Lexica Jesuitica: Catechisms and Prayer in a New World

Catechisms and prayer books of North America

Catechisms and prayer books of North America.

The Jesuits call themselves men on the move, a religious society committed to reaching far places and pushing the frontiers of knowledge. Over the centuries, the society has embraced many collectors of words, missionaries and scholars dedicated to putting previously unwritten languages to paper and gathering them for purposes of learning. Some of these books were intended for the reference shelves of universities and libraries. Others were made for the speakers themselves—catechisms and prayer books meant to introduce new ways of thought never before expressed in their speakers’ native tongues.

Among the earliest of such books in the Burns Library collections is the Catecismo de la lengua Guarani (Madrid, 1640). Jesuit labors among the Guarani peoples of Brazil and Argentina remain well known, in part because of the evocative ruins they left behind (known as reductions and inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1983), and in part because of the award-winning 1986 film, The Mission. But communication was the cornerstone for this work, and this catechism, printed in parallel columns of Guarani and Spanish, was among the foundational documents for this effort. This dual-language religious primer was just as important for Jesuits trying to reach converts in their native tongue as it was for Guarani seeking to learn the Spanish language of the new settlers now living among them.

Catecismo de la lengua guarani (1640), PM6082 .Z77 R85 1640 Jesuitica Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The Our Father and Hail Mary, translated by Jesuit missionaries into the Guarani language in one of the earliest catechisms produced for Native American peoples. Catecismo de la lengua guarani (1640), PM6082 .Z77 R85 1640, Jesuitica Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Spanish and Latin American Jesuit lexicographers are especially well represented in the Burns collections, and their catechisms are just as prolific. In addition to the Guarani catechism, the Burns curates a Kiriri (Brazilian) catechism (Lisbon, 1698), a Moxo (Bolivian) dictionary and catechism (Lima, 1701), and a Nahuatl (Mexican) catechism (Mexico, 1758). While the Aztec language of Nahuatl remains an important language among 1.5 million people in Central Mexico, Moxo has all but disappeared as a native tongue. Fewer than 100 monolingual speakers remain in the upper Amazon basin in Brazil. The Moxo catechism in the Burns Library stands as an important witness to this rarified tongue.

Jesuit missions in North America also find a place in the Burns Library. The monument of these efforts was the Jesuit Relations, a selection of letters and notes detailing the accomplishments of French missionaries in what is now Canada and the northern US. These volumes were compiled and published annually between 1632 and 1673, but Jesuit work in the Americas continued long after the Relations ceased. Among the documents that survive from these efforts, the Burns Library preserves a Montagnais (Quebecois) catechism and prayer book (Quebec, 1767), and an Abenaki (Algonquin) prayer book and catechism (New York, 1857), as well as a later Potawatomi (Pottawatomie) catechism (Cincinnati, 1868), and a Kalispel (Salish) catechism (Montana, 1880).

Front Pastedown to a Mantagnais Catechism and Prayer Book (Quebec, 1767)

Front pastedown to a Mantagnais catechism and prayer book, noting its author as Jesuit missionary Fr. Jean-Baptiste de La Brosse. Nehiro-iriniui aiamihe massinahigan (1767), PM1924 .N43 1767, Jesuitica Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The Montagnais catechism is especially valuable as the first book published in a First Nations language in Canada. The copy in the Burns library includes a hand-written French inscription on the pastedown: “Book of Prayers for the Indians of Tadoussac. Edited and printed under the care of the Reverend Father de La Brosse, S.J., who has served at this mission.” Fr. Jean-Baptiste de La Brosse was one of the last generation of Jesuits ordained before their suppression in France. By the time suppression was promulgated in 1764, La Brosse was already working as a missionary in the St. Lawrence River valley and estuary.

Canada had recently changed hands from France to Britain as part of the Treaty of Paris (1763), which concluded the French and Indian War. The shift from a Catholic to a Protestant monarch meant that Canadian Jesuits weren’t as rigorously suppressed as they would have been under French rule. La Brosse was able to continue his work as a Jesuit missionary, and Tadoussac, the oldest surviving French settlement in the Americas, was a key outpost of his efforts. In 1767, La Brosse contracted two British Americans who had moved to the Montreal following the transfer to British rule to open Quebec’s first printing press. Together, they published 2,000 prayer books in Montagnais, intended, as La Brosse noted, for “those who know how to read and for those who will learn.”

But these catechisms are not just landmarks of Jesuit history. They also represent efforts to bridge differences between languages. In some cases, these catechisms represent moments of radical compromise. As the Swiss Jesuit Maurice Galliand worked among the Potawatomi peoples, originally from the Midwest but later “removed” to reservations in the Great Plains and elsewhere, he struggled to make basic notions of Christianity comprehensible in the Potawatomi language. At a time when many Americans had adopted intransigent attitudes toward the native peoples, Galliand showed an opposite tact, going so far as to use the Potawatomi words “Owner” and “Great Spirit” for God. Galliand numbered among the many missionaries who saw the need to compromise with the peoples they wished to serve. These efforts changed their target languages—infusing old words with new meanings—and they also created new Christianities—ancient doctrines shoehorned into the cosmologies of new languages.

Potewatemi nemëmiseniükin ipi nemënigamowinin (1868)

Joseph Giorda, SJ, revealed the difficulty of translating Catholic doctrine into Native American languages. Here, his catechism glosses doctrines painstakingly defined in Greek and Latin, asserting that Jesus Christ “our Owner … died as a man, but He did not die as Great Spirit.” Potewatemi nemëmiseniükin ipi nemënigamowinin (1868), PM2191.Z71 C3 1868, Jesuitica Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In other cases, Jesuit catechisms reveal that the difficulties of translation could be insuperable. For example, as U.S. tensions with Native Americans peaked following the Battle of Little Bighorn, an Italian Jesuit named Joseph Giorda undertook an effort to promote a better understanding among the Kalispel Indians of the U.S. northwest. In the catechism that he prepared (Montana, 1880), Giorda similarly adopted the name of an established deity—Kolinzúten—to translate the word God, but other words had proven untranslatable into the Kalispel language. Not only did Giorda follow his missionary predecessors by importing the French “Saint Trinité” for Holy Trinity, but he also resorted to adopting the French-derived word “Person.” His inability to find an appropriate translation for the word “person” is especially revealing that, deeper than the ongoing conflicts over land, there was a fundamental difference in the ways in which indigenous people perceived their identities and their place in the world.

A Catechism of the Christian Doctrine in the Flat-Head or Kalispél Language (1880)

Missionaries occasionally needed to import new words—in this case, “Saint Trinité” and “Person”—as they translated the catechism into languages that promoted a conceptualization of the world incommensurable with the traditions of Christianity. A Catechism of the Christian Doctrine in the Flat-Head or Kalispél Language (1880), 03-18626, General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

These volumes and other treasures of the Jesuit past may be found in the Burns Library Jesuitica Collection. To learn more about the Jesuitica Collection at the Burns Library, browse the digitized book and manuscript holdings in the BC Libraries Digital Collections or read about exhibits of the Jesuitica Collection on the Burns exhibits page. If you have further questions or would like to do research in the Jesuitica collection, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

  • Matthew Delvaux, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Ph.D. Student in the Department of History.
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