#73 - THE FIRST MASS IN CANADA CELEBRATED ON THE SOUTH SHORE OF NOVA SCOTIA

Yarmouth Vanguard, Tuesday, May 22, 1990

According to a tradition, the first Mass ever said in Nova Scotia and even in Canada would have taken place on a flat rock near Port La Tour Harbour. An article which came out in the Maclean's Magazine, October 1, 1937, under the title "Nova Scotia - First Catholic Mass," by Sara Knowles Doane, reads: "It was in the year 1604, when Champlain, in company with De Monts, was seeking a suitable site for settlement in Acadia. Leaving De Monts at Liverpool (sic) Champlain sailed on, following the coast line, carefully noting the topographical features of the land, and recording all that he saw of interest. Coming into the harbor of Port La Tour on a Sunday, they disembarked upon a flat rock near good anchorage, and the priest of the company said mass for all those of their faith."

The old people of Pubnico used to say that the first Mass was celebrated on one of the islands called "The Salvages," at about a mile east of Blanche Island, which in years past formed a unit, it seems. The two largest islands, which may be classified also as rocks, are known to the fishermen as the two "Half-Moons." According to tradition, the first Mass would have been said on the larger of the two, the one farther south, which, at low tide, emerges ten feet above sea level. The same old people used to say that this Mass had been celebrated after Champlain and the people who were with him, on their way to Cap-Fourchu and Saint Mary's Bay, had left Liverpool (although they were coming from La Have). It is obvious that the English-speaking people of Port La Tour and vicinity held this tradition from these ancient Acadians of Pubnico who had come back from exile, they themselves holding it from their ancestors.

Let me say, first, that it is hardly probable that either of the two Catholic priests who accompanied De Monts in his voyage to Acadia took part in Champlain's expedition of May-June, and also that Champlain was not in the Cape Sable region on a Sunday, but on a Wednesday, May 19, 1604. Around the middle of June, after Champoain came back from his excursion up to Saint Mary's Bay, when everybody definitely left Port Mouton for the Bay of Fundy, the two priests left also. If De Monts and the rest of his people had stopped in the Cape Sable region for the priests to say Mass, we may be sure that Champlain would have recorded it in his account. But he says simply: "Coasting the shore, we passed close to Cape Sable and to the Seal Islands.

Be what it may, it is just as improbable that the first Mass was celebrated on this occasion on the rock mentioned above, as it is probable that it was celebrated first on the East Coast of Acadia, in the region where De Monts effected his landings, at La Have and at Port Mouton.

It goes without saying that the Mass was celebrated also on Saint Croix Island, in the State of Maine, in the Saint Croix River, which separates New Brunswick from Maine, where the group spent the winter of 1604-5. On September 30, 1971, a memorial stone and plaque were erected at Red Beach, on the American shore, facing Saint Croix Island, which reads: "On this site was celebrated the first recorded (sic) Holy Sacrifice of the Mass within the present limits of the State of Maine - June 26 - 1604 - erected by Maine State Council Knights of Columbus 1971." We can be sure that the two Catholic priests who spent a number of months on Saint Croix Island at the time said Mass often, although it has never been recorded anywhere in so many words.

It is to be noted that we do not take into account here what could have taken place around the year 1000 and even before that time.

When Jean de Poutrincourt, mentioned in sketch No. 70, came back to Acadia in the spring of 1610, the historian Marc Lescarbot says that on May 20, Father Jesse Fleche, who was accompanying him, said Mass not far from Pentagoet (Penobscot, Maine) "in view of the Island to which was given the name of 'the Ascension'," as that year the feast of the Ascension fell on the 20th of May. Note that later on all this region, up to at least Pentagoet, was to be included in the territory of Acadia. See again sketch No.70 where I say that Governor Grandfontaine made of Pentagoet the Capital of Acadia.

With regard to the Acadian peninsula (Nova Scotia), the first mention of a Mass here was made the following year. Father Pierre Biard, who came over in 1611 with Poutrincourt, along with his confrere Father Enemond Masse, Jesuits, wrote May 5th to his Provincial in Paris that they had said Mass at Canso, that which is corroborated by Lescarbot.

Some say that it was not in Acadia that the first Mass was said in what is now Canada. They say that when Jacques Cartier was in the vicinity of Labrador, June 11, 1534, Mass was "heard" by his people. Others object that there is no mention anywhere that any priest ever accompanied Cartier on this expedition to Canada. Furthermore, they say that this was not a real Mass, but simply the reading or singing of the prayers of the Mass, that which was done at the time in the absence of a priest. That is why it is said that the Mass was "heard", instead of "said."

Be that as it may, in Quebec and elsewhere, the information that we have with regard to a first Mass is of a later date then those given in Acadia. A Mass is mentioned in 1615 to have been celebrated in the Huron country, now in the territory of Ontario. As to the Province of Quebec, there is mentioned a Mass as having been said on June 25, 1636, "the first Mass which has ever been said in the land." The words "in the land" (in French, "dans le pays"), cannot include Acadia. But already, the day before, June 24th, a priest had said Mass at Riviere-des-Prairies, close to Montreal, which could be the first Mass recorded as having been celebrated in what is now the Province of Quebec.

Acadia, being closer to Europe, having been the first territory to be explored in this part of the New World, it is not surprising that we find here, in Nova Scotia, so many "firsts."

HOME