North America in the 17th century could be a wild, untamed place. In the Great Lakes region of what is now the northeastern US and southeastern Canada, tribes of Native Americans, supported by various European traders and trading companies, were locked in the throes of bitter, brutal warfare. The large scale European settlement which would result in the Canada and United States we know today was yet to come. However, in these earliest days of European exploration and early settlement on the North American continent, Jesuit missionaries were among those making the trek.
The Huron Native American people of Central Ontario were the subjects of missionary work by European Jesuits during the 17th century. The Jesuits claimed to have great success, claiming numerous converts in the Huron nation. However, it must be understood that these priests were not admired by all, even among the Huron. European settlers were already not well-trusted, for a number of reasons. It was already understood that the Europeans unwittingly brought diseases with them to which the native peoples had not developed immunities. The arrival of many of these priests coincided with epidemics of diseases such as smallpox, so many native peoples saw a correlation between the two – the priests must be of malicious intent. This attitude helped to exacerbate the dangerous environment into which these priests stepped.
The atmosphere was not helped by the fact that the French colonists periodically attacked the Iroquois, and the French, the missionaries, and the Huron were all seen as being in league with one another over and against the Iroquois. In spite of all this, however, these men elected to brave the dangerous frontier and preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They sought to fulfill the command of Jesus to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28: 19-20)
The heroic faith and determined missionary fervor can perhaps best be seen in the tale of St. Isaac Jogues. Jogues was born in 1607 in Orléans, France, and entered the Jesuit novitiate at the age of 17 in 1624. During his studies in theology, Jogues encountered many priests involved in the missions to New France in North America, and began to feel a fervent desire to become a missionary himself. He was assigned as a missionary to the Huron people, arriving in May 1636. Jogues arrived at the Jesuit settlement at Lake Huron on September 11 of that year, and immediately fell ill, as was common among the missionaries. The lives of these missionaries were threatened by the people of the village, but they were ultimately spared.
Jogues traveled around the region spreading the Christian faith to the native peoples. On August 3, 1642, Jogues and other missionaries and Christian converts were captured by a group of Mohawks, members of the Iroquois Confederacy. These men were tortured, during which Jogues lost two fingers on his right hand. He lived as a slave for 13 months, and was then ransomed and returned to France. He was welcomed as a living martyr, and was even allowed by the Pope to say the Mass with his mutilated hand, which was not typically allowed by Church law at the time.
After a short time in France following his ordeal, Jogues returned to North America. In 1646, after a tentative peace agreement had been reached between the warring Iroquois and Huron, Jogues came back to the Mohawks. On October 18, 1646, Jogues was attacked, and killed by a tomahawk blow. The simple fact of Jogues’ return, in spite of the danger, in spite of the trials he had already faced, in spite of what he knew was surely awaiting him, is a wonderful example of the missionary call of Jesus Christ.
St. Isaac Jogues and his companions were martyred between 1642 and 1649. These martyrs are collectively known as the Canadian Martyrs or the North American Martyrs. St. Rene Goupil was martyred in 1642; Sts. Isaac Jogues and Jean Lalande in 1646; St. Antoine Daniel in 1648; and Sts. Jean de Brebeuf, Noel Chabanel, Charles Garnier, and Gabriel Lalemant in 1649.
When Jogues and the others arrived, they knew that it was dangerous to be a European in this region, and they knew specifically that the Iroquois/Mohawk Indians were more than willing to track down and slaughter any Frenchmen that they could, as the French were supporting their enemies in the wars. But come they did, knowing full well the danger that await them. They knew full well that their mission was to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and these Native Americans had been saved by the blood of Jesus Christ just as much as anyone, and deserved to hear the good news – and had a right to it.
Brebeuf wrote to his confreres at one point, stating, “Bear up with courage the few torments remaining, the suffering will end with your lives; the grandeur that follows, will never have an end.” He was not speaking merely of a personal grandeur, a reward greater than any available on earth. Rather, he spoke of the grandeur of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the splendor and majesty that comes with the fulfillment of the work of God, the salvation brought by our Blessed Lord. This is what these men brought to the native people of North America. This is what these men died for, why they were willing to face any trial, torment, or tribulation. This is why St. Isaac Jogues returned to North America, mutilated and humiliated. This is why, even after the brutal martyrdom of their confreres, the Jesuits kept coming, many of them meeting the same fate. And their persistence, their steadfast faith and their commitment to their missionary calling, planted the seed which later flowered across the continent. In the second century, Tertullian wrote that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” This is no less true when looking at the influence of the Canadian Martyrs on the Church in North America. Their witness, their martyrion, would yield great things as the centuries rolled on.
Perhaps one of the clearest signs of the profound effect these martyrs had on the native peoples can be seen in a life that came shortly after their deaths. In 1656, just a few short years after their martyrdom, came the birth of Kateri Tekakwitha, the “Lily of the Mohawks,” born in the very tribe that killed these Jesuit missionaries. Canonized recently, in 2012, St. Kateri has become another eternal sign of the blessed work of these holy men, in the face of such clear danger and even animosity. Through the workings of the Holy Spirit, their work brought forth wonderful fruit from the fertile North American soil.