September 19, 2019 — Several Canadian shrines and churches have been keeping alive the memory of the Canadian martyrs, whose feast we celebrated on September 26, and who died between 1642 and 1649 while working to evangelize indigenous peoples in New France. Some of these places of worship have also preserved relics of Saint Jean de Brébeuf, Saint Charles Garnier and Saint Gabriel Lalemant, such as the Church of the Gesù, the Chapel of the Jesuits in Québec City, or Saint Francis Xavier Church in Kahnawake. On the other hand, the Archive of the Jesuits in Canada holds a reliquary and several archival documents. Not to mention the continued presence of these saints in the names of villages, streets, missions, schools and other institutions. But how did the devotion for the martyrs develop and how do their lives still resonate today?
A Cult That Transcends Time
The first Jesuit missionaries who died in New France were considered martyrs of the faith even by their colleagues at the time. Their reputation as martyrs grew very quickly amongst the French settlers; in the 19th century, their status became ingrained in popular French Canadian culture before spreading to English-speaking circles.
At the turn of the 20th century, Jesuit archivists further advanced the martyrs’ cause for beatification. For example, Fr. Arthur Jones carried out research to build a case for beatification. He also discovered archeological sites in Ontario where several martyrs died, while another Jesuit archivist, Fr. Félix Martin, did some rough sketches of the digs.
On June 21, 1925, these first North American martyrs were declared blessed and worthy of public worship. That same year, the Sacred Congregation of Rites ordered the case to be taken up again to lead to canonization. Four Jesuits, namely Fathers Théophile Hudon, Jacques Dugas, John Milway Filion and John J. Mynne, then worked to gather the necessary proof for canonization. On June 29, 1930, Pope Pius XI finally enrolled the Canadian martyrs in the Catalogue of Saints.
The popularity of these martyrs, not only within the Society of Jesus but among the population at large, is reflected in the number of people who visit the Martyrs’ Shrine in Ontario. In fact, dozens or even hundreds of faithful assembled at the Shrine to celebrate the martyrs’ beatification in 1925, as seen in a panorama photo recently discovered in the Archive of the Jesuits in Canada. According to Theresa Rowat, the director of the Archives, “this panorama is fragile and rare.”
This type of photograph was usually used for group portraits, especially at a time where this kind of photography was technical and quite complicated. This photo must have been quite expensive to produce and perhaps several copies of it existed. This view in a cropped version has also appeared on postcards.
The Shrine’s popularity has not diminished since thousands of pilgrims still visit it each year. On May 2, 1967, Fr. Arrupe prayed at Saint-Ignace, where it is said that Jean de Brébeuf, Gabriel Lalemant and a few dozen Wendats were put to death. Fr. Arturo Sosa did the same thing in 2018. In 1984, Pope John Paul II also visited the Shrine “which symbolizes the unity of faith within a diversity of cultures.”
The Canadian Martyrs Today
How can the Canadian Martyrs inspire us in light of the New Universal Apostolic Preferences? During a symposium, Father Michael Knox, SJ, carried out a contextual analysis of Huronia. He spoke about the Jesuit vision of the world, the journey with the crucified Christ, the offering of self and the desire to be with the suffering Christ: the martyrdom where the inner life counts more than the physical life.
These saints travelled to the ends of the world to approach indigenous peoples who were then considered as “poor.” To do so, they built relationships with cultures and people that were very different from theirs. Several of the martyrs, such as Jean de Brébeuf, were keen observers of these cultures and were able to adapt to them.
One can also admire the devotion of Fr. Noël Chabanel, who found it difficult to live in the Wendat communities but who had promised Jesus to pursue his mission.
The linguistic work of Fr. Brébeuf and of his companions on the Wendat language, undoubtedly transmitted through copies, enabled us in part to revitalize the language.
In his 1984 address, John Paul II also paid tribute “to all those who joyfully embraced the Christian faith, such as Blessed Kateri, and who remained loyal despite the numerous pitfalls and challenges,” and whose role is still essential today:
Today, we express our gratitude to the indigenous people for the role they play, not only in the multicultural tapestry of Canadian society, but also in the life of the Church.
Nevertheless, the martyrs’ apostolate must be placed in a greater context than that of colonization. In Becoming Holy in Early Canada, Timothy Pearson analyzes the way in which local religious figures, like the Canadian Martyrs, became saints and the various social functions they thus accomplished. His purpose is to better understand the close ties between religion and colonialism as well as the change in faith communities over time. Several researchers, including Bronwen McShea in Apostles of Empire, also generally highlighted French imperialism which the Jesuits, including the martyrs, participated in.