Jean Francois St. Cosme: Missionary and Martyr

Author: James M. Gallen


James M. Gallen

Throughout the Christian Era, zeal for the spread of the gospel has been one of the major forces promoting the expansion of Western culture. Similar to the story of the Spanish missionaries of the Southwestern United States is the story of the French missionaries in the central part of the United States in the Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Centuries. Prominent among these missionaries was Rev. Jean Francois Buisson de St. Cosme, the first native North American missionary to be killed while caring out his ministry.

Father St. Cosme was born on January 30, 1667 at Lauson, Quebec, son of Michel Buisson and Suzanne Delicerasse. His grandfather, Florent Buisson, had been born in Saint-Cosme-de-Vair (department of Sarthe) in France. The place name was often used as part of the family’s surname and, eventually it became his last name. Jean Baptiste adopted the name of St. Cosme, probably to distinguish himself from his second cousin, an older Rev. Jean Baptiste Buisson who served as a faculty member at the Seminary of Quebec.

Father St. Cosme entered the Minor Seminary of Quebec at the age of eight. In 1690 Jean Francois was ordained to the priesthood. Service to the Church was common in his family. His parents had administered the farm of the Seminary of Quebec on Ile Jesus. His younger brother, Michel, followed him into the priesthood and the missions while two sisters became nuns in Quebec.

Father St. Cosme’s first assignment was as cure for the parish of Les Mines (Grand Pre) in Acadia from 1692 to 1698. During his tenure, he, and many other priests, were accused of unjustified interference in temporal affairs. This problem was resolved when Father St. Cosme was chosen to serve in the missions in the Mississippi Valley then being supported by the Seminary of Quebec.

The Seminary of Quebec had originally been founded as a mission of the Institute for Foreign Missions of Paris for the purpose of training clergy for the missions fields in North America. In 1698 the Seminary took the initiative of sending three missionaries, including Father St. Cosme, to the Mississippi Valley. Fortunately for history, Father St. Cosme recorded one of his historic missionary journeys in a letter to the Bishop of Quebec on January 2, 1699.

On July 16, 1698 Fathers Francois de Montigny, Antoine Davion and Jean Francois St. Cosme left Quebec for Montreal. Father St. Cosme proceeded to Michilimakinac, Michigan, which he then left on September 14, 1698. He and his companions traveled overland to meet their canoe which was waiting for them at the village of the Outaouacs, which village contained about three hundred men. They left that village on September 15 with eight canoes to travel on Lake Michigan. Although the preferred route was to the south, the party was compelled to take the northern route which was less agreeable and not so well stocked with game. By the twenty-first they had traveled one hundred twenty miles from Michilimakinac. They camped at Fort Detour, Michigan. He continued his travel through Milwaukee and down the Fox River of Illinois to the Illinois River. The night before All Saints Day he was compelled to go to Chicago to spend some time with the settlers. While traveling down the Illinois, St. Cosme visited several Indian villages where the Jesuit Fathers who were preaching the gospel to the natives. He found that the mission of the Illinois Indians was the finest that the Jesuit Fathers had in the area. He reported that many of the Indians had "abandoned all their superstitions and live as thoroughly good Christians; they frequently attend the sacraments and are married in church."

St. Cosme left the Jesuit missions in a party of four canoes on November 22 after breaking the ice to get out of Lake Peoria. One day after the departure they came to the cabin of Rouenssas, "the most notable of the Illinois chiefs and a very good Christian. He received us with politeness, not of a savage but of a well-bred Frenchman." Rouenssas was given gifts with which to establish an alliance with his tribe. The desire of each tribe with which he visited to monopolize the relationship with the missionaries led them to give St. Cosme warnings that he should go no further because of the hostile intent of the tribes further downstream. Despite urgings to the contrary, the party proceeded south, reaching the Mississippi on December 5. The Mississippi was described as "a fine, large river flowing from the north. It divides into several channels at the spot where the River of the Illinois falls into it, forming very beautiful islands." On December 6 they came to the junction of the Mississippi with the Missouri "which flows from the west, and is so muddy that it dirties the waters of the Mississippi, which until they meet that river are very clear." They camped with the Kaouchias who did not seem to be so evil intentioned or so wicked as some Illinois savages had sought to have them believe. On December 6, St. Cosme and his party reached the village of the Tamarois, a spot which would earn him a lasting place in the history of the evangelization of North America. On the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1698, St. Cosme said the first mass at what would become the mission of Sainte-Famille. After celebrating mass, St. Cosme and his party left the Tamarois on the afternoon of the eighth. Traveling down river, he mentions landmarks believed to be in Perry County, Missouri. He relates the passage of a rock about one hundred feet high which was said to create dangerous whirlpools during high water. This feature is now known as Tower Rock, and, on occasion, by other names, including Rock of St. Cosme. In keeping with the natives’ custom of offering sacrifice after a successful passage of the rock, St. Cosme and his party ascended the rock and planted "a fine cross on it, chanting the hymn Vexilla Regis, while our people fired three discharges from their guns." He expressed the wish that "God grant that the Cross, that has never been known in this place, may triumph here, and that our Lord may abundantly spread the merits of His Holy Passion, so that all these savages may know and serve him." While passing a some rivers, St. Cosme relates that nothing unusual happened except that they "killed a certain bird almost as large as a swan, with a beak about a foot long and a throat of extraordinary size. Some are said to have throats large enough to hold a bushel of corn. Although the French called this a Chictek, it is now known as a pelican. On December 24 they camped early, south of the present city of Memphis, in order to prepare for the celebration of Christmas. Despite the riggers of the wilderness, the Savior’s birth was properly observed. "We erected a small chapel and chanted a high mass at midnight, at which all our French performed their devotions. Christmas Day was spent in saying our masses, all of which were attended by our people, and in the afternoon we chanted vespers" The now famous New Madrid fault made its presence known when "We were greatly surprised to see the earth tremble about one o’clock in the afternoon, and though the earthquake did not last long it was severe enough and was easily felt by everybody."

On the feast of St. John, December 27, the party reached a village of the Arkansas tribe. Although greeted with affection, the surroundings were depressing. The village had recently suffered a smallpox epidemic which had carried off many of the inhabitants. Although the party tired of the ceremony, they endured it rather than run the risk of being "deemed evil- hearted or as harboring wicked designs." They then visited various other villages which gave the appearances of having suffered less from disease. As St. Cosme and his party were heading further down river, he was forced to write a narrative on January 2 which was then carried north by other travelers.

Disheartened by the state of the Arkansas villages, St. Cosme returned to the Tamaroas at Cahokia in April, 1699. He established the mission of Sainte- Famille, which is now recognized as the founding of the settlement of Cahokia, Illinois. The intention was that the mission would provide a link between the seminary in Quebec and the missions farther down river. The church had barely been completed in May when a challenge to St. Cosme’s ministry arrived in the person of Father Julien Bineteau. The arrival of Father Bineteau brought to the fore the rivalry between the Jesuits and the Missionaries of Seminary of Quebec in the Illinois country. The Jesuits claimed the right to establish the mission among the Tamaroas due to the establishment of missions at a village about two hundred twenty miles away and the "flying missions" which they had conducted when the Tamaroas came to the Jesuit outpost of Pimitoui or during seasonal migrations. The Jesuits challenged the validity of the commission of Bishop Saint-Vallier to the directors of the Seminary of Quebec to establish a mission among the Tamaroas. Father Bineteau actively interfered with the mission of Father St. Cosme, attempting to prevent him from learning the native languages. Jesuit Father Jacques Gravier forbade St. Cosme to continue his ministry to either the natives or the French. When Father Marc Bergier arrived at Sainte-Famille, Saint Cosme pursued his mission further down river, leaving Cahokia for good in July, 1700. He replaced Father de Montigny among the Natchez, becoming the first French settler in the area of Natchez. From there on, Saint-Cosme’s mission met with little success. His poor facility for learning their languages and the low density of population were formidible obstacles. It may also be that, by this time, he had formed a low opinion of his charges. In letters he called for servants "capable of standing up to the most wicked Indian" and observed that "it is awkward for a missionary to have to punch an Indian." St. Cosme’s mission ended during a trip down the Mississippi toward Mobile in late 1706. In the vicinity of what is now Donaldsonville, Louisiana, St. Cosme and his three companions were shot to death by arrows for the Chitimacha Indians. Father St. Cosme thus became the first North American native priest to be killed in the mission fields.

An assessment of the career of Jean Francois St. Cosme requires a balancing of heroic effort versus meager achievement. Through eight years of toil among dispersed and devastated tribes amid sparse French settlement, baptisms were few and his inability to establish himself at a thriving mission had to have been a disappointment. The martyr’s crown won in a barrage of arrows seemed to be an ignominious conclusion to a lackluster career. But, like the Savior whom he served, he had planted a mustard seed which would grow into something which would last and secure his place in history. St. Cosme’s mission of Sainte-Famille is now known as Holy Family Parish of Cahokia, Illinois, the oldest continuously active parish in the United States. As the people of Holy Family celebrate their parish’s Tricentennial in 1999, the memory of Father Jean Francois St. Cosme will be a part of that celebration, a distinguished legacy for this humble servant of God.

[The author, James M. Gallen, is an attorney practicing in St. Louis, Missouri and is a second cousin, nine times removed of Father St. Cosme.]