The Feast of the North American Martyrs is September 26. This column has already made mention of the upcoming pilgrimage in honor of these saints, but what of their lives? The following is a brief tribute to two of the martyrs, written in gratitude to the heroic men who offered the Most Holy Trinity the first fruits of the Faith in the vast regions of North America (Oration from the Roman Missal).
The North American Martyrs are collectively referred to as Saint Isaac Jogues and Companions. Of the eight, Saints Isaac Jogues, René Goupil, and John de LaLande were martyred on what is now the U.S. side of the Canadian border. Their bloody witness was given in New York, at a place called Auriesville, but known then as the village of Ossernenon. The rest of the martyrs suffered north of the border in Canada, where they are all collectively known even those who died in New York as the Canadian Martyrs. (The Canadians honor their patrons at the Martyrs Shrine in Midland, Ontario.)
For their efforts to convert America, the members of this martyr-band perfectly embody the virtue of zeal, charity in action, as that virtue is often called. All those currently interested in the conversion of America, who wish the Redemption of Christs Blood efficaciously applied to their fellow Americans, can take them as a model. The conviction that the Redemption won by Christ must be accepted in Faith is what brought Saint Isaac and his companions from Old France to the harshness of New France to evangelize the savages. (Sorry, that un-PC word is what the Jesuits used!)
Saint René Goupil
A companion of the intrepid Father Jogues, René Goupil, was the first of the eight to be martyred and that, for tracing the Sign of the Cross on an Iroquois childs forehead. A tomahawk to his head, the missionary went to Our Lord on the Feast of Saint Michael, September 29, 1642.
Though not a religious, René Goupil had the privilege of being a donné, a lay helper who worked in the Jesuits missions. Earlier in his life, he tried to be a Jesuit religious, but had to leave the novitiate for health reasons. And now, as a donné, the call of a religious vocation was rekindled in him; he wanted to be a professed Jesuit Brother. As a Superior in the missions, Saint Isaac Jogues had the faculty to receive the vows of someone entering the Jesuit Order. So, while the two were in a canoe, captives of the Iroquois and bound for what they believed to be certain death, Saint Isaac Jogues heard the vows of René Goupil. The latter had the Jesuit formula for profession of vows completely memorized, so no book was necessary.
Having professed his vows, Saint René was no longer a donné when he was martyred, but a Religious Brother of the Society of Jesus.
Hiding Among the Dutch
Following the martyrdom of Goupil, Saint Isaac Jogues was a marked man. He made his escape from the Iroquois and found safety among the Dutch Protestants, a harsh exile to be sure, though some of the Dutchmen were kind to him. They hid the priest in the attic of an old, bigoted Dutch tradesman who was not exactly the epitome of hospitality for his papist black-robe guest. Isaac Jogues was stuck in the sweltering, hot attic of the Dutchmans house, oftentimes not being fed, and forced to drink foetid water from an old cistern.
He was losing weight and becoming ill. Besides this, he did not have the use of very many of his fingers, thanks to the Iroquois nasty habit of chewing digits off their enemies hands. In fact, since Saint Isaac had lost his thumbs and forefingers, he could no longer offer the Sacrifice of the Mass. (Later generations of seminarians would call those fingers ones canonicals, from the fact that Canon Law required their integrity in order to say Mass.) While hiding out in this awful attic, he had as his sole possession a paraphrase commentary on Saint Pauls Epistle to the Hebrews, a book which he read and meditated upon many times.
During his hiding, he was able to maintain an odd friendship with a man named Dominie Megalolensis, a Catholic who had defected to become a Dutch Calvinist minister in New Amsterdam. Saint Isaac worked on his conversion, which, as far as we know, was never effected.
Back to Europe
Resentful of losing their prisoner, the Iroquois were making inquiries of Saint Isaacs whereabouts. His existence among the Dutch was tenuous at best. After careful negotiations, the Dutch allowed him to board a trading vessel destined for Europe. The ship docked for a short time in England, but Father Jogues dared not disembark. This was a time when it was not very safe to be a Catholic in Marys Dowry, especially a Jesuit! The English Commonwealth was producing its own martyrs in those days, some of whose names also ended in S.J.
When the boat finally crossed the English Channel, Saint Isaac made his way to a Catholic Church in Brittany. There, dressed in borrowed Dutch clothing, he looked to be an odd-ball foreigner who was obviously much the worse for his travels. His French was very rusty since all he had been speaking on a daily basis for years was Iroquois, and all his letters home were written in Latin. He asked to be taken to the nearest Jesuit house to speak with the Superior.
Little did he know at the time that the saintly adventures of Father Jogues and Companions were well known by those around him.
This is because accounts of the Jesuit missions were well detailed in the The Jesuit Relations, the records of missionary activities sent as official communiques from the missionaries to their Jesuit superiors in Europe. One of Saint John de Brebeufs tasks as a superior in the missions was to submit some of these Relations. When historians write about the North American Martyrs, they have a great deal of primary-source material from which to draw. (They are available online.)
News of the apostolate was circulated among the Jesuit houses in Europe as the Relations were being received. The information was then broadcast to the faithful. The effect was that of a serialized drama of the missions in the frozen wilds of la Nouvelle-France. Young people were growing up hearing of the saintly adventures of the French Jesuits abroad. With Isaac Jogues becoming something of a household name in France, the humble cleric was about to meet up with his own reputation back home.
When Jogues arrived at the Jesuit house, attired as a Dutch settler from the New World, he informed the porter that he had come from the missions in the New World and asked if he might see the Superior. With these words, the unlikely visitor received the rapt attention of the assembled brethren. The Superior inquired of Father Jogues. They had heard that he was captured by the savages but thought to be still alive. Could their visitor tell them anything of their brother Jesuit?
In reply, Saint Isaac humbly said: I am Father Jogues.
With great emotion, the Jesuits kissed the mangled hands of their heroic brother, much as, over 1200 years earlier, the Fathers of Nicea kissed the scars of those of their number who suffered as confessors before the edict of Milan. All this attention disturbed the good Father.
After his health was restored, his confrères besought Pope Urban VIII to grant this confessor of the Faith permission to offer Holy Mass again, even though some of his canonicals had been chewed off. The Popes response was poetic: It is unbefitting that a martyr of Christ should not drink the blood of Christ. Dispensation was granted to offer the Holy Sacrifice again.
From Auriesville to Heaven
The call of the wild would not allow the missionary to stay in France. Father Jogues asked for and received permission to go back to the New World to be among his beloved Iroquois.
His martyrdom shortly thereafter was a quick one (a hatchet blow to the head), though he had done a lot of long-term suffering well in advance of receiving the crown. Saint John de Brebeufs martyrdom, by contrast, was quite protracted and horrific.
Whenever we are tempted to lose heart as we behold an unconverted America sinking into moral oblivion, we can consider these saints and what they went through to bring the Faith here in the first place. In gratitude, we should, in some small way at least, strive to imitate their zeal by working for the conversion of our fellow man. We know that the North American Martyrs have a vested interest in us and in our country; from heaven, they will help us in our work to convert America.
Let us pray. O God, Who by the preaching and blood of Thy holy Martyrs, Isaac Jogues, John de Brebeuf, and their companions, didst consecrate the first fruits of the Faith in the vast regions of North America, graciously grant that, by their intercession, the flourishing harvest of Christians may everywhere and always be increased. Through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, who with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, God, for ever and ever.
The Eight North American Martyrs and their birth dates into eternity:
Saint René Goupil September 29, 1642
Saint Isaac Jogues October 18, 1646
Saint John de Lalande October 19, 1646
Saint Anthony Daniel July 4, 1648
Saint John de Brebeuf March 16, 1649
Saint Gabriel Lalemant March 17, 1649
Saint Charles Garnier December 7, 1649
Saint Noel Chabanel December 8, 1649
Pray for us, all ye holy North American Martyrs, that we may be worthy of the promises of Christ!