemed an awfully long way away.

The Wendat area with longhouse and wigwam

From a genealogical, and historical, point of view, it's a great place to get an idea of what life was like for those brave people who travelled half way around the world (for whatever reason, whether to preach, start a new life, or escape persecution) to settle in a new and unknown country in the seventeenth century. Life was tough, and the story of Sainte-Marie is an example of how early settlers brought their own established ways of living with them, as well as adopting new lifestyles in keeping with the environment around them. For a whole day I was transported back to the pioneer life of a Canada of four centuries ago, and I loved every minute. Visit if you can.

Sainte-Marie from the air

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