Saint Noel Chabanel: A Life of Faithfulness

Saint Noel Chabanel is honored on October 19 as one of the eight North American Martyrs who went to Canada in the 1600s to evangelize the Native people.

Noel Chabanel was born on February 2, 1613 in Sauges, France, the youngest of four children of a notary. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1630, at age seventeen. He was ordained a priest in 1641 and taught rhetoric at a college. Noel was described in the Jesuit Catalogue for his province as “serious by nature – energetic – great stability – better than average intelligence.” Having read the accounts of the Jesuit missionaries in Canada (called New France at the time), he felt inspired to become a missionary as well. In April 1643, the General of the Society of Jesus granted Noel’s second request to join the missions, and he left on a ship for Canada on May 8, 1643. Three months later, he arrived in Québec on August 15.

Saint Noel experienced much suffering during his time in New France. He found every aspect of being a missionary there difficult. He disliked the food, he had to sleep on the ground, it was often very cold, there was a lot of noise, and there was no privacy. His greatest difficulty was that he was unable to become proficient in the native languages. He also endured a state of either spiritual desolation or a dark night of the soul for five or six years in which he did not feel any consolation from God. He could have requested a change of assignment. He knew that his life would be easier and probably happier if he returned to France. However, he believed that he was where God wanted him to be, and he was determined to remain and serve Him in the missions.

Saint Noel’s first assignment was in Québec, where he served as a chaplain at the Ursuline Convent, and ministered to the French residents. In the summer of 1644, he worked with Saint Jean de Brebeuf in the mission to the Hurons of Sainte-Marie. In 1646 he went to the mission of the Immaculate Conception and on October 21, 1646 he made his final vows as a Jesuit. In the spring of 1647, he was back in the mission of Sainte-Marie. While Saint Noel endured great suffering as a missionary, perhaps he experienced some moments of joy too; for example, in his interactions with his brother priests, in celebrating Mass, in baptizing people, and in helping to take care of the sick.

On the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1647, before the tabernacle where Jesus was Present in the Eucharist, Saint Noel made a vow to remain in the missions for the rest of his life, “provided this be in conformity with the will of the superiors of the Society in my regard…. I implore you, therefore, O my Savior, to accept me as a perpetual servant of this mission, and grant that I may be worthy of such sublime service. Amen.”

Saint Noel hoped to become a martyr and thought that it was because of his lack of courage that he had not been martyred yet. In a letter to his brother, who was also a Jesuit priest, he wrote, “My cowardice has, in the sight of God rendered me unworthy of these favors. My turn will come whenever divine Goodness pleases, provided that, in the meantime, I strive to make myself a pseudo-martyr, a martyr to my nature, a martyr without bloodshed.” He asked that his brother and the priests of his province “remember me at the holy altar as a victim destined, perhaps, for the fire of the Iroquois. God grant that, with the help of his saints, I may emerge victorious from so fierce a struggle.”

From autumn of 1648 until February 1649, Saint Noel was assigned to work with Saint Jean de Brebeuf at the new Saint Ignace Mission. Then he was sent to the mission of Saint Jean to work with Saint Charles Garnier. A month after leaving Saint Ignace mission, he learned of the martyrdom of Saints Jean de Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant. On December 5, he was asked to go to Christian Island. Saint Charles Garnier was martyred two days after Saint Noel left the mission of Saint Jean. On his journey to the island, Saint Noel stopped to visit the priests at the mission of Saint Matthias. He said to a priest before he left the mission: “I am going where obedience calls me; if I do not succeed here, I shall ask the superior to permit me to return to the mission to which I was first assigned. In any case God must be served until death

Saint Noel never arrived on Christian Island. The Jesuit missionaries later learned that Saint Noel was martyred on December 8, 1849. A Huron, who was an apostate, confessed that he killed Noel with a hatchet because of his hatred for the Catholic Faith. Saint Noel realized his dream of being a martyr, and we can believe that the sacrifice of his life and his prayers from Heaven were used by God for the conversion of the people of North America. We can ask Saint Noel to pray for our Church and the people of North America today.

Noel Chabanel was beatified on June 21, 1925 and canonized on June 29, 1930 as one of the eight North American Martyrs.

While we may look at the outward success of the missionaries, such as the missionaries who could speak the Native languages fluently and therefore, teach effectively or the number of converts they baptized, only God knows the full extent of an apostolate’s success. It may be that because of his great suffering, Saint Noel’s time in the missions converted many souls. It may be that his example of faithfulness and patience, despite hardships, had a positive influence on many people. It may be that his prayers and the Masses he offered did more good than if he were able to preach great sermons in the native language. God knew the purity and selflessness of his intentions and was able to transform the offering of his life into something great. Saint Noel understood that if he wanted to be great (become a saint), he must be a servant to others as Jesus taught. (Mark 9:35) As a Jesuit, he would have prayed the Suscipe prayer of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

“Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.”

Saint Noel can be said to have truly lived this prayer, as he gave without counting the cost, and he offered his entire self to God.

In our time, when some people abandon their vocation because they find it difficult or leave the Church because of scandal or because they reject her teachings, we can be inspired by saints such as Saint Noel who persevered in the Faith and in his vocation despite extraordinary trials. By outward appearance, he did not seem to have any success as a missionary. Yet, his witness of faithfulness in his vocation and of humble service may have led to the conversion of some of the people he assisted even if he never knew of it until he met them in Heaven.

In Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather, a novel about 17th Century Québec, a French missionary priest tells the story of Saint Noel Chabanel to a Catholic father and his young daughter. Influenced by the example of the saint, the priest chose to make a vow of perpetual stability also. He said, “But Noel Chabanel—ah when your faith is cold, think of him! How could there be men in France this day who doubt the existence of God, when for the love of Him weak human beings have been able to endure so much?”

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Louise Merrie is a freelance writer on Catholic subjects. Her articles have been published in Catholic Life, Novena Magazine, and the Saint Austin Review. She is the founder of the Community of Mary, Mother of Mercy, an organization in which senior priests and Catholic laity support each other through prayer and friendship in living as disciples of Jesus.

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