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The humble, holy beginnings of Chicago

Père Jacques Marquette

Père Jacques Marquette

Indians gnawed off two of his fingers and roughly sawed off his thumb. He escaped and with the help of Dutch traders and made his way back to Quebec and then France. This was French missionary Isaac Jogues, who taken prisoner by the Iroquois in 1641.

Indians made to run the deadly gauntlet, as described in “The Jesuit Martyrs of North America,” but he was able to barely escape, though many other French missionaries were not so fortunate, such as Charles Garnier, Rene Goupil, Anthony Daniel, and John de Brebeuf, who wrote to newly arrived missionaries: “You must love these Huron, ransomed by the blood of the Son of God, as brothers.”

These stories inspired Père Jacques Marquette, (“Père” is French for “Father”), who arrived in Quebec from France to be a missionary among the Indians. In 1673, Frontenac, the governor-general of New France, commissioned Père Marquette to explore the unknown Mississippi River.

Marquette traveled with French explorer Louis Joliette by canoe along the west coast of Lake Michigan. They canoed to Green Bay, up the lower Fox River, across Lake Winnebago, up the upper Fox River. Marquette and Joliette then portaged their canoes two miles through marsh to the Wisconsin River, where their two Indian guides abandoned them, fearing “river monsters.”

Marquette and Joliet canoed the Wisconsin River to the Mississippi River, where they traveled south to just below the Arkansas River, hesitating to go further for fear of entering Spanish Territory.

Being the first Europeans to explore the northern Mississippi, Jacques Marquette gave his account in “Voyage et De’couverte de Quelques Pays et Nations de l’Amerique Septemtrionale” (translated 1852, The Jesuit Relations, Volume LIX): “We came to … the Folle Avoine (Menominee). I entered their river to go and visit these people to whom we preached the Gospel … in consequence of which, there are several good Christians among them. I told … of my design to … discover those remote nations, in order to teach them the mysteries of our holy religion. They … did their best to dissuade me … that I would meet nations who never show mercy to strangers, but break their heads without any cause. … They also said that the great river was very dangerous … full of horrible monsters, which devoured men and canoes together; that there was even a demon, who … swallowed up all who ventured to approach him. …

“I thanked them for the good advice that they gave me, but told them that I could not follow it, because the salvation of souls was at stake, for which I would be delighted to give my life; that I scoffed at the alleged demon; that we would easily defend ourselves against those marine monsters. … After making them pray to God, and giving them some instructions, I separated from them.”

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On their return trip up the Illinois River, Jacques Marquette founded a mission among the Illinois Indians. The next year, caught by a winter storm on Dec. 4, 1674, Jacques Marquette and two companions erected a rough log cabin near the shore of Lake Michigan. The settlement would grow into the city of Chicago.

In 1675,just prior to his death, Père Jacques Marquette preached to several thousand Indians, as written in an account by Father Claude Dablon of the Society of Jesus, 1678: “Five hundred chiefs and old men, seated in a circle around the father, while the youth stood without to the number of fifteen hundred, not counting women and children who are very numerous, the town being composed of five or six hundred fires. … The father explained to them the principal mysteries of our religion, and the end for which he had come to their country; and especially he preached to them Christ crucified, for it was the very eve of the great day on which he died on the cross for them.”

On May 18, 1675, being weakened by dysentery, Père Jacques Marquette died at the age of 37. Marquette had founded Sault Ste. Marie, the first European settlement in Michigan, and the town of St. Ignace.

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Named after Marquette are a river, mountain, island, diocese, towns, townships, cities, counties, parks, schools, and Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

In 1895, the state of Wisconsin placed a statue of Père Jacques Marquette in the U.S. Capitol Statuary Hall.

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