The life of St. Isaac Jogues is a life of large and small actions that have rippled across space and time. Born to a good, middle class family in France, Jogues grew up on reports of Jesuit missionary activities in the New World. Eventually, he found himself one of those very missionaries, as he became a priest and was sent to the Great Lakes region of Canada.
The year was 1636, and the path to the New World was long. The path to Jogues’ intended post along Lake Huron was even longer- by some 900 miles of river, portages, and exposure to the elements. By the time the young priest got to his new home, a settlement created to live among the Huron Indians for evangelization purposes, he was deathly ill with a fever. The fever spread to the other priests in the village, who were living in crude huts and hovering at the starvation line. From the “Black Coats”, which was the name the Huron gave to the Jesuit priests among them, the illness spread to the native inhabitants themselves, which resulted in murderous sentiment among the Hurons.
Fr. Jogues and his colleagues were able to repair relations with their hosts, and despite focused attempts by the local medicine men to foment hostility toward the Jesuits, the Huron people recognized the honest good will of the missionaries and accepted them into their homes.
The topic of Christian evangelization among American Indian tribes is a touchy subject. In many cases, such as the infamous American Indian Boarding schools, condemnation of methodology and motives is justified. But in the case of the early North American missionaries, it’s a whole different ball game.
St. Isaac Jogues and his companions were not a conquering nation, they were guests of the Huron and other Woodlands tribes. For six years, Fr. Jogues lived among the Huron, learning the language, learning the culture, becoming a part of the community. The settlers recognized that Fr. Jogues and his companions were not there to engage in commerce or to profit in any way from their dealings with the Huron- they were honestly there to share the good news of the Gospel. And so in this environment of mutual respect, many Huron and other nearby tribes became Christian.
Not so with the Mohawk tribe of the Iroquois, who were sworn enemies of the Huron. One year, after a particularly bad harvest and rampant illness, Fr. Jogues made the dangerous journey to Quebec for supplies to help the settlement. On the return trip, the party was attacked by Mohawks, who were particularly eager to capture Christian Hurons- not only were they hereditary enemies, but they had also fallen sway to a foreign religion. Fr. Jogues and many of his companions were taken hostage, led to a place on Lake Champlain now known as Jogues Island. There, they were subjected to torture, including the severing of two fingers on Fr. Jogues’ right hand.
For a year Fr. Jogues lived in captivity. He was subjected to frequent torture, yet remained steadfast in his desire to spread the Gospel to all corners of the earth. He learned the Mohawk language, comforted the Huron converts, baptized dying children, despite the brutal punishment he received when discovered, and became known as “The Indomitable One” by his captors. Eventually, Fr. Jogues was ransomed, and returned back to France (after making a stop in Manhattan, thus becoming the first Catholic priest to say Mass on the island), where he was viewed as a “living martyr” for having survived the barbarous treatment. He was issued a dispensation by Pope Urban VIII in order to continue saying Mass, as at the time, Canon law required that the Blessed Sacrament be handled only by the thumb and forefinger of the right hand, something made impossible by Jogues’ mutilation.
Despite the tortures endured in the New World, Jogues expressed an unquenchable desire to return to his missionary endeavors. Within a year, he was back in Quebec, took part in a peace conclave between the Huron and Mohawk, and returned to the very village where he had endured terrible brutality. The people of the village were astounded to see the priest again, bearing no trace of ill-will, but come as an ambassador of peace. He secured the release of the Huron converts, repaid the people who had provided the funds for his ransom, and made plans to spend the winter with the Mohawk in their village.
Tragedy, however, prevented that from happening, as crops failed that year due to a caterpillar infestation, and yet another epidemic. The Mohawk once again blamed the Catholic missionaries for the disaster, pinning the events on a curse radiating off a chest of vestments and the priest’s personal effects. Fr. Jogues and several of his companions were once again taken captive, and the tribe met to decide the fate of Jogues, known to the Mohawk as Ondessonk, “The Indomitable One”, and his friends.
It speaks highly of the way Fr. Jogues conducted his relations with the Mohawk that the majority of the tribe voted to set him free. However, one faction disagreed, and taking matters into their own hands, invited Ondessonk to come visit a tent, where he was tomahawked, beheaded, thrown into a ravine, and his head set upon a pike along the trail in warning to other Jesuit missionaries.
The end of St. Isaac Jogues’ life wasn’t the end of his influence, however. The memory of the brave and gentle man remained strong among the Huron and Mohawk, and within years, lasting peace between the Huron and Mohawk was establish, and Jesuit missionaries returned, able to set up permanent missions. Members of the Mohawk tribe entered the seminary in Quebec, and less than a decade after Jogues’ martyrdom, in the very village he died, a Mohawk woman named Kateri Tekakwitha was born.
From the example of St. Isaac Jogues, a man strong in body, mind, and soul, graces poured out, rippling through space and time and still being offered to us today.