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 Catholic Culture Spring 2018
Jacques Marquette – Missionary and Explorer (1637–1675)
The Catholic countries of France and Spain combined their quest for earthly treasure in America with a religious zeal for souls. Where their explorers went, so too went their missionaries. One of the most famous missionaries was a 17th-century French Jesuit named Jacques Marquette. In the year 1666, his superiors sent him to teach in their missions in French Canada. Father Jacques was just 30 years old when he arrived in Quebec. He took to this new life, learning the ways of the Native Americans and teaching them about God’s love for them. Soon he learned to speak the Huron language and several other dialects as well.
Marquette established a mission at the Straits of Mackinac between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. While there, representatives of the Illinois tribe invited him to visit their villages along the shores of a “great river” farther west and south. Marquette shared the information about this great river with his government. Was it possible, he wondered, that this mighty river  owed across North America to the Gulf of California?
France  tted out an expedition to explore the river. They chose Marquette and a French
Canadian fur trader named Louis Joliet to lead the expedition of seven men. On May 17,
1673, the little band set out from Marquette’s mission, St. Ignace, named for Saint Ignatius,
the founder of Marquette’s order. They paddled south on Lake Michigan to Green Bay, then to the Fox River, portaged 50 miles to the Wisconsin River, and  nally reached the great river—the Mississippi. They were the  rst Europeans to travel down the Mississippi from the north. Over 100 years earlier, a Spaniard, Hernando de Soto, had discovered and explored the river’s southern reaches.
Marquette and Joliet stopped at Native American villages along the way where the priest preached the Gospel. The Illinois were especially welcoming and warned the Frenchmen that farther south they would meet hostile tribes.
The expedition sailed as far as the mouth of the Arkansas River. A friendly tribe there con rmed that the river  owed to the Gulf of Mexico, not to California. They warned that farther south was the territory of the Spanish and their Native American allies. Capture was certain. Marquette and Joliet, satis ed that the Mississippi emptied into the Gulf, wisely turned around and headed for home.
Father Marquette planned to spend the rest of his life teaching his Native American brothers and sisters. But the rest of his life proved to be very short. He died of dysentery at the age of 38. He had spread the Gospel to countless Native Americans and, together with Joliet, had opened the valley of the Mississippi to further French exploration and settlement. This vast expanse of French territory would eventually be the Louisiana Purchase that Thomas Je erson bought from France for the United States in 1803.
A bronze statue of Father Jacques Marquette, missionary and explorer, stands in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. A city in northern Michigan and a university in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, bear his name.
         A Service of
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