A Michigan Journey: Following Father Marquette

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EDITOR’S NOTE:  I found this unpublished manuscript from a summer trip taken in August 2014 to the Great Lakes (Michigan, Huron, Superior) region of the State of Michigan. These musings have little to do with the blog’s intended subject of news out of Asia — except if one stretches one’s imagination and argues that the indigenous peoples whom Father Marquette served were descendants of those Asian forebears who crossed the Bering land bridge in the Ice Age before the great melting turned it into the Bering Strait, severing the Asian and North American continents.
Anyway, this being  the summer doldrums when everyone is on August vacation, it seems a good time to finally publish this  manuscript.  (It should be noted that my daughter Eileen and I did a follow-up trip to Quebec City in the summer of 2015, the original French settlement where Pere Marquette first landed in North America and from which he set off on his voyage of discovery (we saw there the site of his fellow explorer Louis Jolliet’s homestead.)
This was my sister Mary and my Michigan journey with the spirit of Pere Marquette:
A summer car trip across the Great Lake state of Michigan turned into a voyage of discovery regarding one of the early European explorers who first charted the inland waterways of America.  The fact that this explorer was a Jesuit priest and one of the travelers was a graduate of the university named for him made Pere Jacques Marquette’s saga all the more compelling.
My sister (the Marquette University graduate) and I had no thought of Pere Marquette when we mapped out our trip up from Chicago, along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan and then across to Mackinac Island and the Upper Peninsula  (UP).  But we soon discovered that the lasting imprint of this famed missionary and explorer had touched everywhere we went.  We were impressed to see how much he accomplished in a life that lasted just short of thirty-eight years: founder of the first two European settlements in the current boundaries of the state of Michigan, honored by statues throughout the upper part of the state and with the largest UP city bearing his name,  also with a statue in the National Statuary Hall in our nation’s Capitol donated by the State of Wisconsin in 1896, and as a messenger of God to the Native Americans, given his special gift in learning languages.  As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow recorded in his epic 1855 poem, The Song of Hiawatha:
And the Black-Robe chief made answer,
Stammered in his speech a little,
Speaking words yet unfamiliar:
Peace be with you, Hiawatha
Peace be with you and your people,
Peace of prayer, and peace of pardon,
Peace of Christ, and joy of Mary”

We were a little disappointed to realize that Jacques Marquette, unlike his fellow Jesuits, the North American Martyrs, has not yet been declared a saint by the Catholic Church.  For, although he did not spill his blood like Isaac Jogues and Jean De Brebeuf, Pere Marquette certainly gave his life for Christ, dying prematurely in the missions.   The site of his death, a beach near the present Michigan town of Ludington, was the beginning of our journey of discovery.  Marquette, knowing that he was dying of a dysentery infection, had asked to be returned from an Illinois mission trip near Starved Rock to his beloved St. Ignace Mission in the UP.  He was brought by canoe up the Des Plaines and Chicago rivers but only made it halfway across Lake Michigan before he succumbed.

The death scene near Ludington, where a cross overlooking the harbor marks the spot, is recorded in the 1970 book Father Marquette, written by Raphael N. Hamilton, S. J., former Departmental Director of History at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin:  “On the following day his eyes fell upon a stream washing the foot of a little hill just before losing itself in Lake Michigan.  He asked his friends to turn in there because it would be the place where he would die…From where he lay he looked out over a charming little lake that the river had made before its final mingling with the water of the great sea beyond. ..When a moonbeam glinted on his crucifix, he knew they were holding it for him to see; he had requested them to do so when he was dying.  His two friends heard him say the names of Jesus and Mary, then, all at once, he raised his eyes above the cross holding them fixed on
something he seemed to gaze upon with delight, and thus, his face smiling and radiant, he expired without a shudder and with the ease of one falling asleep.”

The above-mentioned river and lake at Ludington are both named Pere Marquette.  With the eastward airflow across Lake Michigan creating a fine breeze cutting along the shoreline near Ludington, the site of Father Marquette’s death on May 18, 1675, contains majestic sand dunes interspersed with reeds and prairie grasses.

A Michigan State historic marker at the site reads:

“Father Jacques Marquette, the great Jesuit missionary and explorer, died and was buried by two French companions somewhere along the Lake Michigan shore on May 18, 1675. He had been returning to his mission at St. Ignace which he had left in 1673 to go exploring in the Mississippi country. The exact location of his death has long been a subject of controversy. A spot close to the southeast slope of this hill, near the ancient outlet of the Pere Marquette River, corresponds with the death site as located by early French accounts and maps and a constant tradition of the past. Marquette’s remains were reburied at St. Ignace in 1677.”

Our journey then continued to the resort island of Mackinac (meaning “Great Turtle” in the Algonquin dialects spoken by Father Marquette.)  There we saw a statue of Father Marquette, one of three we saw in Michigan, placed prominently in the main park, also named for Marquette, which faces the shore of Lake Huron.  Father Marquette had brought a band of Huron and Ottawa to the island for resettlement in 1670-71, after they had fled first from the more warlike Iroquois in the east and then from the Sioux in the west.  Finding the island’s rocky soil unsuited for agriculture, Father Marquette assisted in their move to the UP where he founded the Saint Ignace Mission, named for the Jesuit founder Saint Ignatius Loyola.  A reconstructed early bark mission chapel in Marquette Park on Mackinac Island is provided as an example of the chapels used by Jesuit missionaries to minister to Native Americans in the 1600s.

Our next stop was the town of St.Ignace, a ferry ride from Mackinac Island, and one of the two Michigan municipalities founded by Father Marquette.  Ojibwa (Chippewa in English) descendants of a population ministered by Father Marquette still reside in the area.  They, along with the City of St. Ignace, maintain a Museum of Ojibwa Culture inside a former 19th century Jesuit mission church which was saved from demolition by the local Council of the Knights of Columbus.
The Knights moved the mission church to its present location, next to the burial site of Father Marquette, in 1954, contributed to its preservation, and administered it as a museum for a number of years.  The museum maintains the history, culture and artifacts, some dating to 6000 BC, of a people for whom Father Marquette dedicated his life.
 Although Jacques Marquette never made it back to his beloved St. Ignace Mission, his remains were returned due to the devotion of his Native American friends.  A hunting party of Ottawa was returning to St. Ignace from a winter hunt in the Lower Peninsula.  Passing close to the Lake Michigan shore in the spring of 1677, they came upon the simple cross that Father Marquette’s two French companions had left to mark his burial site.   According to Father Hamilton: “they had found his body incorrupt but, according to what they customarily do for those they hold in high regard, they had separated the bones from the flesh, cleansed them with care, and arranged them in a box of birch-bark to bring them home.”  When the Ottawa returned with Father Marquette’s remains via canoe to St. Ignace, the Mission’s new superior Father Nouvel reportedly performed funeral rites and then had them buried in a little vault in the chapel “where he remains as the angel guardian of our Missions for the Ottawa.”
In 1701 the French military abandoned their fort near St. Ignace and moved to Detroit. The Jesuits followed in 1705, burning the chapel to guarantee it would not be desecrated.  Father Marquette’s remains were forgotten until 1877 when a local farmer clearing land discovered an ancient foundation.  According to Father Hamilton, “the church floor, the small vault and a few bones of Father Marquette” were discovered.  The City of St. Ignace established a small park at the grave site (adjacent to the Museum of Ojibwa Culture) in 1899. A statue of Father Marquette was subsequently dedicated by the Knights of Columbus on the park grounds.
 We then crossed the UP in our journey of discovery of the Father Marquette legacy.  We reached the Canadian border at Sault Ste. Marie, the first European settlement established by Pere Marquette in 1668.  Because of the rapids for which the city is named, it was a major fishing ground for a number of Native American tribes.  Thus, it proved an ideal location for a mission.  It was here that Father Marquette met with explorer of New France Louis Jolliet to formulate plans for an expedition to discover the “Father of Waters” (the Mississippi River) of which the Native Americans had spoken.  That expedition, finally realized in 1673, meant that Marquette and Jolliet were the first Europeans to lay eyes on the mighty Mississippi.  Sault Ste. Marie would also be the future home of U.S. Indian agent Henry Schoolcraft who, in the nineteenth century, provided poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with historic materials on the Native Americans of the Lake Superior region.  These materials formed part of the background for the “Song of Hiawatha.”
Our final stop on our Father Marquette tour was the city of Marquette, which in 1850 changed its name to honor the Jesuit missionary and explorer.  Hidden partially by the overgrowth in a downtown city park, we found our last Michigan statue of Jacques Marquette.   Father Marquette would have canoed past the present site of the city on the Lake Superior shore in 1669.  He would have been on his way to the mission at the Point of the Holy Spirit on Chequamegon Bay, near the Apostle Islands and the present town of La Pointe, Wisconsin.  He remained there for a year until Sioux threats against his Huron and Ottawa converts caused them to relocate to first Mackinac Island and then to St. Ignace.
Jacques Marquette, missionary to the Ojibwa, Ottawa, Huron, and Illinois, explorer of the Upper Peninsula, Great Lakes, and Mississippi, has both a city and great university named for him.  In addition, there is the statue in his honor in the U.S. Capitol.  Yet, Father Marquette still lacks one title – that of “Saint.”  Perhaps that can one day be granted as well to this heroic missionary to the Native Americans and explorer of the vast inland of the United States and Canada.
(I graduated from Loyola University of Chicago, a Jesuit institution of higher learning, and am a member of the Knights of Columbus, Council 8600 (Fairfax Station, Virginia.)   My sister Mary Halpin is a graduate of Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, named in honor of Pere Marquette.).

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