When Amy’s parents came over for a visit recently, we took the opportunity to do something relatively touristy and drove a few hours north to Midland and the historic sites of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons and the Martyr’s Shrine. Sainte-Marie among the Hurons was established in 1639 by French Jesuits, making it the first permanent European settlement in what is now Ontario. It would last about ten years before increasing warfare with the First Peoples forced its abandonment, and the retreating inhabitants burned it down rather than see it fall into enemy hands. The site was then forgotten about for a few hundred years, excavated in the mid-nineteenth- and mid-twentieth centuries, and reconstructed in the 1960s as a historical site and living museum.
We rolled up in the late morning, having paused somewhere north of Toronto for the audaciously-named “World’s Best Butter Tarts” at a combination bakery/estate agent/souvenir store. The site was quite a lot larger than I’d pictured it, a grassy enclosure dotted with large buildings and exuding a air of general industriousness. Wandering around, we came across a settler (unsuccessfully) demonstrating how to make fire the local way with a fire bow, a smith using a wood-fired forge to make iron nails and a baker in a stupendously hot house finishing off some corn bread (wheat would have been paddled in from Québec, and hence would have been in very short supply). The whole enterprise spoke of self-sufficiency, community and hardship in what at the time would have been a near-wilderness.
The Martyr’s Shrine next door was constructed in 1926 to commemorate the Jesuits who died at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, and enjoys spectacular views over Georgian Bay. The interior of the church is constructed to look like a birch-bark canoe, which, as the principal means of transport in the region, would have held immense significance to the settlers and native peoples alike. Statues of various saints, holy people and significant events in the life of Jesus are scattered around the grounds, including a representation of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first native North American to be beatified in the Roman Catholic Church. We shared the site with hordes of tourists/pilgrims from all over the world; remarkable for a relatively small site.