Among the earliest extant Abenaki manuscripts, with provenance to the first Bishop of Boston

Unique copy of the Breviarium Cenomanense...Pars Autumnalis (Paris: Coignard and Guerin, 1748), incorporating 240 pages of manuscript liturgical material, among them 96 rendered in an Eastern Abenaki dialect.
12 mo, 6 3/8”h x 4 ¼”w. [5 blank],[1 Latin ms],3-7,[21],166,[9 Latin ms],[3 blank],[1 Abenaki ms],[blank],13 Abenaki ms,[blank],[56 Latin ms],[2 blank],14-40 Abenaki ms,[16 Latin ms],41-74 Abenaki ms,[3 Abenaki ms],[5 blank],[10 Abenaki ms],[blank],[1 Abenaki ms],[blank],[1 Abenaki ms],[blank],[3 Abenaki ms],[3 blank],[3 Abenaki ms],[14 blank],[50 Latin ms],[11 blank],[12 Latin ms],i-lxxxviii,clxxxi-cxcvii,[7 blank]. Old calf gilt. Small blank label affixed to front endpaper.

A unique volume, compiled in New England in the late 18th-early 19th century, including extensive manuscript material representing one of the earliest known fully-formed texts in the Abenaki language. With provenance to Jean-Louis Lefebvre Cheverus, the first Catholic Bishop of Boston. In all, an extraordinary artifact with tremendous research potential for the reconstruction of early Abenaki languages and for understanding the practices of the early missionaries to the native peoples of eastern Maine. Owned in partnership with HS Rare Books of Buenos Aires.

Jean-Louis Lefebvre de Cheverus (1768-1836)
For a century and a half, colonial Massachusetts remained deeply hostile to the Roman Catholic Church. Priests were prohibited from entering its borders, and by 1700 those who defied this law faced life imprisonment. The tone began to change during the Revolution, when the United States eagerly sought an alliance with Catholic France and native American communities that had been converted by French missionaries. Consequently the Massachusetts constitution of 1780 codified the right of Catholics to worship, and in 1788 the first Catholic church was opened at 24 School Street in Boston.

Further north and east, many Abenaki and other native communities of Maine had been converted to Catholicism by Father Rale and other missionaries operating out of New France. However, since the end of the French and Indian War the Abenaki had been deprived of the services of a “black robe,” as the missionaries were called. After John Carroll was appointed provisional head of the Church in the United States, the Abenaki sent a deputation requesting the services of a priest. Carroll first sent one Mssr. Ciquard, who served in Maine through 1794.

Next to come was Jean-Louis Lefebvre de Cheverus. Ordained in 1790, Chevrus fled France for London in 1792 after refusing to support the Civil Constitution of the Clergy imposed by the Revolutionary government. There, he learned enough English to earn a congregation and began ministering to French émigrés. He arrived in Boston in 1796 and began missionary work among the Maine tribes, becoming an expert on local languages before being named bishop of Boston in 1808. He remained there until 1823 when called back to France by King Louis XVIII and named Bishop of Montauban and later Bordeaux. Cheverus was popular both with his own congregation and among Boston’s Protestant elite, and when he was recalled 226 members of his flock petitioned Louis XVIII to allow him to remain.

A unique breviary compiled for missionaries to the Abenaki
Missionaries to Algonquin- (of which Abenaki is a subgroup) and Iroquoian-speaking tribes typically developed variations to the standard Roman Catholic rituals as they proselytized among the Native Americans. The so-called “Indian Mass” reduced required elements, and while the priest’s part remained in Latin, the hymns and responses from the congregants were translated into the local tongue of the Native Americans. Offered here is a Breviarium Cenomanense of 1748 bearing the ownership inscriptions of Cheverus and with extensive interleaved manuscript text in Latin and Abenaki reflecting exactly this kind of adaptation.

Breviaries typically consist of five sections: the Psalter; the Proprium de Tempore (special offices of the season); Proprium Sanctorum (special offices of saints); Commune Sanctorum (general offices for saints); and a section for Extra Services. Cheverus’ breviary is incomplete, containing only the Psalter and the Commune Sanctorum. The printed matter is supplemented however by 144 interleaved pages of manuscript in Latin in at least two hands, one possibly Cheverus’ own. These additions are themselves interleaved with 96 pages, of which 74 are continuously numbered, in an eastern Abenaki dialect closest to the predominantly Caniba (Kennebec Valley, Maine) dialect documented in the French-Abenaki lexica of Fathers Sebastian Rale (1657-1724) and Joseph Aubery (1673-1755). This Abenaki manuscript material is in a different hand and dated 1813.

A brief examination of the handwritten Latin texts preliminarily suggests that they are supplements to the main functions of a breviary: mainly additional hymns, and particularly hagiographic hymns to various saints. The Abenaki material is apparently an independent text, and not a direct translation of any of the breviary material itself. Indeed, it forms a basic vernacular liturgy for a priest serving a contemporary Abenaki congregation. Notably, it is separated twice by intervening handwritten Latin texts, but still follows its own continuous pagination, and is in a noticeably larger and different hand.

The Abenaki material employs an Eastern Abenaki base throughout the manuscript; that is, nearly all the grammatical endings remain Eastern Abenaki wherever that can be distinguished, and numerous uniquely Eastern Abenaki forms like nelaiwanganekai “into my heart” [52, 53] are found throughout. However, as it proceeds the text also introduces forms not attested in other Eastern Abenaki documentation, but distinctive to either immediately neighboring Passamaquoddy-Maliseet (kilon “we (+you)” [31], Nilon “we (-you)” [32], nohoak “three of them” [48], nemessoun “my heart”[50]) and/or to nearby Mi’kmaw (Nix(k)am “God,” pipenakan “bread” [49]).

Again, texts with these forms continue to use the core grammatical endings of Eastern Abenaki (not Passamaquoddy-Maliseet or Mi’kmaw), and often even retain the nasal vowel (written “an”) found in Eastern Abenaki but absent in the other two languages. This suggests an individual or series of liturgical authors/editors trained in (and/or targeting) an Eastern Abenaki base, but also finding reason to incorporate local vocabulary items from these related but distinct speech communities. Historical efforts to track missionary movements among these Northeastern groups during and before these texts’ creation may benefit from a close examination of this feature of their composition.

Significance of the Abenaki manuscript
The only major Eastern Abenaki documentary sources predating the Cheverus breviary are the manuscript dictionaries of Rale and Aubery. However, both are lexicons, and so connected text is recorded only through the occasional example sentences. As a collection of fully-formed liturgical texts, the present manuscript offers researchers a much richer insight into the grammatical structure of Eastern Abenaki at the time (as well as its challenges for missionary learners). The only comparable source is the Indian Good Book by Eugene Vetromile, a much later work (Vetromile was in Maine from 1854 to 1881, and his Indian Good Book was published 1856-58.) By its own admission this was largely a compilation of earlier sources; further, Vetromile’s facility in the relevant native languages has been called into question by some scholars.

This handwritten Eastern Abenaki text predates Vetromile by nearly a half-century, and appears to be the only extant copy of an intermediate edition of a work by Father Jacques René Romagné, a priest in the early 19th century to the Penobscots, among whom he was remembered over a century later as a good (if heavily accented) speaker of the language. According to the 1891 Pilling bibliography of early Algonquian-language documents, Romagné produced a prayer text known in two forms: an 1834 70pp. printing titled The Indian prayer book: compiled and arranged for the benefit of the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Tribes, itself based on an 1804 manuscript also by Romagné.

The first page of the breviary’s Abenaki section explicitly dates it to 1813 (twice, in fact—first with the numbers written out as full Abenaki words, and again with the numeral “1813”). The 1804 title page follows a nearly identical pattern, also giving the year in full Abenaki prose; but it also shows significant wording differences, especially in the 1804 title itself: Alnambay-ouli awikhigan = “Native good-book,” also copied by Vetromile 1857. These differences suggests that the Abenaki material in our breviary represents a distinct edition, perhaps reflecting the author’s evolving understanding of the language.

It is important to note that, while the 1804 manuscript is listed among the Virgil H. Barber papers archived at Georgetown University, the archivists report that due to renovation/reorganization, that specific ms. has so far not been relocated—which makes this 1813 document at present the earliest available version of this text.

Vetromile (1857:7) indicates that his compilation draws heavily from the earlier Romagné work, incorporating corrections from Vetromile’s predecessor, Rev. Edmund Demillier, and reworking substantial parts of the texts. Close comparison of the main texts (e.g. the Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Nicene Creed, inter alia) confirms this, with Vetromile’s revisions evidently sometimes correcting errors and sometimes introducing them.

As an independent and earlier recension, the breviary text makes it possible to (back)track these changes, and also helps modern linguists interpolate between each author/editor’ds often erratic representation of the same basic spoken sound system. Early liturgical texts in Eastern Abenaki preserve many crucial grammatical patterns (and unique vocabulary) that cannot be confidently recovered without access to alternative renditions of the same wordform.

The form of the text itself, then, is key to accurate documentation of these earliest recorded versions of the language. Its content is equally valuable. Unlike modern documentation, the breviary material reflects the language with its original full richness as the still- dominant local speech form. It also offers a unique window into other areas of research: to date, no in- depth direct study of the Catholic liturgy in languages of the Northeast has been made, due to both a lack of training in the languages themselves, and of access to this quality and depth of material.

Texts of this kind offer a new line of historical evidence for the details of Catholic doctrinal priorities at the time, particularly for the specific missionary authors and the orders they belonged to. They can also provide direct evidence for how the expression/translation of core Catholic theological concepts (and especially their metaphors, and newly-created framings like elnakapittawat “you who sit at the right of him” [54]) evolved over this period in a decidedly non-European language.

In sum, an extraordinary artifact with great scholarly value: both as a mid-18th-century breviary with extensive handwritten Latin hymnal material, and, through its nearly one hundred pages of Eastern Abeanki manuscript, as a substantial contribution to the quite limited set of resources for linguistic, historical, and anthropological research informed by the indigenous languages of its area and time.

The discussion of the breviary’s Abenaki content is derived, in many places verbatim, from Conor M. Quinn, “Breviarium Cenomanense: updated report” (Portland, ME, September 2016 (unpublished). The complete text of Mr. Quinn’s report can be provided on request. Sources cited in the Quinn report include:

  • Aubery, Joseph. 1995[1756]. Father Aubery’s French-Abenaki dictionary. Stephen Laurent, ed./transl. Portland, ME: Chisholm Bros.
Erickson, Vincent O. 1987. And to God speak Penobscot. In W. Cowan, ed., Papers of the 18th Algonquian Conference. Ottawa: Carleton University, 121-136.
  • Shea, John Gilmary. History of the Catholic Missions among the Indian Tribes of the United States. New York: Edward Dunigan and Brother, 1855, p. 155ff.
  • Pilling, James C. 1891. Bibliography of the Algonquian languages. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.
  • Rasles [Rale], Sébastien. 1833[1691]. A dictionary of the Abnaki language, in North America. John Pickering, ed. Cambridge, MA: C. Folsom.
  • Romagné, Jacques René. 1804. Alnambay-ouli awikhigan / The Indian prayer book : compiled and arranged for the benefit of the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes. , Rev. Virgil H. Barber, SJ collection (PM551 .I53 1834), Burns Family Library, Georgetown University. [currently inaccessible]
1813. panpattami awikhigan alnambay ailantoai houtchi / [Prayer-book in the Native language]. [present ms.] 1834. Alnambay-ouliawikhigan/TheIndianprayerbook:compiledandarrangedforthebenefitofthePenobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes. Boston: H.L. Devereux.
  • Vetromile, Eugene. 1857. Alnambay Uli Awikhigan / Indian Good Book. New York: Edward Dunigan & Brother. [also in 1856 and 1858 editions]


Text block broken in three parts. Very minor foxing and soiling, faint water stain to first 30 or so leaves. Boards bumped and scratched.