The first Christian martyrs in North America, Jesuit priests and lay missionaries, did not come to the new land for gold or power. They did not come as tourists. They left all that they knew: language, customs, family and friends to go and settle among the Native American Huron tribe (whose less nomadic life made them better prospects for the Jesuit mission) north of what we now know as the St. Lawrence River. They settled with no expectations of ever seeing their native lands again. After many years they earned the trust and respect of the people they served. They cast their fate with the Hurons and shared that fate. They died as casualties of the long-standing war between the Huron and the Iroquois.
When a musket ball hit him, he tried to reach a dying man to give him absolution.
Before the war broke out, the Jesuits began their life among the Huron, first learning the language. They wrote catechisms and composed hymns in the Huron tongue. Once they learned the language they began to teach. They also cared for the sick. When the harvests were poor, they shared the tribe’s hunger and want.
The first martyr, lay missioner Renee Goupil, was tomahawked by the Iroquois for tracing the sign of the cross on the brow of some children. Goupil, Jogue’s assistant, had studied medicine in Europe and served as a doctor among the Hurons.
Two of the martyrs, Father Isaac Jogues and Father Antony Daniel, died offering themselves to the attacking Iroquois in the hope of saving their Huron brothers and sisters. Daniel went out alone to meet the Iroquois war party, offering himself if they would spare the village. Jogues, who had been held captive by the Iroquois for a year before being ransomed and returned to Europe by a group of Dutch protestant missionaries, returned to the area, intending to broker a peace treaty between the warring tribes. He had negotiated a settlement when a raiding party killed him and the lay missioner, John Lalande.
In March 1649, the Iroquois attacked the Huron village where Father Jean de Brebeuf and Father Gabrial Lalemant lived. Their sufferings are terrible to consider, but their faith in suffering is worth remembering and worthy of honor.
During his torture, Lalemant raised his eyes to heaven and called to God for help. Brebeuf preached to his persecutors. They gagged him and tore off his lips. They cut off his nose, and in a mockery of baptism, they poured boiling water on the two men. They spoke not a word against their tormentors.
Brebeuf and Lalemant were still alive as the warriors began cutting pieces of flesh from their bodies, flesh they roasted and ate. Finally they tore out the hearts of the priests and ate them, as well.
The war continued. When the Iroquois reached the village where Father Charles Garnier lived and served, he went out into the fighting, baptizing the children and catechumens, anointing the baptized and giving them absolution. It is said that he showed no concern for his own safety. When a musket ball hit him, he tried to reach a dying man to give him absolution. He was finally killed with a hatchet.
After Garnier died, Father Noel Chabanel immediately began to make his way to the village to take his brother’s place. He was killed on the way.
We have, understandably, learned to suspect every European incursion into the Americas. But we should revere these martyrs, who lived and died faithful to Christ and servants to Christ’s flock.
The Martyrs of North America: Saints John de Brebeuf, Isaac Jogues, Antony Daniel, Gabrial Lalemant, Charles Garnier, Noel Chabanel, Rene Goupil and John Lalande. Pray for us.
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