Nearly all that was distinctive in the life of old Canada links itself in one way or another with the Catholic religion. From first to last in the history of New France the most pervading trait was the loyalty of its people to the church of their fathers. Intendants might come and go; governors abode their destined hour and went their way; but the apostles of the ancient faith never for one moment released their grip upon the hearts and minds of the Canadians. During two centuries the political life of the colony ran its varied rounds; the habits of the people were transformed with the coming of material prosperity: but the Church went on unchanged, unchanging. One may praise the steadfastness with which the Church fought for what its bishops believed to be right, or one may, on the other hand, decry the arrogance of its pretensions to civil power and its hampering conservatism; but as the great central fact in the history of New France, the hegemony of Catholicism cannot be ignored.

When Frenchmen began the work of founding a dominion in the New World, their own land was convulsed with religious troubles. Not only were the Huguenots breaking from the trammels of the old religion, but within the Catholic Church, itself in France there were two great contending factions. One group strove for the preservation of the Galilean liberties, the special rights of the French King and the French bishops in the ecclesiastical government of the land, while the other claimed for the Pope a supremacy over all earthly rulers in matters of spiritual concern. It was not a difference on points of doctrine, for the Galileans did not question the headship of the Papacy in things of the spirit. What they insisted upon was the circumscribed nature of the papal power in temporal matters within the realm of France, particularly with regard to the right of appointment to ecclesiastical positions with endowed revenues. Bishops, priests, and religious orders ranged themselves on one side or the other, for it was a conflict in which there could be no neutrality. As the royal authorities were heart and soul with the Galileans, it was natural enough that priests of this group should gain the first religious foothold in the colony. The earliest priests brought to the colony were members of the Recollet Order. They came with Champlain in 1615, and made their headquarters in Quebec at the suggestion of the King's secretary. For ten years they labored in the colony, striving bravely to clear the way for a great missionary crusade.

But the day of the Recollets in New France was not long. In 1625 came the advance guard of another religious order, the militant Jesuits, bringing with them their traditions of unwavering loyalty to the Ultramontane cause. The work of the Recollets had, on the whole, been disappointing, for their numbers and their resources proved too small for effective progress. During ten years of devoted labor they had scarcely been able to make any impression upon the great wilderness of heathenism that lay on all sides. In view of the apparent futility of their efforts, the coming of the Jesuits - suggested, it may be, by Champlain - was probably not unwelcome to them. Richelieu, moreover, had now brought his Ultramontane sympathies close to the seat of royal power, so that the King no longer was in a position to oppose the project. At any rate the Jesuits sailed for Canada, and their arrival forms a notable landmark in the history of the colony. Their dogged zeal and iron persistence carried them to points which missionaries of no other religious order would have reached. For the Jesuits were, above all things else, the harbingers of a militant faith. Their organization and their methods admirably fitted them to be the pioneers of the Cross in new lands. They were men of action, seeking to win their crown of glory and their reward through intense physical and spiritual exertions, not through long seasons of prayer and meditation in cloistered seclusion. Loyola, the founder of the Order, gave to the world the nucleus of a crusading host, disciplined as no army ever was. If the Jesuits could not achieve the spiritual conquest of the New World, it was certain that no others could. And this conquest they did achieve. The whole course of Catholic missionary effort throughout the Western Hemisphere was shaped by members of the Jesuit Order.