My four-legged companion, Guapo, gazes at the passing countryside with a contented expression. I, on the other hand, am caught up in complicated rumination.
We have just passed a sign for Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and my thoughts are engaged in untangling the story of the founder of Cape Girardeau, a French fur trapper named Pierre Loramie.
Unknown to most Americans, including history buffs, Loramie played a significant role in the French and Indian Wars and, toward the end of his life, provided critical information for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. But his significance in my personal history goes much deeper.
Prior to his life on the Mississippi, Loramie roamed the wilderness of present-day Ohio. My hometown, Fort Loramie, was the site of an early trading post of his.
Just inside the door of our church, a small silver cross rested in a display case. In the 1800’s, this cross had been found by farmers in the roots of a tree toppled by a storm. For many years, children in the parish were taught that the cross had belonged to a Jesuit priest named Pierre Loramie who had come from Quebec to evangelize the Native Americans.
As a boy, I was thrilled by this story. Inspired by the heroic faith of the North American martyrs, my chest swelled with pride at the very thought of it. But the story proved to be false. At some point in my adolescence, I learned that Pierre Loramie had married a native woman and fathered eight children. At that point, Loramie’s reputation toppled, like the tree beneath which his cross had been discarded. Instead of a courageous missionary, my town had been named for a defector!
The sign to Cape Girardeau revives my dismay. I glance at Guapo who, at this point, has crawled to the floorboard of the truck to escape the glare of the sun. Lowering the sun visor above my head, I recall the glare with which I stared at the closing scene of the movie, Silence, a Martin Scorcese film that dramatically reinforced my teenage disillusionment over the life of Pierre Loramie.
In the movie, a Jesuit missionary in 17th century Japan is apprehended by government authorities. Under torture and great duress, the priest stomps on an image of Christ in order to halt the crucifixion of native Japanese Catholics. After denying his faith, he is provided a comfortable life as a lackey of the Japanese rulers. The film closes with the ex-priest’s burial in a Buddhist cemetery. Yet, in his hand, is a crucifix.
The film received critical acclaim. And why not? Its message coincides with today’s cultural milieu that equates the spread of the Gospel with genocide and Christian compassion with political oppression.
Off in the distance, I catch a glimpse of the Gateway Arch glistening in the sun. The site of it sparks memories of scenes of protesters calling for the removal of a statue of St. Louis, a monarch who wore a crown of gold yet walked barefoot in homage of the people he served.
Later that afternoon, upon arriving in my hometown, I receive an invitation to join a friend of mine for dinner. His name is Jim and he is the president of the local historical society. In the course of our conversation, he mentions that he wrote two chapters in a recent history of Ft. Loramie, Ohio, one focused on Pierre Loramie and the other on the silver cross.
I quizzed him about the connection between the two. It turns out that there was no connection at all. According to Jim, recent research has determined that Loramie was never a Catholic priest and the silver cross was simply an item lost or hidden after a British attack on the trading post.
I was stunned. And relieved. This information cleared away years of personal disappointment and reminded me that, despite wars, oppression, disease and division, the Cross of Christ is forever a symbol of hope and redemption.
From this point on, for this priest, the story of a cross once entangled in the roots of a fallen tree will elicit heartfelt thanks for the gift of faith, the faith that took root in a boy whose heroes were martyrs and whose ideals were shaped, not by cultural trends, but the historical witness of courageous saints.