October 19, 2017 — Today, the Society of Jesus in the United States celebrates the Feast
of the North American Martyrs, sometimes known as the Feast of St. Isaac Jogues
and Companions. The Jesuits in Canada celebrated the feast day on September 26.
The French Jesuit priests St. Isaac Jogues (1607-1646) and St.
John de Brebeuf (1593-1649) and their companions St. John de Lalande, St. René
Goupil, St. Anthony Daniel, St. Charles Garnier, St. Gabriel Lalemant, and St.
Noel Chabanel were among the first missionaries to the North American Indians,
and were the first martyrs of North America. They served missions in remote
areas of eastern Canada and New York state between 1625-1649.
Although each of these missionaries had heard about the
severe environment of the area called New France, none could fathom what the
situation was actually like: disease, severe weather, lack of food, unsanitary
living conditions, impassable forests, solitude and a hostile population.
Travel was by canoe on treacherous waterways or walking for miles through dense
insect-filled and uncharted forests.
|Clockwise from top: John de Brebeuf, Anthony Daniel, Charles Garnier, Isaac Jogues, Noël Chabanel, Gabriel Lalemant. Center: René Goupil and John Lalande
Despite the anticipated hardships,
the Jesuits sought out and even begged for missionary duties in North America. The
Indians they sought to evangelize were primarily the Huron nation made up of
between 20,000 to 30,000 people. The Hurons lived mostly in the interior of Canada,
some more than 1,000 miles from the primary Jesuit mission center at Québec.
While generally hospitable, the Indians were suspicious of the Jesuits (who the Indians called the Black Robes) and their religion. Among those who did
eventually accept baptism, there was always an uncertainty as to whether or not
the individual was totally or sincerely converted to Christianity. Many never
completely gave up their old traditions, and some even turned on the
The Jesuits were mostly accepted by the Hurons, but that was
not the case with the Iroquois, who hated both the Hurons and the French. The
French were trade partners with the Hurons and, as such, sided with them
against their longtime enemies, the Iroquois. Aggravating the situation was the
fact that in 1613 the early French explorers had used muskets against the
Iroquois’ bow and arrows, slaughtering many Indians. The Iroquois fostered
their hatred for more than 100 years.
John de Brebeuf and
The first of these Jesuits, Father John de Brebeuf, arrived
in New France in 1625. Father Brebeuf was the founder of the Huron mission and
has been referred to as the Apostle of the Hurons. He spent 24 years among the
Indians and witnessed thousands of baptisms. Father Brebeuf worked hard at
understanding the Huron language and prepared an invaluable dictionary as well
as a catechism in the language. He had a special connection to the Hurons: they
listened to his message about Jesus, and because of him, they allowed the
Jesuits to baptize their children.
On March 16, 1649, Father Brebeuf and his Jesuit colleague
Father Gabriel Lalemant were captured, severely tortured and murdered by
marauding Iroquois. Their skin was cut off, hot irons were placed on their
bodies and scalding water, mocking baptism, was poured over them. Kept alive
for additional torture, they were eventually tomahawked to death one day apart.
Isaac Jogues and René
Father Isaac Jogues, another of the Jesuit
martyrs, arrived in New France in 1635. He soon was dispatched to
the mission headed by Father Brebeuf near Lake Huron. Seven years into his
active ministry, on Aug. 16, 1642, Jogues and René Goupil, an
oblate and surgeon, were captured by the Iroquois. They were beaten with clubs
and burned with hot coals. Some of their fingers were chewed off at the
knuckle, and the thumb of Jogues was severed from his right hand. Despite the
torture, they both initially survived and attempted to witness to their
captors. During captivity, Goupil made the Sign of the Cross on the head of an
Iroquois baby and was immediately murdered with a tomahawk. The child’s parents
had been told of Goupil’s actions and believed that the Sign of the Cross was
After being imprisoned and used as a slave for 13 months,
Father Jogues escaped and made his way back to France where he was treated as a
hero. Because of his mutilated fingers and lack of a thumb, he believed the church would not allow him to distribute the Body and Blood of Christ. Pope
Urban VIII, however, made an exception for the courageous priest, and in 1646
Father Jogues eagerly returned to New France where he met his martyrdom.
Father Jogues and an Oblate missionary, John Lalande, were
attempting to affect peace between the French, the Hurons and the Iroquois when
they were accused of being the cause of a bad harvest. They were taken prisoner
and brutally tortured by Mohawk Indians, who were part of the Iroquois nation.
On Oct. 18, 1646, a Mohawk killed Father Jogues with a hatchet. The next
day, Father Lalande met the same fate.
Father Anthony Daniel spent several years tirelessly
instructing Huron youths at a seminary near Québec. He also repeatedly braved
the wilderness, teaching the Christian faith and baptizing native Canadians. On
July 4, 1648, after returning from one of his many trips, his mission at St. Joseph was attacked by an Iroquois war
party. Some accounts say he was shot with a musket and while still alive
crawled among other victims bringing comfort, baptizing and giving absolution.
Eventually, he was killed by a hatchet to his head.
In the same year that Fathers Brebeuf and Lalemant were
martyred, a fellow Jesuit priest, Father Charles Garnier, was also murdered. He
served in Canada for 13 years. Reports are that he would walk 30 miles a day in
either heat or cold to spread the Gospel, lived with the
natives while caring for their sick and never counted the cost. On Dec. 7,
1649, he was struck by a tomahawk during an Iroquois attack and died.
On Dec. 8, 1649, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Father
Noël Chabanel was returning to the mission hub at Sainte Marie, Canada, when he
was killed, allegedly by one of his Huron converts. Among the Jesuits, Father
Chabanel had experienced the most difficulties with the assignment. He never mastered the language and was often depressed.
Despite these problems, which would have caused a lesser man to return home,
Father Chabanel took a vow to never forsake his missionary duties or to deny
the martyrdom he anticipated. He was the last of the eight Jesuits to die.
In 1930, Pope Pius XI canonized the whole group of missionaries,
known as the eight North American Martyrs, whose feast the church now celebrates
every October 19.
National Shrine of the North American Martyrs is located in
Auriesville, New York, the site of the martyrdom of St. Rene Goupil, St. Isaac
Jogues and St. John de Lalande and also the birthplace of St. Kateri Tekakwitha. The Martyrs’ Shrine is
located in Midland, Ontario, Canada. Saints John de Brebeuf, Gabriel Lalemant,
Noel Chabanel, Charles Garnier, and Anthony Daniel died near this shrine.