The Martyrdom of St. John de Brebeuf

St. John de Brebeuf

In Montreal in Canada there is a street named for Saint John de Brebeuf and on the walls of the Cathedral in that city are paintings depicting his martyrdom. On the outside of the Canadian Government Building in Quebec City there is a statue of him and his name is inscribed on the Grand Staircase of that building. What remains of his relics are preserved by the Catholic Nuns at the Hotel Dieu in Quebec, and the anniversary of his martyrdom, which took place on March 16th, 1649, is maintained as a great feastday there. He is one of the patron saints of Canada, outstanding even among the other heroic North American Martyrs.

A Jesuit priest, John de Brebeuf, was one of the most indefatigable and intrepid missionaries in 17th century Canada. His great love for the native peoples of the North American Continent led him to volunteer for missionary work in our part of the world in those days, to study and master the various languages and customs of the Indians, to endure unspeakable hardships cheerfully, and to give himself unstintingly to the labor of converting the Indians to Christ. He secretly prayed and longed for martyrdom for the faith, so as to be able to offer up his life as as prayerful sacrifice to God for the conversion and moral improvement of the native people for whom he had such great affection.

He was undeterred by constant and sometimes imminent threats of death and torture from both the Huron and Algonquin Indians among whom he ordinarily worked, as well as from the various tribes of Iroquois who were usually at constant war with their neighbors. The many repulsive and revolting practices of the Indians, such as their occasional cannibalism and their sadistic torture of captives, only spurred him on to greater desire and efforts to bring about their conversion to Christianity.


In 17th century Canada and America, sickness was rampant among the Indian tribes. Lack of any knowledge of hygiene, unhealthy diets, inadequate clothing and shelter, and sexual promiscuity, all contributed to an ordinarily high morbidity rate among them. This was exacerbated by their contacts with Europeans, against whose viruses and bacteria the Indians had had no chance to develop immunities. Incest, which was quite common, also caused a large number of Indians to be mentally challenged. In general, the French settlers, trappers, and fur traders developed reasonably good relations with the Indians among whom they lived and worked, and whom they considered fellow human beings. The English colonists, on the other hand, were usually hostile to the natives whom they thought were inferior beings. They used various devices, along with regular warfare, to harm them. One method, for instance, was to rub blankets over the sores of people who had contracted smallpox and then give the blankets to the natives as gifts in order to spread the often fatal disease among them. (Even the "Pilgrim Fathers," after their initial friendly encounters with Samoset and Squanto, and their first “Thanksgiving Feast” with Massaoit and his braves, later went to war with the Indians.)

De Brebeuf was called by the Indians “Echon.” He and the other missionaries, using the primitive medical knowledge of those days, would do what they could to alleviate the sickness and pains of the Indians whom they were evangelizing. If a sick Indian recovered “Echon” was hailed as a great medicine man. If the Indian died, he was called a great sorcerer. The missionaries were also caught up in the politics of the time, especially the perennial hostility between England and France.

Because most of the Indians in North America were more friendly to the French, the English made allies of the Iroquois and with gifts and bribes encouraged them in their raids and attacks against the more numerous and usually Francophile Hurons and Algonquins.


The chronicle of Saint John de Brebeuf’s years of missionary work fills many pages of the Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, and reads like an exciting adventure saga. He baptized the first of the Iroquois to be converted, a Seneca Chief, captured by the Hurons. Before they burned him to death at the stake, de Brebeuf persuaded him of the truth of the Catholic Faith and baptized him. De Brebeuf also converted a captive Oneida Chief, and was instrumental in bringing many young Hurons and Algonquins to a high degree of sanctity and holiness.

With a young Father Gabriel Lalemont, who had joined him just a month earlier, Father de Brebeuf was doing his priestly ministry in the Huron Village of Saint Louis in March of 1649, when refugees began arriving from a raid that a thousand Iroquois braves had just made on the neighboring village of Saint Ignatius. The Iroquois had followed them and attacked Saint Louis too, where there were about 700 Hurons, mostly the elderly and women and children. The few Huron warriors there (most of the braves were out hunting) put up a fight. De Brebeuf and Lalemont tried to help the wounded, to immediately baptize those under convert instruction, and to absolve the dying. They were seized when the defense collapsed, stripped of their clothing, beaten, and carried away. As they went they saw the Iroquois braves slaughtering the remaining Indians in the village, setting the wigwams afire, and throwing the wounded people and little children into the flames.


Both priests were tied to stakes. Mocking baptism, the Iroquois poured boiling water over their heads to scald them. They then cut off the nose, ears, lips, and other body parts of de Brebeuf, smashed his teeth with a club, put red hot hatchet blades on his shoulders, put hot coals on top of his head, and then smashed his skull with a tomahawk. They pulled out the eyes of Lalemont and forced hot coals into the sockets, they sliced open his thighs in the form of a cross and then burned him at the stake. Both priests prayed as long as they could and proclaimed their love and forgiveness for their torturers. (The account of their martyrdom was made public by some of the Indians who had witnessed it and later were converted to the Catholic Faith.) Because de Brebeuf died so stoically without crying out, something the Indians greatly admired, they cut out his heart and liver after his death and ate them raw, so they could, in their belief, obtain his kind of courage and ability to endure pain.

Saint John de Brebeuf and Saint Gabriel Lalemont, pray for us!

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