October 18, 2016

Memorial of Saints Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brébeuf and Companions, Martyrs

The North American Martyrs

On October 19th, dioceses in the United States observe the memorial of Saints Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brébeuf and companions, also known as the North American Martyrs. The six Jesuit priests and two laymen from France, were the first martyrs of North American to be officially recognized by the Church. At the expense of their own safety and despite great hardship, they brought Christ to the native population. It is estimated they converted some 7,000 members of the Huron tribe. The Huron’s enemies, the Iroquois waged ruthless wars against the Huron and Algonquian nations as well as the French. Iroquois Mohawk braves brutally tortured and killed the North American Martyrs between 1642 and 1649.

In 1534, Jacques Cartier voyaged to the New World where he explored current day Newfoundland and the St. Lawrence River Valley for France. By the 17th century, French Jesuit missionaries were the first to teach the Gospel to the indigenous people living there. Enduring harsh conditions and shifting political loyalties, Jesuits; Fr. Isaac Jogues, Fr. John de Brebeuf, Fr. Gabriel Lalemant, Fr. Noel Chabanel, Fr. Charles Garnier, Fr. Anthony Daniel, Rene Goupil and John de Lalande traveled and worked among the Amerindians of North America.

Born in Orléans, France, Isaac Jogues entered the Society of Jesus in 1624. Twelve years later, he was sent to New France as a missionary to the Huron and Algonquian tribes, allies of the French. In 1642, while on his way by canoe to the country of the Huron, Jogues and several Huron Christians were captured by a war party of Mohawk Iroquois. They were taken to a Mohawk village where they were gruesomely tortured. It was during this torture that Jogues’ fingers were cut off. Jogues survived, and lived as a slave among the Mohawks. Even in servitude, he attempted to teach his captors the rudiments of Christianity.

Thanks to Dutch merchants who smuggled him to Manhattan, Jogues escaped. From there, he sailed back to France where he was greeted with joyous surprise. As a living martyr. Fr. Jogues was given a dispensation by Pope Urban VIII to celebrate Mass with his mutilated hands since, at that time, the Eucharist could not be touched with any fingers except the thumb and forefinger.

Incredibly, the ill-treatment by the Mohawks did not dim Jogues’ missionary zeal. Within a few months, he returned to Canada to continue his work. In 1645, a tentative peace was forged between the Iroquois, Huron, Algonquian and French. In the spring of 1646, Jogues was sent back to the Mohawk territory along with Jean de LaLande to act as ambassadors. However, some among the Mohawks regarded Jogues as a sorcerer and when the double calamity of sickness and crop failure hit the Mohawks, they blamed Jogues. On October 18, 1646, Jogues and LaLande were clubbed to death and beheaded by their Mohawk hosts in present-day Auriesville, New York. Ten years later, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha would be born near the place of Jogues and LaLande’s martyrdom.

John de Brebeuf and five of his companions were martyred after four hours of extreme torture at Sainte Marie, near Georgian Bay, Canada in 1649. After Brebeuf’s demise, his body was stripped, beaten and behead. The details of his martyrdom are as follows. The Iroquois began to win their war with the Herons and destroyed a large Huron village. They captured Brebeuf and his companions. who were fastened to steaks and tortured to death by scalping, mock baptism using boiling water, fire, necklaces of red-hot hatchets and mutilation. According to Catholic tradition Brebeuf did not make a single utterance while he was being tortured. This astounded the Iroquois, who later cut out his heart and ate it in hopes of gaining his courage. In 1984, Saint John Paul II prayed over Brebeuf’s skull before celebrating an outdoor Mass on the grounds of the Martyrs' Shrine.

The Jesuit martyrs of North America were canonized on June 29, 1930 by Pope Pius XI. Pope Pius XII proclaimed them the secondary patrons of Canada on October 16, 1940 (Saint Joseph is the primary patron). O God, who chose to manifest the blessed hope of your eternal Kingdom by the toil of Saints John de Brebeuf, Isaac Jogues and companions, by the shedding of their blood, graciously grant that through their intercession the faith of Christians may be strengthened.

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