Book Reviews
November 1, 2013

Jim McDowell. Father August Brabant: Saviour or Scourge? The First Colonial Missionary Among the Nuu chah-nulth. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2012.500 pages, photographs, maps, index.

Jim McDowell’s aim in writing Father August Brabant: Saviour or Scourge? The First Colonial Missionary Among the Nuu-chah-nulth is to provide “a new authoritative account” of the missionary’s life. McDowell centers on the clash between Brabant and Hesquiaht chief Tawinisam and the question “was Father Brabant a missionary hero or a harbinger of misery?” (372). He draws on the priest’s reminiscences, Vancouver Island and i ts Mi ssi ons1874—1900, [1900], interviews with Hesquiaht Chief Dominic Andrews and archival and secondary sources. The book raises some interesting points.

According to McDowell, August Brabant was a twenty-five year old Flemish graduate of the American College of Louvain when he arrived in Victoria in 1869. Fellow Louvainist Father Charles John Seghers introduced him to missionary work. After Seghers became Bishop of Vancouver Island in 1873, he took Brabant to visit the Nuu-chah-nulth on the west coast of the island. Then in 1875 he assigned Brabant to Hesquiaht and sent French Canadian Father Pierre Rondeault from the Cowichan Mission to help him build the first mission house. Brabant found some Hesquiaht, like young Chief Matlahaw, were interested in his Christian message and some were wary. Others, like hereditary Chief Tawinisam, uncle of Matlahaw, were antagonistic. Many men left the community for long periods to work on fur sealing ships. The Chinook Jargon of the fur trade was used by the Nuu-chah-nulth sealing crews and by the priests establishing Catholic missions. When the 1875 smallpox epidemic killed several villagers including Matlahaw’s wife and sister, he shot the priest then killed himself. Hesquiaht villagers helped get Brabant to Victoria for treatment. He returned and established a day school. He also traveled by canoe to the other Nuu-chahnulth communities along 300 miles of coast. Over the years a succession of Louvain graduates came to assist Brabant. They built mission posts, churches and day schools at Nuchatl, Kyuquot and Clayoquot. As at Hesquiaht, some people in these villages attended church, and many men took jobs in the fur seal fishery or took their families to work in canneries or hop fields to the south. Brabant claimed credit for the men taking jobs and returning to building new homes. But most of the Nuu-chah-nulth continued their religious and social practices and resisted day schooling. The arrival of Presbyterin missionaries at Ahousaht worried the Catholics. Brabant and Bishop Alexander Christie lobbied the federal government to establish a Catholic Indian Industrial School. The Christie school opened in 1900 on Meares Island. Benedictines from Oregon staffed the school. Brabant published his reminiscences to raise funds for the school. In 1907 Brabant was called to Victoria for administrative and chaplain duties. His health failed. He only made one visit back to Hesquiaht in 1911 before he died in 1912.

McDowell’s interpretation of Brabant’s life disappoints. He does not take advantage of recent studies of missionaries and Aboriginal peoples to provide context for the encounter between the priest and the Nuu-chahnulth. He makes brief mention of Anglican William Duncan’s mission to the Tsimshian on the north coast but nothing on Methodist Thomas Crosby’s efforts, and few references to those of Roman Catholic Oblates with Salishan peoples on the south coast and in the Interior. Susan Neylan’s The Heavens are Changing: Nineteenth Century Protestant Missions and Tsimshian Christianity (2003) argues they “took an active and important role” in those missions. Margaret Whitehead’s edition of They Call Me Father: Memoir of Father Nicolas Coccola (1988), about his service with the Salishan, Kootenay and Carrier, contends these peoples “determined their religious future.” They made choices about Christianity just as they made choices about “new employment developments and white culture.” Most “retained their old beliefs even while they practiced Christianity.” [ Whitehead 71-73] Chief Earl Maquinnah George’s Living on the Edge. Nuu-chah-nulth History from an Ahousaht Chief’s Perspective (2003) explains how Nuu-chah-nulth men worked in the Bering Sea fur seal industry in fish canneries and hop fields. They traveled up to Alaska, down to Victoria, the Fraser River and San Francisco. They used their pay to buy modern clothing and build houses, but also to continue social, economic and religious activities.

Such interpretations might help answer questions such as: Who were Brabant’s models, mentors, colleagues? How did his methods compare with those of other missionaries? How and why did the Hesquiaht and other Nuu-chah-nulth respond to his efforts? Did he have predecessors or were there Nuu-chan-nulth prophets?

As McDowell relies on Brabant’s own reminiscences and on Vincent J. McNally, The Lord’s Distant Vineyard: A History of the Oblates and the Catholic Community in British Columbia, (2000, p. 107 ff), for narration of the priest’s career, he does not question their claims: that Brabant was the only long-term missionary to Aboriginals in the diocese of Vancouver Island, that the Hesquiaht mission was isolated from non-Aboriginal culture, and that the efforts of the few secular priests of the diocese in Aboriginal missions were “inefficient and haphazard.” They lacked the direction of an order. [McDowell 374, and 439 n. 17 on McNally 107-108].

What is disappointing in McDowell’s discussion of Brabant as a missionary is that he makes only limited use of Kevin Codd’s “’A Favoured Portion of the Vineyard’: A Study of the American College Missionaries on the Pacific Coast 1857-1907” (Ph.D.diss. Katholieke Universitet Leuven, 2007). As well as checking pages describing Brabant’s career, McDowell ought to have explored Codd’s discussion of Brabant’s alma mater and the numbers of clergy it provided to the Oregon archdiocese c. 1860-1900s, including priests and bishops for Vancouver Island, a suffragan diocese to 1903.

The graduates of the American College of Louvain, though not members of a congregation like the Oblates, shared a common formation and had their own support network, their own mentors and models. They reported back to professors on their missions. Belgian Jesuit De Smet’s accounts of the Rocky Mountain Missions of the 1840s influenced Europeans to at tend the seminary. However, once there, what students of the 1860s, like Brabant, read and discussed were letters of the first Louvain graduate sent to Oregon, Adrien Croquet. This Belgian French priest ministered to the federated tribes at the Grand Ronde Reservation in western Oregon from 1860 to 1898. Codd describes him as a seasoned pastoral minister who served “a model” for priests who followed him to the North Pacific Coast. (Codd, 105) He preached in the Chinook Jargon, established a civil order of police and judges, and a boarding school for Native children. Benedictine priests and sisters staffed it.

McDowell does not mention Croquet as a model for Father Brabant and his confreres. Nor does he recognize another Louvainist, Gustave Donckele. He arrived in the diocese of Vancouver Island in 1877. Donckele was sent to assist French-Canadian Father Rondeault at the Cowichan Mission and succeed him as its head. Donckele and his superiors lobbied for Catholic administration of the Indian Industrial School the government built on Kuper Island in 1890. Donckele was made principal of the school and retained the position until ill health led to his retirement in 1907. Based on these facts Donckele’s term of mission service was nearly the same as that of Brabant. McDowell cites an Indian Agent’s report of 1891 noting that three Hesquiaht boys had been sent to Kuper Island School. But McDowell refers to Donckele as a “Belgian secular priest,” not a fellow Louvain graduate, (McDowell 336 and 461), and does not explore links between Kuper and Christie schools.

Nor does McDowell follow up on another reference in Codd’s dissertation that has value for study of Brabant’s encounter with the Nuu-chah-nulth. Codd points out the apostasy of Oblate Father Jules Xavier Villemard in 1867 in Victoria. This French priest had been assigned to the Oblate mission to the Kwakiutl near Fort Rupert and then to Victoria. The mission near Fort Rupert, begun in 1863, was abandoned in 1874 and the Oblates focused their efforts on the mainland. A little further research on Villemard shows that by 1868 he became an Anglican minister, used the name Willemar, and set out, along with catechist Harry Guillod, to evangelize the Nuu-chah nulth from a base at Alberni. By the time Brabant arrived in Victoria in 1869, Reverend Willemar was publishing an account of his work in the Columbia Mission Report. Two years later Willemar left to become a parish priest near Comox on the east side of the island. His catechist, Guillod would serve as the Indian agent for the West Coast of Vancouver Island from 1881 to 1903. In 1901 Guillod reported that Brabant spoke the Nootkan language “like a native,” and that he taught catechism to Christie residential school pupils in that language. McDowell discounts Guillod’s opinion on Brabant’s linguistic abilities, preferring those of his younger colleagues, without looking at Guillod’s long experience with the Nuu-chah-nulth. (364-65)

Consideration of Anglicans Villemard and Guillod as predecessors of Roman Catholic Brabant with the Nuu–chahnulth might give insight into how and why they responded to Brabant. Did he have missionary predecessors or were there Nuuchah-nulth prophets. Look at McDowell’s narration of what Brabant observed on his first visit to the Nuu-chah-nulth with Bishop Seghers in in 1874. They travelled on a fur sealing schooner and then with Native canoes. The Clayoquot people of Opitsaht village gave the priests a warm reception, as did those at Ahousaht. (48-62). However, at Yuquot the priests found the Mowachaht resistant. Brabant attributed this to people who had moved to the village from other places, “Kwakiutl women from Fort Rupert,” and some people who had lived “on the eastern side of the island where missionaries had been more active, and a few slaves who said missionaries had done nothing to improve their lot.” At Hesquiaht many residents were curious about the visiting priests and allowed their children to be baptized. Like their neighbours, the Hesquiaht “had heard the old stories about previous spiritual visitors,” including “ghost ships” and the Franciscan Friars at Yuquot in the late 1700s.(63-68).

Linking McDowell’s discussion of Brabant’s memoir to recent historical conversations on the encounters of the Nuuchah-nulth peoples with missionaries would open up exploration of questions about both groups — and particularly the intriguing and complex parts Aboriginal peoples played in those encounters.

Jacqueline Gresko, Douglas College, Vancouver

* * * * *

John P. Comiskey, My Heart’s Best Wishes for You: A Biography of Archbishop John Walsh. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012. 264 pp., illus.,biblio.,index. $95.00

Since 1988, McGill-Queen’s University Press have published more than eighty volumes on the study of religion and religious studies on topics as diverse as First World War chaplains to Quakers. John Comiskey’s biography of Archbishop John Walsh (1830-1898), is an important addition to the series.

Emigrating from Ireland in 1852, Walsh wastrained and ordained in Canada in the fallof 1854. His administrative and intellectual abilities were soon recognized and he assumed increasing responsibilities in the diocese of Toronto until 1867 when he was appointed Bishop of Sandwich. Soon after taking up his duties, Bishop Walsh succeeded in moving the episcopal seat to London. There, he began rebuilding the diocese, which he found in financial straits, by improving the administration and practice in parishes, attracting educators, building schools and providing the leadership so clearly desired by the Catholic population under this care.

During Walsh’s tenure as bishop of London, he nurtured the Catholic community and witnessed, over the course of two decades, tremendous growth in the number of adherents, parishes and vocations due in large part to his leadership and spiritual direction. He was especially known for his tact and diplomacy, not only amongst Catholics, but also with non-Catholics in London and throughout southwestern Ontario.

His achievements in London were very real and he was regarded throughout the area as dedicated and determined to foster an active and devoted Catholic population. He used his diplomatic skills whenever needed and throughout his life, he studied the major theological issues of the day and was able to educate and inform his flock on various doctrinal issues, including papal infallibility in the 1870s. Archbishop Walsh was a true leader of the people, not only on church related, but on a wide range of secular matters as well.

The author looks at all facets of Walsh’s life, but examines closely what the Bishop had to say in his pastoral letters and publications, some of which approached the length of a short book. He was an erudite man who studied and wrote about all matters, or so it seemed, that affected the church and the Catholic community. Above all, he was untiring in his efforts to promote the Catholic faith in the diocese of London and later in Toronto before his death in 1898.

In the summer of 1889, Archbishop Lynch died and Walsh succeeded his friend and long-time mentor as Archbishop of Toronto. Here, he continued his efforts to create an active and caring church in one of Canada’s largest cities. He was instrumental in creating Mount Hope Cemetery, he recognized and confronted the many social problems that were now evident because of industrialization, such as poverty and disease. Amongst other initiatives, Archbishop Walsh sponsored the creation of the Children’s Aid Society and established a home for orphan children.

Since Archbishop John Walsh is most closely associated with the history of the Catholic church in London, Gather up the Fragments: A History of the Diocese of London (2008) by Michael Power, Daniel Brock and others, including the author of this biography, should be consulted for additional information about Walsh and the diocese that he was instrumental in creating, especially its growth and development after 1890.

Fr Comiskey has succeeded in documenting one of the most important Catholic leaders in the nineteenth century Ontario. He does so with insight and sympathy and leaves us with a very positive and detailed biography of Archbishop John Walsh.

Glenn Wright, Ottawa