Saints Jean de Brébeuf, Isaac Jogues and Companions

Saint Jean: 1593-1649; Saint Isaac Jogues: 1607-1646; Frs. Gabriel Lalemant, Noel Chabanel, Charles Garnier, Anthony Daniel; laymen René Goupil & Jean de Lalande
October 19Memorial
Liturgical color: Red
Patron Saints of North America, co-patrons of Canada

French priests and laymen leave all behind to be slaughtered on the edge of nowhere

Deep in the dense, dark, and endless forests of Iroquois nation, Jean de Brébeuf, bound tightly to a post, slowly stretched his neck, tilted his head up toward the dense canopy high above, and prayed. An Iroquois war party had attacked his Huron mission the day before. He had a chance to escape. 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. Now he would be the victim. The painted braves prepared their instruments of torture and the ritual butchery commenced. The Iroquis peeled his lips from his face. They 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. This was a living holocaust. When the saint tried to encourage his fellow captives with holy words, they cut out his tongue. Near the end, the Indians cut out his heart and ate it. Raw. They drank his fresh warm blood. They wanted this lion’s blood to run with their own. Eye witnesses to Saint Jean’s torture and death, alongside that of Fr. Gabriel Lalemant, escaped captivity and gave detailed accounts of what they had seen. Fellow Jesuits recovered their 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 St. 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 trying to breath inside of smoke-filled cabins, of swarms of mosquitoes biting him all night long, of cold nights, of eating disgusting food without complaint, of 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 St. Jean by his parents and priests fell 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 man.

Saint Isaac Jogues came as near to martyrdom as any man who survived 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’ lay companion René Goupil, a trained medic, was tomahawked to death for making the sign of the cross on the forehead of an Indian baby. 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 more 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, the first Jesuits to be martyred in New France. Their severed heads were placed as trophies on Indian pikes. The North American martyrs were canonized in 1930.  

Saints Jean de Brebeuf, 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.

Further Reading:

All Saints for Today



Ignatian Spirituality

Catholic Online

New Advent


All Saints for the Liturgical Year