Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
A Missionary Priest
By Charles Étienne Arthur Gayarré (18051895)
[Born in New Orleans, La., 1805. Died there, 1895. From History of Louisiana. 1854.Enlarged Edition. 1866.]
FATHER DAVION had resided for some time with the Tunicas, where he had made himself so popular, that, on the death of their chief, they had elected him to fill his place. The priest humbly declined the honor, giving for his reasons, that his new duties as their chief would be incompatible with those of his sacred ministry. Yet the Tunicas, who loved and venerated him as a man, were loth to abandon their old creed to adopt the Christian faith, and they turned a deaf ear to his admonitions. One day the missionary, incensed at their obstinate perseverance in idolatry, and wishing to demonstrate that their idols were too powerless to punish any offence aimed at them, burned their temple, and broke to pieces the rudely carved figures which were the objects of the peculiar adoration of that tribe. The Indians were so much attached to Father Davion, that they contented themselves with expelling him, and he retired on the territory of the Yazoos, who proved themselves readier proselytes, and became converts in a short time. This means that they adopted some of the outward signs of Christianity, without understanding or appreciating its dogmas.
Proud of his achievements, Father Davion had, with such aid as he could command, constructed and hung up a pulpit to the trunk of an immense oak, in the same manner that it is stuck to a pillar in the Catholic churches. Back of that tree, growing on the slight hill which commanded the river, he had raised a little Gothic chapel, the front part of which was divided by the robust trunk to which it was made to adhere, with two diminutive doors opening into the edifice, on either side of that vegetal tower. It was done in imitation of those stone towers, which stand like sentinels wedged to the frontispiece of the temples of God, on the continent of Europe. In that chapel Father Davion kept all the sacred vases, the holy water, and the sacerdotal habiliments. There he used to retire to spend hours in meditation and in prayer. In that tabernacle was a small portable altar, which, whenever he said mass for the natives, was transported outside, under the oak, where they often met to the number of three to four hundred. What a beautiful subject for painting! The majesty of the riverthe glowing richness of the land in its virgin lovelinessthe Gothic chapelthe pulpit which looked as if it had grown out of the holy oakthe hoary-headed priest, speaking with a sincerity of conviction, an impressiveness of manner, and a radiancy of countenance worthy of an apostlethe motley crowd of the Indians, listening attentively, some with awe, others with meek submission, a few with a sneering incredulity, which, as the evangelical man went on, seemed gradually to vanish from their strongly marked featuresin the background, a group of their juggling prophets, or conjurers, scowling with fierceness at the minister of truth, who was destroying their power; would not all these elements, where the grandeur of the scenery would be combined with the acting of man and the development of his feelings, on an occasion of the most solemn nature, produce in the hands of a Salvator Rosa, or of a Pouissin, the most striking effects?
Father Davion had acquired a perfect knowledge of the dialect of his neophytes, and spoke it with as much fluency as his own maternal tongue. He had both the physical and mental qualifications of an orator: he was tall and commanding in stature; his high receding forehead was well set off by his long, flowing, gray hairs, curling clown to his shoulders; his face was sicklied over with the pale cast of thought; vigils and fasting had so emaciated his form that he seemed almost to be dissolved into spirituality. There was in his eyes a soft, blue, limpid transparency of look, which seemed to be a reflection from the celestial vault; yet that eye, so calm, so benignant, could be lighted up with all the coruscations of pious wrath and indignation, when, in the pulpit, he vituperated his congregation for some act of cruelty or deceit, and threatened them with eternal punishment. First, he would remind them, with apostolic unction, with a voice as bland as the evening breeze, of the many benefits which the Great Spirit had showered upon them, and of the many more which he had in store for the red men, if they adhered strictly to his law. When he thus spoke, the sunshine of his serene, intellectual countenance would steal over his hearers, and their faces would express the wild delight which they felt. But, anon, when the holy father recollected the many and daily transgressions of his unruly children, a dark hue would, by degrees, creep over the radiancy of his face, as if a storm was gathering, and clouds after clouds were chasing each other over the mirror of his soul. Out of the inmost recesses of his heart, there arose a whirlwind which shook the holy man in its struggle to rush out; then would flash the lightning of the eye; then the voice, so soft, so insinuating, and even so caressing, would assume tones that sounded like repeated peals of thunder; and a perfect tempest of eloquence would he pour forth upon his dismayed auditory, who crossed themselves, crouched to the earth and howled piteously, demanding pardon for their sins. Then, the ghostly orator, relenting at the sight of so much contrition, would descend like Moses from his Mount Sinai, laying aside the angry elements in which he had robed himself, as if he had come to preside over the last judgment; and with the gentleness of a lamb, he would walk among his prostrate auditors, raising them from the ground, pressing them to his bosom, and comforting them with such sweet accents as a mother uses to lull her first-born to sleep. It was a spectacle touching in the extreme, and angelically pure!
Father Davion lived to a very old age, still commanding the awe and affection of his flock, by whom he was looked upon as a supernatural being. Had they not, they said, frequently seen him at night, with his dark, solemn gown, not walking, but gliding through the woods, like something spiritual? How could one, so weak in frame, and using so little food, stand so many fatigues? How was it, that whenever one of them fell sick, however distant it might be, Father Davion knew it instantly, and was sure to be there before sought for? Who had given him the information? Who told him whenever they committed any secret sin? None; and yet he knew it. Did any of his prophecies ever prove false? By what means did he arrive at so much knowledge about everything? Did they not, one day, when he kneeled, as usual, in solitary prayer, under the holy oak, see, from the respectful distance at which they stood, a ray of the sun piercing the thick foliage of the tree, cast its lambent flame around his temples, and wreath itself into a crown of glory, encircling his snow-white hair? What was it he was in the habit of muttering so long, when counting the beads of that mysterious chain that hung round his neck? Was he not then telling the Great Spirit every wrong they had done? So, they both loved and feared Father Davion. One day they found him dead at the foot of the altar; he was leaning against it, with his head cast back, with his hands clasped, and still retaining his kneeling position. There was an expression of rapture in his face, as if to his sight the gates of paradise had suddenly unfolded themselves to give him admittance: it was evident that his soul had exhaled into a prayer, the last on this earth, but terminating, no doubt, in a hymn of rejoicing above.
Long after Davions death, mothers of the Yazoo tribe used to carry their children to the place where he loved to administer the sacrament of baptism. There these simple creatures, with many ceremonies of a wild nature, partaking of their new Christian faith and of their old lingering Indian superstitions, invoked and called down the benedictions of Father Davion upon themselves and their families. For many years that spot was designated under the name of Davions Bluff. In recent times Fort Adams was constructed where Davions chapel formerly stood, and was the cause of the place being more currently known under a different appellation.