Petitions for Father Rale

By Juliana L’Heureux

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In Franco-American folklore, the colonial era French Jesuits are cultural heroes, but now one of them is being considered for canonization.

The French Jesuits were religious men who gave their lives to bring Christianity to New France. Some people dispute the exalted status these men hold over the Franco-American culture because their devoted tactics certainly raised some anger despite the many people who were converted by their zeal. Nonetheless, they were highly educated men from France who largely died horrible deaths while fighting for their faith. As a group, these missionaries are known collectively as The North American Martyrs. Perhaps the best known martyr was Father Sebastian Rale (1652-1724). August 23rd marks the anniversary of his death. 

Historians give high marks to Father Rale for writing an Abenaki and French dictionary, a document used by archeologists who study Indian languages. He was a prolific writer, a poet, and a teacher as well as a priest.

Maine historical writer Mary Calvert in her book, "Black Robe on the Kennebec" describes Father Rale’s horrific death (pages 197-98). There is no question about how brutally the English murdered Father Rale. He was scalped and slaughtered by the English because he was too influential with the Abenaki Indians from the Kennebec River Valley area of Maine, where he lived with the tribe for about 30 years. 

Today, 275 years after Father Rale’s barbarian murder on August 23, 1724, advocates are seeking his canonization. In other words, his petition for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church is gaining support. In fact, recent communications from Holy Cross College in Worchester, MA are targeted to persuade people about Father Rale’s qualifications for sanctity, as required for sainthood.

Unfortunately, Father Rale’s reputation suffered greatly under British influence shortly after his murder. Newspaper accounts of his death credit the English soldiers who killed him with a battle victory. 

Although Father Rale’s personal writings are held in high esteem, the English historians who reported on his life wrote unfavorably about him. On the other hand, several New England writers like Jonathan Greeleaf in 1821 and Mary Calvert in 1991 helped to rescue his image. 

Advocates claim Father Rale’s sanctity is measured by the recognition of his life and death. Most important is how the native Maine Indians continue to revere his life and mark the anniversary of his death in 1724. After his death, the Indians preserved his worn and patched Jesuit cassock as a religious relic.

Proponents of a sainthood petition require the memory of a holy person to be held in high esteem, as demonstrated by customary rituals or distinct recognition. For example, it is important to know how the Indians venerate and mark Father Rale’s grave. In fact, in 1833, an imposing granite monument was built over his grave in Madison, ME. Also, Father Rale is memorialized in his homeland, at the place where he was baptized on January 28, 1652, in the Church of St. Benigne in Pontalier, France. 

History scholars at Holy Cross College confidently claim there is enough cumulative evidence to prove Father Sebastian Rale was "a man of exalted piety and sanctity" and is therefore worthy of beatification, the first step toward formal sainthood.

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Published on August 12, 1999
Copyright 1999-2000, Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine and Juliana L'Heureux