Ontario's First Mass
The Great Lodge is located in Huronia, a geographical region named after its original peoples, the Huron-Wendat. A short drive from The Great Lodge will lead you to Lafontaine, a small town with historic and enduring ties to Ontario’s French Catholic roots. Récollet friars and missionaries of The Society of Jesus arrived in Huronia in the early 1600s, intending to convert the 30,000 Indigenous peoples living there. Father John Le Caron held Ontario’s first mass near Lafontaine in 1615, affirming the beginning of the French Catholic presence in Huronia. The Jesuits who sacrificed their lives during the 1600s in pursuit of their mission have become martyrs, still remembered and honoured today in Huronia. Huronia, and Lafontaine, has remained at the heart of Franco-Ontarian Catholic culture for over four hundred years.
The first French colonists arrived in present-day Lafontaine during 1610. In the following years a mixture of French fur traders, missionaries and soldiers occupied the area, departing by 1650 following the Huron-Iroquois war. Although the Lafontaine area would not see French colonists again until the 1830s, Franco-Ontarian history was made with Ontario’s first mass, and Canada’s first mass west of Quebec City, in 1615.
Récollet priest Father John Le Caron (1586-1632) and Samuel de Champlain (1570-1635) arrived in the Lafontaine area in 1615 during a journey through New France. Although on different canoes, both Le Caron and Champlain travelled from Quebec City to Carhagouha, a Wendat fortress nearby present day Lafontaine.
At Carhagouha on August 12th 1615 Le Caron held Ontario’s first mass, which was attended by Champlain and Étienne Brule, along with two dozen Frenchmen and several members of the Wendat nation. Singing a Latin monastic chant called Te Deum, Le Caron’s mass marked the beginning of Lafontaine’s Franco-Ontarian culture. Carhagouha became the mission of Le Caron from 1615-1616, and was named St. Joseph by the French missionaries. Both Champlain and Le Caron lived at Carhagouha for the winter after the historic August 12th mass; while Le Caron wrote a French-Wendat dictionary, Champlain hunted and fought the Iroquois with the Wendat. After continuing on his New France journey, Le Caron would not return to Carhagouha until 1623.
Although the site of Le Caron’s mass is now marked by a large cross, the Ontario Archaeological Society points out that no archaeological evidence has been found to indicate Carhagouha, a village with a palisade, was located there. While several scholars have tried to decode Carhagouha’s location through analyzing Champlain’s maps and notes, no conclusion has been reached. Although burial sites in the area indicate a historic Indigenous presence, the precise location of Carhagouha and Ontario’s first mass remains a mystery.
Today, the Franco-Ontarian Catholic tradition has continued in Lafontaine. Lafontaine holds an annual mass at Carhagouha to commemorate Le Caron’s historic first Ontarian mass, and honoured Le Caron’s mass in 2000 by installing a stain glass triptych in the parish of Sainte-Croix. On August 12th 2015 the 400th anniversary of the 1615 mass was celebrated with a mass at Carhagouha lead by Father Justin Desroches. The impact of Le Caron’s 1615 mass on Lafontaine and its French Catholic roots has stood the test of time.