In the Wake of Pere Marquette

The Catholic America Tour is just beginning. We’re 1300 miles away from home, in Quincy, Illinois (parked in front of a Staples, to be precise). Nearby is the Mississippi River, the “great waters” in the Ojibwa language. It was named for the Holy Ghost by the Spanish and later named for His Immaculate Spouse by the French. And the Frenchman who did so was Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., the great missionary who was also an explorer.

Before putting down a little tribute to Pere Marquette and his fellow faith-filled Franks who gave us a French America before there was much of an Anglo America, I would like to copy here a prayer that Father Marquette authored in his youth:

Hail daughter of God the Father, hail Mother of God the Son, hail spouse of God the Holy Ghost, hail temple of all the Persons of the Trinity, by your holy virginity and your Immaculate Conception, make clean my heart and my song.

It’s no wonder he would name the great waters he found after the Immaculate Conception.

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The name Marquette is immortalized in the American Midwest and South. Pere Jacques Marquette (1637-1675), was a Jesuit priest and Indian missionary, who, with explorer Louis Joliet, found the northern portion of the Mississippi River, which, by the way, the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto had named Río del Espíritu Santo (River of the Holy Spirit) in 1541. Marquette named it the River of the Immaculate Conception. The importance of Marquette’s discovery cannot be overlooked: He discovered, as it were, the spinal column of the continental United States, and in so doing, opened up a vast territory for exploration and evangelization. Eventually, in 1718, the French would found New Orleans and, in 1764, Saint Louis, naming it after the great French King and Crusader.

So what is the extent of the French presence here in the United States? Quite wide. At one time, they laid claim to a huge V of land extending its left arm to the Rockies, its bottom part to Louisiana, and its right arm up to Lake Ontario. A large chunk of it — roughly the west side of the Mississippi River Valley plus a little lagniappe — gave us the Louisiana Purchase. The French explored Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Montana. They re-explored some states the Spanish had explored, such as: Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Nebraska.

Besides Father Marquette, the French who brought Catholic faith and civilization here would include the settlers and colonizers of Canada, like Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain, Robert de LaSalle (who brought French settlers to Illinois), and, of course, the North American Martyrs.