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Paul Le Jeune

Paul Le Jeune (1591-1664) was a French Jesuit missionary in French Canada.



Le Jeune was born in Vitry-le-François in the region of Champagne, France in 1591. Le Jeune received a thorough preparation for the Jesuit priesthood; he was a novice for two years between 1613 and 1615, and he was deeply influenced by his mentor Father Massé, whom he met at the collège Henri IV de La Flèche. During his studies, Le Jeune developed a keen interest in missions and became convinced that education was a key element in any successful attempt to spread Christianity.

In 1624, Le Jeune was ordained, and in 1631 he was named superior of the Jesuit mission in Canada. It was then that he journeyed to Quebec and began his religious and educational work in the colony. Le Jeune remained the superior of the Jesuit mission until 1639 when he was replaced by Father Barthélemy Vimont, but he did not return to France until 1649. Upon his return, he served as the mission procurator of New France until 1662, only two years before his death.

Teaching among Native Americans

The Jesuits not only sought to convert others to Roman Catholicism, they believed that the role of the intellect could hardly be over-stated. For this reason, they sought to learn languages of native peoples and to teach them both vernacular European languages and the Latin of the Catholic Church. Le Jeune was no exception to this; he spent many years traveling and teaching throughout New France.

Perhaps best known for his work with the Native American population, Le Jeune displayed an eagerness for learning various Native American languages. Among his most well-documented experiences are his travels during the winter of 1633-1634 among the Montagnais. While his work during those six months did not result in mass conversions as he had hoped, his ethnographic account of the Montagnais and his personal anecdotes about the cold, hunger, and conflicts he encountered are recorded in Relations des Jésuites de la Nouvelle-France of 1634. This is perhaps the most famous of what are commonly known as the Jesuit Relations, which were published in Paris throughout most of the seventeenth century.

Le Jeune, along with other members of the Jesuit order, were crucial to the colonization of the St. Lawrence Valley. These highly educated Europeans were initially shocked by the egalitarianism and openness of the Hurons and Montagnais they encountered; to the Jesuits, this lack of evident hierarchy seemed chaotic at best. In order to spread cultural and religious values, the Jesuits adopted a militaristic pedagogy which sought to: discredit the traditional shamans, who were generally viewed as the teachers and priests within the Native American communities; to end the nomadic way of life in order to found European institutions such as schools, seminaries, and churches; to establish the supremacy of the written word over oral history.

Several factors contributed to the eventual dominance of the Jesuit philosophy in the region. Shamans were viewed with disdain and distrust when they could not treat or prevent the spread of disease or successfully predict eclipses as their Jesuit opponents could. Since the Native Americans had no knowledge of the various disputes over theology that were so divisive throughout Europe, within only a few decades the Jesuits were able to portray the written word as unchanging and solid, unlike the fluidity of oral discourse. Le Jeune felt, though, that the key to success was in establishing permanent settlements with fixed, Church-dominated institutions. While priests did attempt to teach children initially, Le Jeune recognized that without the cooperation of the adult community, any efforts to reach children would be doomed to failure. For this reason, Le Jeune and his comrades engaged in debates with shamans, staged public plays in order to impart Catholic teachings, and sought to spread their cultural, intellectual, and religious beliefs throughout the entire community.

Work with African slaves

Le Jeune and his contemporaries did not limit their efforts in conversions and education to Native Americans. While there were fewer slaves in the French colonies than in the English and Spanish ones, Le Jeune's interactions with African slaves in Quebec set a key precedent that would inspire later generations of priests, teachers, activists, and abolitionists. Despite their imperialistic tendencies, Jesuit dogma viewed all people as equal before God and as having equal need for salvation. Thus, it was incumbent on the Church to provide for the intellectual and spiritual well-being of slaves.

Le Jeune himself adopted a very direct approach to this issue. As early as 1634, Le Jeune expressed enthusiasm because he found himself teaching African children the alphabet, and in Volume V of The Jesuit Relations he emphasized the need for Africans to gain sufficient learning and literacy so that they could demonstrate enough of an understanding of Catholic dogma to secure the rite of baptism.

Since Jesuits consistently emphasized the role of the intellect, it is logical that they advocated education for slaves throughout the colonies. Most of the priests' work was with slave children; unlike adults, they were granted time away from their masters for basic schooling, and since so much cultural disruption had already taken place, slave parents were not generally viewed as opponents to education in the same way that Native American parents were.

In their work with the children of colonists, slaves, and Native Americans, Le Jeune and his fellow Jesuits used the same sort of materials, such as a primer or hornbook that were used throughout the North American colonies. These materials transmitted traditional European cultural and religious beliefs while they encouraged literacy. Teaching the catechism, biblical passages, and religious stories was, the Jesuits believed, the primary role of literacy in New France.

Long-term implications

The writings and experiences of Le Jeune and his fellow Jesuits are reflected in the Code Noir passed by France's King Louis XIV in 1685. This document outlined the rights of both slaves and their masters throughout the French colonies and notably advocated that slaves gain enough education that they would understand and embrace Catholicism. In fact, slave masters were required to offer access to baptism.

Le Jeune’s influence was not limited to Canadian territories or seventeenth century Jesuits; when the French settled Louisiana, there was a clear sense that literacy and religion were interconnected. Even after Louisiana became part of the United States, Catholic priests and laypersons continued to advocate for slave literacy. Indeed, the lack of formal education for slaves became a key factor in the Catholic Church’s later support of Abolitionism.


  • Le Code Noir ou recueil des reglements rendus jusqu'a present (Paris: Prault, 1767) [1980 reprd. by the Societé, d'Histoire de la Guadeloupe]. Translated by John Garrigus.
  • Skallerup, Lee. 2006. The Jesuit Relations. Retrieved October 13, 2007, from
  • Welton, Michael. (2005). "Cunning Pedagogies: The Encounter between the Jesuit Missionaries and Amerindians in 17th century New France," In Adult Education Quarterly 55. pp. 101-116.
  • Woodson, C.G. (1915). The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861: A History of the Education of Colored People from the Beginning of Slavery Until the Civil War. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.

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