Saints Jean de Brébeuf, Isaac Jogues and Companions, Martyrs
Saint Jean: 1593-1649;
Saint Isaac Jogues: 1607-1646;
Frs. Gabriel Lalemant, Noel Chabanel, Charles Garnier, Anthony Daniel;
laymen René Goupil & Jean de Lalande
Liturgical Color: Red
Patron Saints of North America, co-patrons of Canada
French priests and laity leave hearth and home to be slaughtered on the edge of nowhere
Deep in the dense and endless forests of Iroquois nation, Jean de Brébeuf, bound tightly to a post, slowly stretched his neck and head toward the canopy high above, and prayed. An Iroquois war party had attacked his Huron mission the day before. He had a chance to escape but he chose to stay. The baptized and neophytes looked to him, needed him, and were captured with him. Saint Jean had long before witnessed, and chronicled, the Iroquois’ depraved treatment of their Indian enemies. Now he was the captive and now he would be the victim. The painted braves prepared their instruments of torture and the ritual butchery commenced. The Iroquis peeled Jean’s lips from his face and cut off his nose and ears. Saint Jean was as silent as a rock. They poured boiling water over his head in a mock baptism and pressed hatchets, glowing red hot, against his open wounds. A hard blow to the face split his jaw in two. This was pain beyond pain, a living holocaust. When the saint tried to encourage his fellow captives with holy words, the Indians cut out his tongue. Near the end, they cut out his heart and ate it. Raw. Then they drank his warm blood. They wanted the blood of this lion to course in their own veins. Eye witnesses to Saint Jean’s torture and death, which took place alongside that of Fr. Gabriel Lalemant, escaped captivity and gave detailed accounts of what they had seen. Fellow Jesuits recovered the two bodies days later and verified their wounds. Brébeuf’s skull was placed in a reliquary in a convent in Quebec City. It is still there today.
St. Jean de Brébeuf was born in Bayeux France. Bayeux is a comfortable town with low, sturdy buildings and a handsome Cathedral. It’s the kind of town people want to move to. But Saint Jean went in the opposite direction. He left Bayeux to become a Jesuit priest. When he was chosen to become a missionary, he crossed an ocean to New France (Canada). He was well educated and was the first European to master the Huron language, to study their customs, and to write a Huron-French dictionary. He was a mystic who had an intimate relationship with Our Lord and a vivid spirituality full of saints and angels. He took a vow of personal perfection, striving to rid himself of every sin, no matter how small. He canoed thousands of miles over open waters, and trekked and portaged vast expanses of prairie and woods in search of a congregation for the Truth. In a frontier culture of trappers, loggers, and ruffians, he held his own. The Indians called him “Echon”—one who carries his own weight. His oar was always in the water. For all this missionary labor, there was some success. But there was more disappointment. Some of his assassins were Huron apostates.
A heroic death is not the fruit of a lukewarm life. Saint Jean was prepared for his gruesome martyrdom by many years of struggling to breathe inside of smoke-filled cabins, by suffering the bites of swarms of mosquitoes all night long, by shivering through cold nights, by eating disgusting food without complaint, and by trekking rugged terrain while poorly shod. Once, he fell on the ice and broke his collarbone, making it impossible for him to navigate jagged terrain upright. He crawled thirty-six miles on his hands and knees back to his mission. Saint Jean prepared himself for death through disciplined prayer and meditation. He prepared himself out of a profound acceptance of God’s will. Our faith teaches that grace builds on nature. This just means that a plant grows in the ground. Bad soil; sick plant. Rich soil; healthy plant. The seed of faith planted in Saint Jean by his parents and priests was dropped into rich, black, human soil. God’s grace grew in him. God’s grace thrived in him. God’s grace never died in him. And that same powerful grace comes to us today through the intercession of this mighty oak of a man.
Saint Isaac Jogues came as near to martyrdom as any man who ever lived to tell about it. Jogues was a professor in France who crossed the ocean to work among the Huron. For six years he labored as far west as Lake Superior, one of the first French men to see that lake of lakes. He was kidnapped by Mohawks in 1642 and held captive for thirteen months, during which time he witnessed, and suffered from, an orgy of barbarity similar to that later suffered by Brébeuf: torture by fire, removal of fingernails, gnawing away of fingers, whippings with thorn bush branches, cuttings, etc. Jogues’ companion, Jesuit lay brother René Goupil, a trained medic, was tomahawked to death for making the sign of the cross on the forehead of a Mohawk boy. Incredibly, just when Jogues was about to be burned alive he was rescued by Dutch traders from present-day Albany, New York. Jogues returned to France half a man; skeletal, lame, and with stumps where some fingers had been chewed down to their knuckles. On home soil again, he went to the local Jesuit house, where the porter assumed he was an indigent beggar.
Jogues specifically requested to return to Canada, and crossed the Atlantic one last time in 1644. He was assigned to Montreal, where he crossed paths with Jean de Brébeuf, who thought Jogues was a living saint. When Jogues asked permission from his superiors to again evangelize among the Mohawks, he told a friend “Ibo, sed non redibo.” “I will go, but I will not return.” He was a prophet. He and layman Jean Lalande were captured and tomahawked to death on October 18, 1646. Their severed heads were placed as trophies on Indian pikes. The North American martyrs were canonized in 1930.
Saints Jean de Brébeuf, Isaac Jogues, and companions, you died far from the comforts of home and family. You accepted sufferings you did not deserve for the greater glory of God. Grant us patience when we are impetuous, endurance when tempted to quit, humility when confronted with ignorance, and physical toughness when the comforts of life are not to be found.