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Reviewed by:
  • Becoming Holy in Early Canada by Timothy G. Pearson
  • Chelsea Horton
Timothy G. Pearson. Becoming Holy in Early Canada. McGill-Queen’s University Press. xviii, 302. $32.95

Saints, it might seem, are familiar actors in the history and historical memory of New France. This, after all, is the colonial stage on which Jesuit missionaries, including Jean de Brébeuf, were martyred, and where women like Jeanne Mance, Marie de l’Incarnation, and Kateri Tekakwitha taught and toiled. In Becoming Holy in Early Canada, however, the population of saints expands to take in a fresh and plentiful roster of lesser-known holy people whose sanctity, author Timothy G. Pearson deftly demonstrates, was forged in local contexts and relationships, not just formal hagiography or posthumous canonization protocol.

Without overlooking the contexts of European Catholicism and colonialism, which he effectively sets up in an early overview chapter, Pearson concentrates his analysis on local processes of saint-making in the St. Lawrence Valley and area missions during the French colonial period, circa 1600–1760. A relatively ample and diverse set of people became holy in this context, especially during the seventeenth century. Pulling productively on theories of performance, ritual, and lived religion, Pearson illuminates the everyday encounters and relationships that produced such “local sanctity.” [End Page 323]

He does so through chapters composed of case studies, each of which examines a key expression of early modern holiness: evangelism, charity, asceticism, miracles, and hagiography. The concept of the “good death” is woven throughout. The second in a pair of chapters focused on evangelism and martyrdom simultaneously reveals the challenge and strength of Pearson’s approach. His purpose in this chapter, Pearson clearly explains, “is to try to understand how and why an Algonquin man called Joseph Onaharé came to see himself as a Christian martyr in relation to both Christian and Algonquin audiences of the drama of his death,” which took place at the hands of the Iroquois in 1650. Primary sources, however, are limited, despite Pearson’s attention to “hagiographic discourse,” which takes in “any discussion of holiness and traditions associated with sanctity, no matter in what genre or text they appear.” Reading the ritual of Onaharé’s death is a delicate task when working from an extant record in which Jesuit missionary perspectives clearly reign. Pearson addresses this bluntly, and effectively, by situating the specific details of Onaharé’s life and death available in the Jesuit Relations within the wider contexts of seventeenth-century Algonquin-French interactions and social and spiritual life at Sillery, the mission village where Onaharé resided before he died. This does not lead Pearson to any single prescriptive reading of the significance of Onaharé’s death. Instead, he outlines several ways that Onaharé’s performance of martyrdom may have been interpreted by Algonquin, Iroquois, and Catholic audiences alike. At the same time, Pearson makes clear that these audiences were not necessarily mutually exclusive. Onaharé’s performance, specifically, “suggests that he recognized and was able to reconcile Christian notions of holiness with Algonquin spirituality and lifeways.” A similar sophistication suffuses Pearson’s analysis of colonial holy women, who feature prominently throughout the book. Through charity, for example, female holy figures at once functioned as direct agents of colonialism, carved out positions of power and public prominence, and encountered gendered boundaries, expectations, and oversight.

While Becoming Holy in Early Canada does not dwell on historiography, the book is deeply informed and builds on recent studies of religion in early Canada by scholars such as Emma Anderson and Allan Greer. Pearson’s anthropologically inspired approach to “lived holiness,” which bears the clear imprint of religious studies scholars like Robert Orsi, is especially refreshing and relevant for scholars of religion, regardless of the time period they study. Becoming Holy in Early Canada is also an intensely historicized account. In Pearson’s skilled hands, holiness becomes a productive lens through which to examine the construction of colonial New France itself. [End Page 324]

Chelsea Horton
Independent Scholar


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