The nature of missionary work demands going out to spread the word of God where required. This can mean travelling vast distances and can mean, in some cases, being at the very forefront of exploration into new regions. One man who travelled far beyond the known boundaries of the time in order to bring Christianity to those he could find was Jacques Marquette.
Born in Laon in France in 1637, Jacques Marquette joined the Society of Jesus at the age of seventeen. For twelve years he studied and taught in Jesuit colleges in France before, in 1666, he was assigned to the missions in New France. He arrived to Quebec, and was sent first to the tribes around the St. Lawrence River. Here Marquette quickly showed an ability with the local languages, learning to communicate fluently in six different dialects. In 1668 he travelled further up the St. Lawrence towards the Great Lakes region, where he established a mission at Sault Ste. Marie. Three years later he moved further west, establishing the missions of St. Ignace and La Pointe, on the shore of Lake Superior.
It was while at La Pointe that Marquette met with members of the Illinois tribes, who told him about a great river to the west, with settlements along it further to the south. This river was the Mississippi River, as of yet undiscovered by Europeans. He returned to his superiors at the Straits of Mackinac, between Lakes Michigan and Huron, informed them of the river and requested permission to explore it.
Permission was granted, and in 1673 he set out from the mission at St. Ignace with Louis Joliet, a French-Canadian explorer and fur trader, as well as five other men. With two canoes they made their way to the Wisconsin River, which they followed down to where it joined the Mississippi. They then travelled down the Mississippi, only stopping once they reached the Arkansas River, only seven hundred kilometres from the Gulf of Mexico, afraid of encountering Spanish colonists coming up the river.
Happy with what they had accomplished, they returned back north, stopping at the mission of St. Francis Xavier on Lake Michigan where Marquette remained while Joliet continued on. In 1674 Marquette set out again, this time to build a new mission with the Illinois tribes, however illness caused him to return to St. Ignace. In May of 1675 however he died, while still en route, at the age of thirty seven. The river where he died was later named Père Marquette in his honour.
Photo: Mary McGuire – Mackinac Design [Flickr]