Why We Remember the Sacrifices of the North American Martyrs

Yesterday, the Church celebrated the memorial of the North American Martyrs: eight holy and courageous men who gave their lives for the Faith in the 1640s.

St. John de Brebeuf, St. Isaac Jogues, St. Gabriel Lalemant, St. Antoine Daniel, St. Charles Garnier, and St. Noel Chabanel were Jesuit priests. St. René Goupil and St. John de Lalande were lay volunteers (called donnés) for the Jesuit order.

They all came from France as missionaries to Eastern Canada, evangelizing the Native people there. They felt strongly called to this vocation and were willing to make great sacrifices to serve God and save souls.

A New Life in Canada

These missionaries lived among the Native Canadians as friends: they learned their languages, they invited them to their cabins for meals, shared their supplies, cared for the sick, visited their villages, taught catechism classes, baptized infants and adult converts, and consoled captives. Devout men, they spent much of their time in prayer.

Their lives in Canada were arduous. They were far from their families and friends in France, they often had to travel long distances through the woods and by canoe, the villages where they lived did not offer much privacy or quiet, the conditions were unsanitary; the food was unlike what they were accustomed to; they were often ill, and their work of evangelizing was very difficult. There were those of the Native people living in an immoral way, were not practicing chastity, were often violent, and tortured the enemies they captured.

Often when hardships occurred, such as illness, crop failure, or defeat in warfare, the Native Canadians blamed the missionaries and threatened to kill them, but the missionaries did not become discouraged. Although treated by some with hostility and suspicion, they continued to show love for the Native people, and eventually some of them converted and lived very virtuous lives.

There is a belief in the Church that the death of the martyrs will lead to conversions, and this seems to be true. These saints were willing to be martyrs, if that was what was necessary to convert the people of North America. Their martyrdom also led to the growth of the Church in North America, and we today have benefited from their sacrifice and prayers.

St. Isaac Jogues, St. René Goupil, and St. John de Lalande were martyred in Auriesville, New York. St. Isaac, a Jesuit priest, was sent to the Huron Mission in Ontario, Canada shortly after his ordination. St. René was a surgeon and donne. He had been a Jesuit novice, but he did not enter the Society of Jesus because of health problems. Despite the difficulties of the missionary life, St. Isaac found happiness and wrote to his mother:

“The life of a man could it be better employed then in this noble work?… I have always had a great love for this kind of life and for this vocation, so grand and so much like that of the Apostles.”

St. Isaac Jogues, St. John de Brébeuf, and Companions
Martyrdom of Father Isaac Jogues S.J. Engraving by A. Malaer via Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

In the spring of 1642, St. Isaac offered his life as a sacrifice to God, and said he heard God speak to him, saying God would grant his prayer. 

Martyrdom

That June, as St. Isaac, St. Rene, and some Hurons traveled back to their village from Quebec, a group of Mohawks attacked and captured them, then taking them to their villages to undergo more torture for the next six days. While traveling, St. René asked St. Isaac if he would hear and accept his vows as a Jesuit brother, which he did.

Saints Isaac and René were sent to be slaves in the Mohawk village of Ossernenon— what is now Auriesville, NY. During their time there, they often prayed together and on the Feast of Saint Michael the Archangel, they offered their lives to God to save the souls of the Mohawks. As they were praying the Rosary that day, two men told them to return to the village. When they stopped by the village gate, one man hit St. René on the head with a tomahawk. St. Isaac gave him absolution before he died, saying the name of Jesus. St. Isaac learned that they had killed him for blessing a child with the sign of the cross.

St. Isaac remained in Ossernenon for several more months; he forgave the Mohawks and taught them about Jesus. Eventually, with the help of the Dutch in Albany, St. Isaac escaped to France, but returned to Canada six months later, because he still wanted to evangelize the Native people.

When the French asked St. Isaac to go as a peace ambassador to the Mohawks, he agreed. During his second peace mission to their village, he and the young donne, St. John de Lalande, were martyred.

The Canadian Martyrs

The other five Jesuit saints were martyred in Canada. St. John de Brebeuf was gifted in languages and made a Huron dictionary for the other missionaries to use. He spent 24 years in Canada. The Iroquois were at war with the Hurons, and in May 1649, Iroquois attacked their village and captured St. John and his friend, the missionary, St. Gabriel Lalemant. They were tortured in terrible ways until they were killed. 

St. Noel Chabanel found his life as a missionary very difficult. He could not learn the native languages, although he was a brilliant man, and he endured a dark night of the soul. However, he believed that it was God’s will that he be a missionary to the Native people of Canada, and he took a vow to remain there for the rest of his life. A Huron and former Catholic killed him, claiming that he did it out of hatred for the Faith. 

St. Antoine Daniel was martyred when the Iroquois attacked the village he was living in. During the attack, he baptized and consoled the Hurons before they died. St. Charles Garnier was also martyred when Iroquois attacked his village, and he too spent his last moments among the Hurons, baptizing them, hearing confessions, and remaining with them until he was killed.

The Prayers of the North American Martyrs

The Church canonized the North American Martyrs as saints in 1930. The martyrdom of these saints, and their heroic work, led to many conversions among the Indigenous people of North American. For example, ten years later, a girl named Tekakwitha was born in the Mohawk village of Ossernenon and she later became a great saint, St. Kateri Tekakwitha.

Although the Lord may not call all of us to be missionaries, we can follow the example of these saints by evangelizing the people we know and praying for every person’s conversion. We can ask the North American Martyrs to intercede for the conversion of the people of our country.

Anyone interested in going on a pilgrimage to honor the North American Martyrs can go to Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine in Auriesville, NY and Martyrs Shrine in Midland, Ontario, Canada.

image: St Isaac Jogues on the great bronze doors of St Patrick’s Cathedral, NYC. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

By

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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