Introduction to the Martyrs

The adventuresome spirits and rugged masculinity of the North American Martyrs first attracted me to their story.  Their zeal for saving souls for Christ was their hallmark. Their intense love of Jesus Christ flowed so copiously onto their native brothers and sisters that they were willing to risk the dangers of the wilds and the potential of torture and death to bring to the Gospel to those who had never heard it.

Their heroic lives, indomitable faith, and unshakable love are well represented in books, museums, parishes, and internet resources, as is information on the tribes they served. Given that, I will limit this writing to a brief introduction to them and to the geopolitical circumstances of the time.

Jesuit missionaries arrived in Acadia, Canada in 1611 and eventually expanded their mission fields throughout the New World. But I will focus on the eight who became known as the North American Martyrs, aka the Canadian Martyrs. Although they had arrived from France at different times, the range of years from the first to arrive (Brébeuf) to the last to be martyred (Chabanel) is 1625-1649.

eigth martyrs portraits

Six were priests:

St Isaac Jogues, martyred October 18, 1646, age 39

St Antoine Daniel, martyred July 4, 1648, age 47

St Jean de Brébeuf, martyred March 16, 1649, age 56

St Gabriel Lalemant, martyred March 17, 1649, age 38

St Charles Garnier, martyred December 8, 1649, age 43

St Noël Chabanel, martyred December 9, 1649, age 36

St René Goupil, a surgeon and Temporal Coadjutor Brother of the Society of Jesus, was martyred on September 29, 1642, age 34.

St John de Lalande, a teenaged layman or “donné” volunteering with the Jesuit missions, was martyred October 19, 1646.

Today’s Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario comprised portions of “New France,” territory claimed by Jacque Cartier in the mid-16th Century and by Samuel Champlain in the early 17th Century. Contemporaries of Champlain, the Jesuits established missions near Quebec and Montreal, settlements recently founded by Champlain on the St. Lawrence River. They soon expanded 800 to 1000 miles west to Georgian Bay, an inlet of Lake Huron, and onto Lake Superior.

These were enormous distances in their time, and are indicative of their intrepid determination and sturdy constitutions.  With Huron (Wendat) and Montagnais guides, they traversed the wilderness via treacherous rivers using fragile but highly-utilitarian birch bark canoes.  Scores of portages were necessary en route which meant carrying supplies and canoes overland, sometimes for many miles. An alternative was to wade through chest-deep rough waters while tethered to the ladenned canoes, with the inevitable cuts to bare feet on the sharp river rocks and the potential of being carried away  in the cold currents.

They took overland game trails on foot since horses had not yet been introduced to the lifestyle.  The aggressive swarms of mosquitoes in summer and bitter snow and ice in winter made travel uncomfortable at best, and life threatening at its worst.

Language barriers, scarcity of food and clothing, foreign customs, and unhealthy living quarters were severe obstacles to their cause. What could not be overcome, the missionaries integrated best they could in order to learn the ways of these people, and to offer their sufferings in sacrifice to God. They did not impose themselves or their beliefs but gradually befriended the natives until they were invited into the villages.  There was a foundation of hospitality among the natives that would at times override suspicion or fear of these odd “black robes” whose tales of a God-Man who loved and welcomed them were as intriguing as they were unbelievable.

So began decades of alliances and friendships interlaced with misunderstandings and hostilities.  17th century New France was crisscrossed with tribal wars. Long before Europeans arrived, geopolitical world was divided into the northern and southern tribes, that is, those living north of the St. Lawrence River in present day Canada, and south of the river in what is now New York State.  They were historic enemies with ongoing skirmishes that resulted in capture, enslavement and torture in an endless parlay of aggression and retaliation.

The Jesuits befriended the Huron and enculturated into the native villages. But a central location was needed for training the newly arrived missionaries, for catechesis, distribution of supplies, and as retreat for the missionaries.  Fort St. Marie was completed, in large part under the direction of Fathers Brébeuf and Jogues, in 1639.

The French, settling in Quebec and Montreal, befriended the northern tribes – the Huron, Montagnais, Algonquins, Petuns. The Dutch established the Hudson River port of Albany, then known as Fort Orange, and traded with the Mohawks, Oneidas and other Iroquois tribes that traversed New York State.

The indigenous peoples were agreeable to trading furs, primarily beaver pelts, for a variety of European conveniences. Arqubuses (guns), iron axes and knifes, and copper kettles were great improvements over their stone and bone weaponry and tools.  And so the “Beaver Wars” began with the northern tribes securing furs for the French, and the Iroquois for the Dutch. This added hostile consternation to the ongoing wars between the tribes.

When Champlain successfully intervened in defending his Huron friends against the attacking Iroquois, the French, and the French missionaries, became enemies of the Iroquois.  Their martyrdoms occurred within the matrix of ambushes and trade between the Iroquois, primarily Mohawks and Oneidas, and Huron where they had established many missions within their villages.

The first three of the eight to die met their martyrdoms not in Canada but in Auriesville, NY, at a Mohawk village called Ossernenon, located on the Mohawk River about 45 miles west of the Hudson River and the Dutch settlement of Fort Orange. In 1642, Father Isaac Jogues and donné René Goupil were running supplies from Quebec to Fort St. Marie. Accompanied by 40 Huron, their flotilla of canoes was ambushed at Lake St. Peter on the St. Lawrence.  In a torturous  300-mile march, they and their Huron converts were taken by canoe through Lake Champlain and Lake George, overland westward through the Sacandaga region, and finally south to the Mohawk River.

The captives underwent the initial torture of having their fingernails torn out and fingers mangled or cut off. This initial cruelty made it nearly impossible for them to defend themselves or assist each other.

Throughout the pitiable two-week trek to Ossernenon, Father Jogues ministered to the wounded and encouraged the converts in their sufferings.  Opportunities to escape arose but he would not leave his flock.  Goupil also demonstrated extraordinary love of those who persecuted him, in that ministered to his captors according to his skill as a surgeon.

They arrived in the summer heat in a state of starvation and exhaustion with worm-infested, infected wounds.  They were beaten while climbing “the hill of torture” into the village, then burned and further mutilated at Ossernenon and nearby villages. But they survived, and were enslaved at Ossernenon.

Goupil became the first of the North American Martyrs to die after making the sign of the cross over a Mohawk child. The natives believed this gesture would bring harm to their souls.  In retaliation, a Mohawk killed him by a tomahawk blow to the head. Goupil died in the arms of Father Jogues who later buried him in an unmarked grave in the Ravine, arguably the holiest area of the present day Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs at Auriesville.

Father Jogues remained a slave.  Although he had opportunities to escape, he believed it was God’s will that he remain to evangelize the Mohawks whom in loved as brothers in Christ and spiritual children.

After a year, it became apparent that he would be killed due to a letter he had written to the French in Canada warning them of Iroquois war plans. This betrayal was his death warrant.

The Dutch Reformists from Fort Orange had befriended him during trading visits with the Mohawks. Through them, Father Jogues escaped and made his way back to France where he was celebrated as a hero and a living martyr. But the attention and adulation were abhorrent to him. His superiors granted his request to return to New France and renew his calling as the Apostle to the Mohawks.  After two years of peace talks near Montreal, he took the familiar and fearsome journey from the St. Lawrence to Ossernenon.

No longer a despised slave, he was welcomed as a peace ambassador and invited to establish a mission there.  Needing help to build this “Most Holy Trinity Mission,” he left his belongings at Ossernenon and returned to Montreal. There he met John de Lalande, a teenaged donné who volunteered to be his assistant.

Unlike his first peace mission, his next arrival in the Valley of the Mohawk was not welcome.  Jogues, Lalande and a Huron companion were beaten and taken captive. Jogues was accused of using sorcery.  The tribe had suffered a crop blight, and some believed Father Jogues had left an evil spirit among his belongings that cause the trouble. On the evening of October 18, 1646, the priest was tomahawked and killed. Lalande suffered the same fate the following morning.

The death of the famous Father Jogues escalated bloodshed among the missionaries in Canada.  Iroquois hostility against the Huron and the French continued.  With Jesuits missions in many of the Huron villages, they too were subject to capture during Iroquois attacks.

And so it was.  On July 4, 1648, Teanaustayé/St Joseph Mission was attacked where Father Antoine Daniel had  just finished celebrating Holy Mass.  Many were able to escape due to his defense of his flock. But he was shot and pierced with arrows, his body then thrown into the chapel that was set ablaze.

Less than a year later, Iroquois attacked two missions/villages near Fort St Marie.  Fathers John de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalemant were captured at St. Louis on March 16, 1649. Their fingernails were torn out; they were stripped and marched along the freezing trail to St. Ignace II. Father Brébeuf, a leader the missions for 20 years, endured one of the most gruesome martyrdoms ever recorded.  He died that afternoon, several days short of his 56th birthday.

Father Lalemant received the same tortures for a prolonged time, and died on March 17.

(For further information the sites of S. Louis and St. Ignace II, see my “Midland” post).

The death of Father Brébeuf, “the Giant of God,” and stalwart of the Canadian Missions, was devastating to morale.  Just four months later, the Jesuits made the agonizing decision to destroy Fort St. Marie rather than allowing it to fall into Iroquois hands. They set it ablaze July, 1649, and fled with a remnant of the Huron tribe.

That December, the last of the eight martyrs gave their lives for their bellowed Hurons.  An Iroquois attack on the Petun village of Etarita/St. Jean Baptiste Mission found Father Charles Garnier, like his companion martyrs before him, refusing to escape into the forest. He remained to minister to the dead and dying. He was shot in the abdomen, and then tomahawked as he rose to give assistance to a fallen Huron.

Against his wishes, Father Noël Chabanel was directed by superiors to leave Etarita the previous day. Traveling with Hurons, he fell behind in their urgent pace to avoid capture. Alone in the forest, he fell prey to a renegade Huron who later confessed to having tomahawked the priest and throwing his body into the Nottawasaga River.

The fall of these villages and missions and the resulting martyrdoms indicated a failure of the Canadian missions as well as in the area evangelized by Father Jogues.  But as we know today, the Jesuit influence in the U.S. has been widespread. They established parishes and schools, and remain prominent today in well-known Jesuit universities.

The North American Martyrs’ story was a significant chapter of Jesuit history, and their cause for sainthood began soon after their deaths. The impetus was rekindled by Father Felix Martin, S.J., a century later as he researched their activities in Canada, New York, and France.

The 1880s were significant years for commemorating the Martyrs. At that time, the archeological site of Ossernenon was identified as the village where Jogues, Goupil and LaLande had been martyred.  In 1885, it was established as the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, NY, under the direction of Father Joseph Loyzance, S.J., and continues to welcome pilgrims today. http://martyrshrine.org/

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The Third Plenary Council of the Catholic Church in the U.S. was petitioned for their canonization in 1884, and likewise to the Seventh Provincial Council of Quebec in 1886.

Also in 1886, a parish church near the site Fort St. Marie created the first Martyrs Shrine in Ontario.  The Jesuits built a second one in 1907, and the present Martyrs Shrine was completed in 1926 under the direction of Father John Filion, S.J. Pilgrims continue to be welcomed today.    http://www.martyrs-shrine.com/

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1925, all eight of the Jesuit missionaries were beatified collectively, and canonized in 1930.

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The site of Fort St. Marie was initially excavated in the 1840s and 50s, and resumed a century later. Today it is an authentic replica of the 17th century Jesuit settlement. http://www.saintemarieamongthehurons.on.ca/sm/en/Home/index.htm

In the current era of new paganism and a critical need for a New Evangelization, we can draw upon the intercession and legacy of the North American Martyrs.

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