Saints John de Brebeuf, Isaac Jogues, Priests, and their Companions, Martyrs

The first Jesuit missionaries arrived in Quebec in 1625. At first, they worked among French settlers and traders and also evangelised the native peoples in the vicinity. They soon expanded their missionary work to the Huron tribes about 1,200 km west of Quebec and about 160 km north of present-day Toronto. They visited the scattered tribal villages and were hospitably received by the families among whom they lived. But then the Iroquois, enemies of the Hurons, began attacking supply routes between the mission station and Quebec. It was during these hostilities that eight French missionaries (six of them Jesuits) were martyred between 1642 and 1649 by members of the Mohawk and Iroquois tribes.

Rene Goupil was born at Saint-Martin in Anjou, Maine-et-Loire in the north-west of France, on 13 May, 1608. At the age of 31, he joined the Jesuits as a Brother, but had to leave because of deafness. He arrived in North America in 1640 and offered his services to the Jesuits there. He was put in charge of the sick, and in 1642 was assigned to the hospital at the Sainte-Marie Mission Centre. On 2 August, 1642, while on his way there with Isaac Jogues, they were attacked by Iroquois. Both were captured and, after being tortured, were made slaves. One day, after giving a blessing to a child, Rene was tomahawked to death. He died on 29 September, 1642. He is the patron saint of anaesthetists.

Isaac Jogues was born in 1607 at Orleans in France, entered the Society of Jesus in 1624, and received his formation at La Fleche. In 1636, eleven years after Jean de Brebeuf, he was sent to New France. His mission to preach among the Mohawk tribes brought him as far east as Lake Superior. In 1642, Jogues set out from Quebec on a special mission of mercy to the Hurons, who were suffering from famine and disease. The expedition achieved its aim, but on the way back it was ambushed by the Iroquois, enemies of the Hurons. Jogues and his companion, Rene Goupil, were beaten with knotted sticks, their hair, beards, and nails were torn out and their fingers crushed. Jogues survived this experience but was kept as a slave until, with Dutch help from Fort Orange, he managed to escape and return to France. In 1644, he returned to the mission and worked near Montreal. He was sent on a peace mission to the Iroquois at Ossernenon (now Auriesville, NY), the place where he had been formerly captured. Before returning to Montreal, he left a box of religious objects behind him. However, these objects were believed by the Indians to be the cause of crop failure and sickness which followed soon after Jogues’ departure. The Bear clan of the Mohawks invited him back to a meal, but then killed him with tomahawks. His head was cut off and set up on a pole. This took place on 18 October, 1646.

John de LaLande, a layman, was born in Dieppe, Normandy on an unknown date. At the age of 19, he offered his services as a layman to the Jesuit mission in New France (now Canada). In 1646, he was a member of a party led by Isaac Jogues as an envoy to the Mohawks in order to maintain peace between the tribes. However, as mentioned, the Mohawks’ superstitions angered them and Jogues and his party were seized and brought back to Ossernenon. At first, the moderate Turtle and Wolf clans ordered them to be released, but the more militant Bear clan killed both Jogues and Lalande. Lalande, having witnessed the death of his companion, was martyred one day later on 19 October, 1646.

Four Jesuits and one layman also died in what is now Canadian territory:

Anthony Daniel was born in Dieppe, Normandy on 27 May, 1601. He gave up law studies to enter the Society of Jesus at Rouen. He studied Theology at Clermont College in Paris and was ordained in 1631. He felt attracted to do missionary work among the Huron people in New France. He became fluent in the local language and looked forward to forming future catechists among the Hurons who would in turn pass on the faith to their people. In the summer of 1649, the Iroquois made a sudden attack on the mission. The children and women went for cover while Daniel rushed to the cabins of the sick and dying to baptize as many as he could. The Hurons ran to the church as the best place for them to die. Daniel ordered the Iroquois not to enter the church. Though amazed at the priest’s courage, they shot a volley of arrows at him, killing him. They then set fire to the church and tossed Daniel’s body into the flames. He was martyred on 4 July, 1648, at the age of 48.

John de Brebeuf was born in Normandy, France, in 1593 and entered the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) at Rouen in 1617. He suffered so much from the effects of tuberculosis that he could neither study nor do the usual teaching. Nevertheless in 1625, he offered himself for the North American mission among the native peoples and was accepted. He also found himself working among the Hurons. At first he made slow headway, but then found the work very rewarding from about 1633 until his death. At the request of the Hurons, he began to live among them, sometimes on his own and sometimes with a fellow Jesuit, preaching and catechising them in their own language. The main obstacles he met were deep superstition, physical violence and even cannibalism. But another serious factor was that Brebeuf and his fellow missionaries, however committed they were, belonged to a much resented, conquering people.

Nevertheless, Brebeuf set up schools and in one year baptised over 200 catechumens. On one occasion he was condemned to die, but spoke so eloquently about the afterlife that the execution was not carried out. In 1649, the Iroquois, who were bitter enemies of the Hurons, attacked the village where Brebeuf and his companion Gabriel Lalemant were. The two Jesuits were captured, their bodies mutilated, tortured, burnt, and eventually eaten. It was 16 March, 1649. It is said that the Iroquois ate the hearts of the two priests in order to have a share of their extraordinary courage in facing death. But the horrific way in which they met their death has few equals in the stories of martyrdom.

Gabriel Lalemant was born on 3 October, 1610, the son of a lawyer in the judicial court (Parlement) of Paris, and at the age of 20, he joined the Society of Jesus in 1630. In 1632, he took a special vow to work as a missionary. He nevertheless spent 14 years in France before going to North America. He taught at the Collège in Moulins (1632 to 1635), studied theology at Bourges (1635-1639), and then was attached to three different Jesuit institutions (1639-46) before arriving in Quebec on 20 September, 1646. Little is known about his stay in Quebec, but in September 1648, he arrived at the Sainte-Marie-des-Hurons Mission and, because he learnt the language so quickly, in February 1649, was sent to the Saint-Louis Mission. On 16 March, 1649, a war-party of 1,000 Iroquois overran the small town of Saint-Ignace and captured it with little opposition. The invaders then went on to the nearby Saint-Louis Mission, where the Hurons put up strong resistance. Eventually the Iroquois prevailed. Gabriel and de Brebeuf were there and, though urged to escape, refused. As soon as they were captured they were stripped of their clothes, their nails were torn out, and they were taken to the little town of Saint-Ignace (now in the county of Simcoe, Ontario). Brébeuf died on the afternoon of 16 March, at four in the afternoon. Lalande’s torture began on the evening of 16 March and continued to the next morning. He was killed by a hatchet blow to the head and his whole body was burned. His body, buried together with Brébeuf’s under the chapel of the Sainte-Marie residence, was moved to Quebec in 1650.

Charles Garnier was born in Paris on May 25, 1606. He came from the same parish as another of his fellow martyrs, Gabriel Lalemant. Charles came from an aristocratic family and his father was an under-secretary of King Henry III and was later put in charge of the Normandy treasury. His mother, from a noble Orleans family, died soon after he was born. He studied at the Jesuit Clermont College, and entered the Society of Jesus on 26 September, 1624. After his first vows, he returned to Clermont as a Prefect while studying rhetoric and philosophy. After teaching for two years in the College of Eu, he returned again to Clermont for his theology studies. He was ordained a priest in 1635. He was now keen to join the Jesuit mission in New France. His superiors approved, but insisted that he get the consent of his father, who was strongly opposed because of the great dangers. This delayed his departure for one year. Charles finally set out and arrived at Quebec on 11 June, 1636. On 12 August, he arrived among the Hurons and received a warm welcome. His first year coincided with a dangerous crisis. Both the natives and the missionaries came down with smallpox, but the blame was put on the missionaries (who may indeed have unwittingly have been carriers) and their lives could have been in serious danger. However, the crisis passed. Charles would spend the rest of his life as a missionary among the Hurons, without once returning to Quebec. The Hurons gave him the nickname “Ouracha” or “Rainmaker”, because a long drought ended soon after his arrival. He was greatly influenced by fellow missionary Jean de Brébeuf, and was known as the “lamb” to Brebeuf’s “lion”. When Brébeuf was killed in March 1649, Garnier knew that he too could die soon.

On 7 December of the same year, the Iroquois arrived at the gates of the village, creating terror among the people as the invaders acted with inconceivable cruelty to women and children alike. Charles was the only missionary there at the time. He told the people:

We are facing death. Pray to God and take flight by any possible avenue of escape. Cherish your faith for the rest of your life and may death find you thinking of God.

He blessed them and then went to see what help he could give to others. It was while doing all this that he met his death. One bullet pierced his chest and another his thigh. Even then he tried to give help to other victims. He then received two blows from a hatchet, one on each temple. His body was then stripped and left naked on the ground. It was found later, hardly recognisable, covered with blood and ashes from a fire. He was buried by his Christians converts where the church had been.

Noel Chabanel was born in Saugues, Auvergne in the south of France, on 2 February, 1613 and entered the Society of Jesus at Toulouse when he was 17. Following his studies, he was a teacher of rhetoric at a number of Jesuit colleges and was highly respected both for his goodness and learning. Fired with a strong desire to serve in the North American mission, he was sent to New France in 1643, at the age of 30. After studying the Algonquin language, he was sent to the Jesuit mission centre at Sainte-Marie and stayed there until his death. His early enthusiasm quickly faded. Unlike his companions, he found it very difficult to adapt to the Huron way of life, nor could he ever learn the local language. The very sight of them, their food, indeed everything about them, he found difficult to take. Moreover he was tested by a spiritual dryness during the whole of his stay in Canada. Life on the mission was, for him, an unbroken chain of disappointments, which he called a “bloodless martyrdom”. Yet, in order to bind himself more inviolably to the work which his nature abhorred, he made a solemn vow, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, to remain till death in this mission – promise he more than kept.

After the deaths of John de Brebeuf and Charles Garnier, Noel Chabanel was immediately recalled to the Sainte-Marie mission station. He had already started on his way back with a number of Christian Hurons when they heard the shouts of the Iroquois returning from Saint-Jean. Noel urged his companions to escape but he himself was too exhausted to keep up with them. His fate was at first unclear, but a Huron apostate eventually admitted killing Noel out of hatred for the Christian faith. He met his death on 8 December, 1649. Given his difficulty in living the missionary life, his martyrdom only increases the heroism of his death. He was only 36 years old.

These eight martyrs were canonised in 1930 by Pope Pius XI and their memorial was extended world-wide in 1969 as proto-martyrs of North America. All worked tirelessly to bring the indigenous peoples of those regions to the Catholic faith. They are greatly revered because they sowed the seed for the first beginnings of the faith in North America not only by their preaching of God’s word, but also by the shedding of their blood.

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