Father Marquette’s Heroic Virtue

In the December, 1984, issue of American Heritage magazine, historical novelist Walter D. Edmonds wrote that he wished he had been present on 18 May, 1675, when Father Jacques Marquette, S. J., breathed his last. Edmonds (1903-1998) had an eye for the dramatic moment: In 1936 he secured his literary reputation with Drums along the Mohawk, a novel that sold almost as many copies as that year’s runaway best-seller, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Like her novel of the American Civil War, Edmonds’, about the American Revolution, became in 1939 a major motion picture, in this case one that was directed by John Ford and that starred Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert.

As Edmonds noted, at the time of his death Marquette had been working as a missionary among the Indians of what is now Michigan, and on Easter Sunday of 1675, he had celebrated Mass with some five thousand of them present. Not all those assembled were Christian, but all held the priest in high regard, even reverence. All knew that the austere, balding young man (he was thirty-seven), so selfless and brave, was gravely ill.

When Marquette died, another Frenchman followed Marquette’s final instructions and rang a hand bell. “I wish I might have been there,” Edmonds wrote, “to hear those small and lonely notes.” To his way of thinking, the ringing of that bell “marked the end of the most spiritual and also down-to-earth of all the Jesuit missionaries,” and all can agree that those words aptly describe Marquette, although one hopes they applied to others as well.
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