On October 19 Catholics in the United States and Canada observe the feast of the North American Jesuit Martyrs: eight priests and two laymen killed by the Indians in the mid-17th century.
In many ways the most remarkable of these men was the priest Father Jean de Brébeuf, who pioneered the mission to the Hurons then residing in Ontario south of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay.
Brébeuf was a native of Condé-sur-Vire in Normandy, France. He entered the Jesuits in 1617. His request to be admitted as a simple lay brother was denied; but then he took ill, and it seemed for a while that he might not make it to priestly ordination. He recovered, however, and was ordained in 1622. In 1625 he and a few other priests set sail for Quebec, pledged to work among the Indians in Canada. His sickness disappearing along the line, this very tall man would become noted among the Indians for his physical and spiritual strength and vigor. The Hurons would nickname him “Echon,” “the man who drags the loads.”
After a year working among the Algonquins, Father John set out in 1626 for Huron country, traveling by canoe down the Ottawa River. Left alone among these pagan Indians, he quickly developed real expertise in their language. This impressed the Hurons, as did his physical prowess, but except for baptizing a few dying infants, he made no converts. When in 1629 the English captured Quebec, he and the other French missionaries were obliged to return to France.
Political winds having changed by 1630, he went back to Canada and began anew in Huronia. It was a bitterly hard life. The climate was demanding and the Hurons were long inhospitable and often threatening. In fact, when Father John prepared a list of instructions for future missionaries to Huronia, he told them that they must expect to give until it hurts, and beyond.
He had to wait until 1636 before he had his first adult convert. This was a Seneca Indian from New York State who had been condemned to death. A year later, however, he received a healthy adult Huron into the Faith, and “Peter” proved to be a model Christian. Even so, the Hurons remained antagonistic to Christ. Indeed, in 1637 John and the four other Jesuits by then working with him, sent a letter to their superior in Quebec stating that they expected to be killed any minute. Actually, the threat passed. By that time, Brébeuf knew his people so well that he could put them in their place with a calm smile.
The Hurons began to yield only when their pride was broken. They were finally humbled by the Iroquois invaders, who at mid-century declared total war on their nation. Raiding parties of Iroquois from New York State killed off or scattered the Huron nation forever. One whole Huron village, St. Michel, migrated to near Victor, N.Y., as a captive community. All but one of the Canadian Jesuit martyrs were killed by these Iroquois invaders. In the face of war, many Hurons asked Brébeuf for baptism. The enemy came upon him and his newly arrived associate Father Gabriel Lalemant, at St. Joseph village on March 16, 1649. Them they reserved for the most fierce torture-deaths. They flayed them, roasted their flesh, “baptized” them with boiling water. The veteran missionary spoke out to the bystanding Christians, urging them not to falter in their faith. Despite the exquisite torments, this giant of a man never winced, infuriating and amazing his persecutors by his fortitude. Finally they split his skull, tore out his heart, and drank its blood, thinking to imbibe his courage.
Providence made good use of the Missionaries’ sacrifice. By taking Christian Hurons back to western New York, they gave Christianity a bridge-head on U.S. soil. From 1656 on, for the next fifty years, Jesuit missionaries were able to preach the Good News among the Iroquois themselves. The exiled Hurons welcomed them, and many who had refused baptism in Huronia now asked for it. One of the missionaries’ chief aides was a grand old Christian Huron whom St.Jean de Brébeuf had baptized, Francis Tehoronhiongo. A natural leader and one well instructed in the Faith, he served as catechist. He eventually moved to Montreal, where he died in 1690. His granddaughter, Marie-Therese Gannensagouas, became a nun and achieved a reputation for great holiness.
What a thrilling story!
–Father Robert F. McNamara