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  • Becoming Holy in Early Canada by Timothy G. Pearson
  • Terence J. Fay SJ
Timothy G. Pearson. Becoming Holy in Early Canada. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014. Pp. xvii + 295. $32.95. isbn 978-0-7735-4419-2.

Becoming Holy in Early Canada is a noteworthy investigation into the mysterious topic of seventeenth-century religious experience. Recent studies, such as Emma Anderson’s The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs, Allan Greer’s Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits, René Latourelle’s Jean de Brebeuf, Patricia Simpson’s two volumes on Marguerite Bourgeoys, and Micah True’s Masters and Students: Jesuit Mission Ethnography in Seventeenth-Century New France have shown great interest in religious history and how to understand it. Timothy Pearson’s analysis places his work in a broad context that reaches beyond traditional sources: “This book, then, is in part an examination of religious rituals of holiness as historical objects that might bridge the gap between history and anthropology and between social, religious, and cultural history … around local performances of holiness” (12–13). The volume features the performance of holy persons, their rituals of holiness, and their influence on the colony. The influence of holy persons on the community is examined especially with the assurance that it gave the community its contact with the divine. The investigation does not end with the death of the holy ones but continues on with their posthumous reputations in the Christian community.

Timothy Pearson begins his study with a history of Christian sainthood from the Roman martyrs to medieval contemplatives, to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century missionaries in the “New World”. The Jesuits at this time are described as eager for martyrdom as the price paid to proclaim the gospel to the peoples of Canada. Even though the Jesuits were educated to accept the prospect of martyrdom, the author fails to present the [End Page 156] personal stress in living with this daily fear, which was overcome only by regular prayer and daily asceticism.

Indigenous holiness is examined using the limited sources available, which were mainly from the Jesuit Relations. Algonquin Joseph Onaharé is remembered when he proclaimed his Christian belief through days of Iroquois torture. In a similar way the strong faith of Iroquois Kateri Tekakwitha is examined to show how some of the Indigenous people to embrace Christianity. Pearson also stresses the fact that Joseph Onaharé was not included as a Canadian martyr in the same way as the Canadian martyrs were canonized in 1930.

In the second half of the seventeenth century, women as inspiring female models replaced the Jesuit martyrs. Marie de l’Incarnation and Catherine of St Augustine rallied the new community to move it toward a peaceful spirituality. Marie de l’Incarnation and Catherine of St Augustine living within the cloister walls were the spiritual engines who led the spiritual and economic growth of New France. The anchorite Jeanne LeBer prayed successfully for the protection of early Canada from the assault by the British in 1710. These holy women prayed and worked that Canada could become a new heaven and new earth.

Catherine of St Augustine ardently influenced the spiritual life of New France. At the time of the Mardi Gras when the colonists were preparing to celebrate, a strong earthquake shook the region, which Catherine interpreted as God’s anger over the social sins of impiety, impurity, and lack of charity committed during this festive frolic. To appease God, Catherine inflicted rigorous punishments on herself to restore the colony to Tridentine purity. Pearson points to the importance of Jesuit Paul Ragueneau’s biography of Catherine and other biographies like it, as testifying to the lifetime commitment of the holy women in Canada.

Part of Catherine’s religious commitment was her willingness to embrace the Canadian harsh climate, labour for the good of others, and refuse to return to France. In voluntary pursuit of holiness, she accepted the hardship of “spiritual victimhood” (125). She received visions of Jesus Christ, traditional saints, and Canadian saints. She remained strictly orthodox and followed the direction of others seeking permission for her extraordinary penances. Through obedience Catherine sought to build an ideal community...


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