The History of the St. Regis Catholic Church
and the Early Pastors
by Darren Bonaparte
What follows are my contributions to the
book, The History of the St. Regis
Catholic Church, which was written by my mother, Rosemary
Bonaparte, to raise money for repairs of the old stone church here in
Akwesasne in the 1990's. As part of the research, I was allowed to
wander about the basement and steeple of the aging monolith ala Indian
Jones. There have always been legends about the mysterious basement,
which is really just a crawlspace made up of a series of stone walls
running at regular intervals across the width of the church. To get
through these walls, you had to crawl through a whole in the center.
Between each wall is a dirt floor strewn with rocks left over from
construction. There are no lights other than what you bring with
you. Naturally, my flashlight hit a rock about halfway through and
went out. Now, I thought I knew the color black. We all think
we do. Well, until you've been in the basement of the St. Regis
Catholic Church with no flashlight, you don't know black!
The steeple was another horror
story. All of the stairs gowing up there had long rotted away, if
they ever existed, and were now replaced by rotting wooden ladders.
By some miracle I was able to make it up to the top. It's got quite
a view up there, one that would have been strategically important back in
the old days, having as it does an unobscured view of a long straight of
the St. Lawrence River out toward Summerstown. We would have been
able to spot those French women coming for miles.
The St. Regis Catholic Church has always been a major landmark for those who traveled the St. Lawrence River. The crews of sailing ships passing through this area from the direction of Montreal would spot the church from miles away and know that they were approaching a narrowing of the St. Lawrence River and the infamous Long Sault Rapids. The church itself, a plain yet dignified edifice of stone in the Recollet style, was for many years the only one in the region, drawing by the sound of its bell hundreds of natives and European settlers to Mass conducted in Mohawk with a unique Mohawk choir. It stands at the tip of a peninsula formed by the St. Regis and St. Lawrence Rivers, it’s steeple facing northeast, tall above the trees and houses behind it.
Today the visitor to St. Regis is much more likely to come by car, having come from the southwest via Hogansburg. By that route they are robbed of the impressive sight of the old church rising out of the trees on the banks of the river, like a mother duck waiting to take her young out for a swim. Approaching it on land, the church now seems much more remote, almost hidden from the world, it’s many trees hiding much of it in shadow.
For over two hundred years the church has served its community with a rock solid dependability, but those two centuries have taken their toll. Although it seems fortress-like and indestructible from the outside, the careful eye discerns a completely different reality when exploring the interior, especially in the steeple. Moisture has decayed the visible mortar holding the stones together so much that it seems as if one ring too many from the triad of bells would surely bring the belfry toppling down. Slate shingles break off from the roof from time to time, their sharp corners sticking inches into the ground like daggers. Ancient electrical wiring snakes its way along the walls and in hidden places, the electricity flowing through it a constant threat should the snake ever decide to "shed its skin." Hundreds of bats have made the attic the most popular "hang out" in St. Regis, thoroughly soiling the insulation on the attic floor. To completely restore the church to its former glory would take a massive effort, a king’s ransom in cash, and a good breathing apparatus for every man on the job.
That such an effort has already been launched is not surprising. Akwesasne Mohawks are devoted to the historic old church and have been fundraising for almost a year. They have raised over $150,00 to date by holding craft fairs, silent auctions, a fiddler jamboree, raffles, and events too numerous to mention. While an estimate on just what it would take to restore the building is not yet complete, it has been hinted that three or four times that amount would ultimately be needed. While some may be daunted by the prospect of raising so much money, there is no doubt that this goal will eventually be attained. This old church, assembled by Mohawk hands 7 generations ago, has been a silent witness to the major events of our ancestors’ lives--the baptisms, the confirmations, the weddings, and the funerals. From cradle to grave, this church has been a consistent presence in the lives of Akwesasronon. It’s walls still echo with the sound of departed choir members. To have it decay before our very eyes without trying to preserve it would be unthinkable.
The Founding of the St. Regis Mission
The founding of the St. Regis Mission and the construction of the first church took place against the backdrop of a major war in North America, the conflict known as the Seven Years War and the French and Indian War. This global conflict between the superpowers of the day, France and Great Britain, was particularly divisive to the Mohawk people, who had alliances with both. For years before the war the French encouraged more of the Mohawk and their Iroquois brothers to move to the St. Lawrence River Valley, while the British encouraged those that had already moved to the St. Lawrence to come back. Kahnawake, the Mohawk community known to historians as Caughnawaga and Sault St. Louis, was by this time already overcrowded. Another mission village, Sawekatsi, (also known as Oswegatchie and La Presentation) had been established in 1747 by the French at what is now Ogdensburgh, New York. This mission attracted numerous Onondaga, Oneida, and a few Cayugas and Mohawks, but by 1754 it too was getting overcrowded and an epidemic had broken out. With the prospect of more Mohawks coming north to live in a community that could not support them, the French authorities agreed to allow the French clerics to start another mission village about halfway between Kahnawake and Sawekatsi upriver of Lake St. Francis (a particularly wide tract of the St. Lawrence River.) This village served a two-fold purpose: first, it strengthened the southern frontier of the French colony from English incursions, and second, it got many of the people at Kahnawake away from the vices of nearby Montreal. As one French official described in a letter dated October 31, 1754:
. . . My negotiation with the Mohawks succeeds admirably, as you will see by their propositions, but they cannot settle in the village of the Sault St. Louis, because the lands in that quarter are exhausted, so that more than thirty families belonging to that mission, being unable to collect wherewithal to feed themselves, are going to settle at Lake St. Francis, twenty leagues above Montreal, on the south side, where there are very good lands; the Mohawks have agreed with these thirty families to go and settle their village at this place, whither a missionary will accompany them; this change, which costs the King only the erection of a saw-mill, that will furnish it abundantly wherewith to build the cabins, becomes very advantageous to the Colony, in as far as it will be easy in time of war, to be informed of all that might occur in the direction of Choueguen; besides, La Presentation, and this new village on Lake St. Francis, the Sault St. Louis and the Lake of Two Mountains, will form a barrier which will protect the government of Montreal against all incursions, because in that weak quarter, the troops that might be sent thither, will always be supported by these Indians.
I have dwelt much on the consideration of this new expense, though very trifling, but have reflected that if I had ordered the thirty families in question, to remain at the Sault St. Louis, I could not avoid having to feed them, which would cost an immense sum. . . . (NYCD 10:264-265)
While there is some debate about the early origins of the community, historian George L. Frear has pinpointed the arrival of the Kahnawake Mohawks and their priests, Father Antoine (Anthony) Gordon and Father Pierre-Robert-Jean-Baptiste Billiard, in the fall of 1754, and the establishment of the mission on June 16, 1755, right around the time that many of the people they left behind were heading out on the war path with the French to battle the English and their Iroquois allies in the Lake George area. Of these early arrivals, only a few are known to have served the French as scouts and combatants during this conflict, first at the battle of Fort Bull and later at Oswego.
By the time the war was in its final stages, the defeat of France seemed inevitable to the Mohawks of the St. Lawrence. They sent peace envoys to negotiate with the British army that was then preparing to descend their river for the final conquest of New France. When the British forces and their Iroquois allies passed through Akwesasne on August 1, 1760, they stopped at Akwesasne to smoke the pipe of peace. At least ten Akwesasne men volunteered to help guide their bateaux through the treacherous Lachine Rapids further downstream, and were later awarded medals for their service.
The Church of Logs and Bark
The St. Regis church in those days was described in one historical account as being not much different from the homes of the Mohawks. In the words of 19th century historian Franklin B. Hough,
. . . Among the first duties of Gordon was the erection of a church, which was built of logs and covered with barks.
This humble and primitive temple of worship, was made to serve the double purpose of a church and a dwelling, and one end of the hut was partitioned off for the residence of their priest.
There being no bell, when the hour of worship arrived, an Indian went through the village from hut to hut, and announced with a loud voice the hour that they might assemble for prayer. . .
. . . Soon afterwards a small wooden church was erected on the ground now occupied by the priest’s garden, which was furnished with a small cupola, and contained a bell. . . . (Hough 1853: 114-115)
The Churches of Wood
Since the priests were allowed to purchase a saw-mill for the new community, the "longhouse" church was quickly replaced with a more tolerable chapel made of hewn logs, probably not much different from the recreated mission at St. Marie Among the Iroquois in Liverpool, New York. While this is only speculation, the church itself may have been made of vertical, squared timbers, topped by a steep roof with bark-covered shingles, and surrounded by a rugged palisade of sharpened logs. Tradition states that this old wooden church was located in the small courtyard and garden next to the present rectory. It burned to the ground in the early 1760’s, taking with it the earliest records of the mission and a relic of Kateri Tekakwitha that had accompanied those who came from Kahnawake.
Eventually the church was rebuilt, but the missionary, Father Anthony Gordon, left the mission in 1775 and died not long after, leaving St. Regis without a resident priest for many years. In the fall of 1783, Father Denaut, pastor of Soulanges, was sent by Bishop Briand of Quebec to St. Regis for four weeks. In November of that year he wrote his report:
. . . I examined the church, the mill and other buildings belonging to the mission and found everything in a state of dereliction and crumbling away. I requested repairs to the mill even before getting any instructions from you, because of the rigors of the oncoming winter season. I believe the mill may last for many more years.
As for the church, I recommended only what was necessary to prevent its further deterioration. Anything more would be useless. The Indians set up a fund of 9 or 10 thousand dollars for God and their missioner and said they were ready to start work right away if they got word from your Reverence. Many families of the St. Louis Rapids (Caughnawaga) would be ready to come, to get away from the drinking and debauchery prevailing in their present surroundings. The Indians own land stretching from 9 to 12 miles, besides many adjacent islands, that are very large, very beautiful and of very fertile soil. The missioner is sole master of all, with all income meant for him and has specified no land whatsoever is to be granted to any Frenchman. . . . (Guay: 3-4)
Repairs were eventually authorized, but the community wasn’t to get a resident missionary until 1785 when Father Roderick McDonnell arrived. The growing community was soon in need of a much more solid and roomy place of worship, and so construction began on the basic structure of the stone church that is there today sometime around 1792.
The Church of Stone
Elders say that Mohawk men, women, and children were part of the effort to construct the massive stone edifice on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. Tons of limestone were quarried and shipped in, and massive logs were procured in the Thousand Islands area near the community of Sawekatsi. The church was completed in 1795. The rectory was constructed in 1800. According to tradition, Father McDonnell, who oversaw this massive effort, as well as the construction of a sister church in St. Andrew’s West, was interred, pharoah-like, beneath the church at St. Regis when he passed away in 1806.
This stone church hadn’t changed much by the 1850’s, when Hough visited St. Regis to gather information for his book on local history. He described not only the church but the activities associated with it:
. . . The present church is a massive stone building, of ancient and venerable appearance, the walls nearly four feet thick, the windows high, and a door in the middle of the sash, for ventilation, after a custom prevalent in Canada. Across the end of the church opposite the door is a railing, and beyond and elevated above the floor of the church, is an ample space for the altar, and the various fixtures of the catholic worship. The altar is unusually decorated with gilding and ornaments, and the interior of the church is adorned with paintings and prints of religious subjects. . .
A gallery extends across the end of the church over the door, for the accommodation of strangers and others, and in the body of the church near the wall, are a few seats for the singers. The greater part of the Indians, during worship, kneel or sit upon the floor, and the appearance presented to a stranger by the striking uniformity of dress and attitude, which he notices on first visiting the church during service, is very impressive.
Preaching is performed in the Mohawk dialect of the Iroquois language every sabbath, and all the ritual of the catholic church is observed with scrupulous care. (Hough 1853:124)
It has been suggested that the original structure of the church was much simpler than it is today. In 1863, Father Marcoux hired a construction company in Coteau du Lac to build a bell tower to house the church’s three bells. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by winds from a fierce storm a few weeks later. The two small bells were destroyed and the larger one was cracked in the collapse. The community pooled their annuity and interest money to have the work done to repair the bell tower and replace the bells, which was eventually done. As luck would have it, however, this was only an omen of what was to come.
Around 3 a.m. on April 1, 1866, the people of St. Regis awoke to the news that fire was raging through their church. The fire, suspected to have been caused by a faulty stove pipe, destroyed the interior, collapsed the roof, and weakened parts of the massive, four-foot thick walls. The two bells were also destroyed when part of the bell tower collapsed. The church was eventually restored, thanks to the persistence and contributions of the Mohawk community.
The fire, it turns out, may have been an omen for yet another calamity, this one occurring in February of 1867. The St. Regis River became jammed with ice and flooded Akwesasne. It destroyed many homes, injured several people, and forced the evacuation of the village of St. Regis. Eventually the homes were repaired, but the expense only served to delay the completion of the church until 1872.
Today one can discern the various stages of construction, destruction, and reconstruction simply by walking around the church. It is most evident around the upper parts of the bell tower, where it rises above the roof. In those days it had four stone finials at the top, much like the Catholic Church in Fort Covington today, and only later acquired the gleaming tin spire and matching finial coverings that characterize it today. The arched, Gothic windows were also a new addition, replacing the windows with a more rounded top from the previous era. Like the community it served, the church itself was changing with the times.
The old church continued to face threats from the ravages of nature in the 20th century. Another ice jam threatened to bring the bells tumbling down again on January 21, 1935. With prayers to St. Joseph, the church narrowly escaped the damage caused by the massive blocks of ice that demolished Mohawk homes along the river. Father Bourget, the missionary at the time, awoke at 3 a.m. to what he thought was an earthquake. He assessed the situation and ordered the bells of the church to be rung to warn the community. One family didn’t know of the danger until a block of ice burst through their door, forcing them to escape before another block of ice wedged itself beneath their house and lifted that side of it off the ground. Several large chunks ended up near the church and rectory, which might have been damaged had the river not eventually receded. A statue of St. Joseph was placed next to the rectory after the flood to thank him for his intercession during this catastrophe.
A Mohawk elder who was interviewed for this project recounted her childhood memories of an earthquake that shook the region in the 1940’s. It left a big crack in the road directly in front of the church so deep that when she and her friends dropped rocks into it, they never heard them hit bottom. To this day, road crews have to patch it up with asphalt. The crack leads directly beneath the church’s bell tower from the direction of the rectory. How the old church survived this quake, we don’t know. It was either due to divine intervention or the church’s superior Mohawk construction, which some might say are the same thing.
The St. Regis River has jammed up several times since then, and an ice storm occurred as this book was being prepared that encased the church in a thick sheath of ice. Mass had to be canceled due to the threat of falling ice from the steeple. Yet the biggest enemy of this church has been time, and the years of normal rainfall that have seeped into the mortar that binds it all together. The bells of St. Regis tell us, "there is work to be done."
The Early Pastors of St. Regis
Father Pierre-Robert-Jean-Baptiste Billiard was born in France in 1723. He entered the Jesuit order in 1743 and was ordained in 1753. He was royal geographer at Quebec from 1753 to 1754. He was an assistant at Kahnawake and became the missionary of St. Regis from 1754 to 1757. Billiard died in Kahnawake in 1757 at 35 years of age.
It was Billiard who accompanied the Kahnawake Mohawks under Karekohe to settle Akwesasne in the fall of 1754. During his time the earliest churches were constructed, the first being of logs and bark, the second a wooden chapel that served double duty as a church and residence for the priest.
Father Antoine Gordon was born in France in 1717, became a Jesuit in 1736 and was ordained in 1749. He taught at the College de Quebec from 1749 to 1751, became vicar at Kahnawake from 1752 to 1755, priest there from 1755 to 1757, and was the priest-founder of St. Regis Mission from 1762-1775. After several brief charges, Gordon retired to Montreal in 1777 and died on June 30, 1779.
Gordon, as priest of Kahnawake, is credited as the founder of the St. Regis Mission although it was Billiard who actually accompanied the Mohawks to the new village. When the British descended the St. Lawrence to conquer New France in 1760, they are said to have encountered Father Gordon and another group of Kahnawake Mohawks on their way to Akwesasne. During Gordon’s time he had to grapple with the conflicts created by the arrival of refugee Abenaki from the St. Francis Mission at Odanak as well as accusations that he had secured the title of Akwesasne’s land from the French king and then hid it from the Indians for his own personal gain. Gordon’s letters to British colonial figures, preserved in the Sir William Johnson Papers, represent some of the most important primary documentation on the early years of Akwesasne history. As well, the earliest existing registers of baptisms, marriages and funerals at the St. Regis Mission are in his hand.
Upon Gordon’s departure the mission at St. Regis was without a regular priest for five or six years, possibly because of the American Revolution. Visiting priests during this period include Father Denaut of Cedars in October of 1784, Father Lebrun, of Kahnawake, in January and September of 1785, and on occasion by Denaut’s replacement at Cedars, Father L’Archambault.
Reverend Roderick McDonnell, a Scottish priest at St. Andrews, Ontario, was the next to leave his mark at Akwesasne, starting in December of 1785 and ending with his death in 1806. During his time here the massive stone church was constructed as well as the rectory. McDonnell went back and forth between Akwesasne and St. Andrews, Ontario, where he oversaw the construction of a "sister church" to the one at St. Regis.
The next priest was Father Antoine Rinfret, who served from October 1806 to 1807 (some sources say 1809), followed by Father Jean Baptiste Roupe from November of 1807 to 1813. Roupe was born in 1789 and died in 1854. During his time at Akwesasne the War of 1812 broke out between Great Britain and the United States. A British detachment was stationed at St. Regis in the fall of 1812. This was attacked by an American force from French Mills (now Fort Covington, New York) a short time thereafter. Roupe is said to have been taken prisoner during this incident.
Father Joseph Marcoux was to succeed Roupe in 1813. During his time at Akwesasne the War of 1812 continued to be a cause for concern with the death of numerous young men and chiefs in battles across Upper and Lower Canada. A violent civil war broke out in Akwesasne over the divisions caused by this war and a large number of those who favored the British were forced to relocate to various islands in the St. Lawrence. This was also the era of crop failure due to the eruption of a volcano. Father Marcoux left in 1819, having witnessed some of the most difficult times of our history.
The next to arrive was Father Nicholas Dufresne in 1819. He was priest until 1825, when he removed to the Sulpician Seminary in Montreal and then to Kanesatake (also known as Oka and the Lake of Two Mountains) where was to serve as missionary for the next ten years.
Dufresne was followed at St. Regis by Father Joseph Valle from 1825 to 1832. During Valle’s time, the church was to receive a few gifts from the King of France and the Pope, secured by Torakaron, or Joseph Tarbell, an Akwesasne Mohawk. These included a rosary and paintings of St. Francis Regis and St. Francis Xavier. A sum of gold, a set of books, and a silver plate for the service of the church were also given to Torakaron, but these were stolen by his non-native "escort" upon their arrival in New York, leaving Torakaron stranded and without the means to come home.
In the spring of 1829 small pox killed great number of Akwesasne Mohawks, followed by Asiatic cholera and typhus fever in June of 1832 which claimed as many as 134. This was what greeted Father Francis Xavier Marcoux, who succeeded Valle. Marcoux’s tenure was to be the longest of any at St. Regis, over a half a century in duration, and it was one of much hardship. There was an outbreak of cholera and smallpox that killed 29 and 30, respectively, in 1849, followed by another typhus epidemic that occurred the following year. It was this Marcoux who helped deflate the wild claims of the Reverend Eleazer Williams that he was the "Lost Dauphin" of France, and proved to be quite a challenge to a Methodist mission at Akwesasne. Marcoux was a major source of historical information on St. Regis gathered by Franklin B. Hough for his A History of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, New York (1853).
The next priest was Father Moise Mainville, who served from 1883 to 1895. He gave extensive testimony about Akwesasne life to a commission appointed by the New York State Legislature in 1888.
Father J. P. Bourget was to follow Mainville in 1895. He is still remembered vividly by the elders of Akwesasne for his strictness, his passion for the Mohawk language, and dedication to the education of our youth. He spent a total of forty two years in the Land Where The Partridge Drums.