Father Hennepin: Priest, missionary and explorer

| Father Michael Van Sloun | June 8, 2011 | 6 Comments

Hennepin is a name of great importance in Minnesota. Hennepin County is the most populous county. Hennepin Avenue is a major thoroughfare in Minneapolis.  Father Hen­ne­pin State Park is on the south shore of Lake Mille Lacs near Isle. And, the City of Champlin celebrates Father Hennepin Days the second week­end of June every year.

But Hennepin is more than a name in Minnesota’s rich heritage; it is also the name of a Catholic priest who was both a missionary and an explorer.

Father Louis Hennepin was a Franciscan priest.  He was born on May 12, 1626, in Ath, Belgium, a short distance from Brussels, and died in Rome in 1701. His baptismal name was Anthony, and he took Louis as his name for religious life.

Young Hennepin was drawn to a rigorous ascetical life of virtue and simplicity. He entered the novitiate of the Recollect, a strict Franciscan community in Bethune, France, that emphasized the vow of poverty and practiced a spirituality of austerity. Sometime later he made his profession of religious vows and was ordained a priest.

Traveler’s disposition

Father Hennepin was inspired by the missionaries of his community and had a natural inclination to travel. His first journeys were to Franciscan monasteries and churches, first in Italy, then in Germany.

Upon his return, his superior opposed his desire to venture forth and insisted that he serve locally as preacher for a year. Upon completion, Father Hennepin was allowed to move to Artois, France, and then Calais, where he listened intently to the accounts of sailors and foreign missionaries who had braved the perils of the high seas.

Father Hennepin’s vocation as a missionary began when he was sent to Holland in 1673. He traveled from town to town during a war between the French and the Spanish and administered the sacraments to thousands of wounded soldiers. He himself became deathly ill, and almost succumbed to spotted fever and dysentery. Upon his recovery, his dream to be a missionary to the New World was realized.

King Louis XIV of France asked the Franciscan Recollect to send missionaries to New France. At the age of 39, Father Hennepin was chosen to be a member of an expedition led by Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. The priest set sail on July 14, 1675, for a voyage across the Atlantic, during which he survived the attacks of pirates, and arrived in Quebec in September.

Father Hennepin spent the next four years as a monk in the monastery of St. Augustine and a chaplain at a local hospital. He also prepared himself for the next phase of his westward missionary journey with prayer; local outings by canoe, snowshoe and dog sled; and an intense study of Native American language, art and customs.

At the direction of his Franciscan superiors, Father Hennepin joined a westward expedition led by La Salle.  They set sail from Fort Frontenac on the northeast corner of Lake Ontario on Aug. 7, 1679, in their ship, Le Griffon.

Their voyage went across Lake Erie, up the Detroit River, through Lake St. Clair, up Lake Huron, past St. Ignace, across Lake Michigan to Green Bay. The expedition went inland from the St. Joseph River to the Kankakee to the Illinois to the Mississippi. La Salle decided to return to Quebec, but before he left he urged Hennepin to go up the Mississippi on a journey of discovery.

Father Hennepin and his two companions ascended the mighty river in 1680. The precise details of his exploits vary. Some historians believe the group was captured by local Indians and held as prisoners for up to two years somewhere near Minnetonka. Others believe they went north, crossed the Mississippi near present-day Champlin, and proceeded to the south side of Lake Mille Lacs, where they were captured by Sioux Indians.

Hennepin and his companions were forced to accompany the Indians on their travels. On one excursion they came upon a waterfall nearly 60 feet  high in what is present-day Minneapolis. Hennepin named them “St. Anthony Falls” after his baptismal patron, St. Anthony of Padua, and blessed the falls.

On another outing later in 1680, their entourage happened upon the famous French explorer Daniel Graysolon Du Lhut, who persuaded the Sioux to release Father Hennepin and his companions to join him. They eventually headed back to Montreal and Quebec.

In 1681 Father Hennepin sailed back to Europe, and during his last 20 years he wrote at least three books in French with in-depth accounts of his travels. He moved to a monastery in Rome, where he prepared for another missionary journey to the New World, but he died in 1701 before he could make the trip.

Father Michael Van Sloun is pastor of St. Stephen in Anoka.

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