Le Martyr Imaginaire: Illness and Theatre in the Career of Gabriel Breynat, Bishop of the Mackenzie, 1901-1926
Keywords:Catholic missions, Mackenzie Vicariate, Grey Nuns, Oblates of Mary Immaculate, neurasthenia, hypochondriasis, hydrotherapy, rest therapy, concepts of the North, illness as metaphor, medicine and mission
AbstractGabriel Breynat, Catholic bishop of the Mackenzie from 1901, claimed chronic illness due to the harsh task of evangelizing “the ends of the earth,” though he did not see the arctic coast for decades. Endless symptoms, combined with a grim “idea of north” among Vatican figures, fed the perception of his near-martyrdom to the cold. To play this to advantage, Breynat benefited from the emergence of neurasthenia as popular diagnosis, of rest as treatment, of intense medicalization of hydrotherapy in France, of the need for heroes in that country, and of Rome’s renewed interest in missions. Throughout, the role of suffering “bishop of the Pole” raised his status, brought support for good works, and made staff (nuns, priests, and brothers) work increasingly hard. While he sought health in far-off spas and wealthy widows’ homes, they struggled to effect his plans, including a hospital for Inuit to mark his reign’s silver anniversary. Western medicine, it turned out, seldom helped gain souls, yet its constructs can be key to grasping the white side of missions—both on site and at the heart of the church.
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