Some of the most beautiful scenery in the United States is found throughout Upstate New York and northward to the St. Lawrence Seaway into Canada. Two pilgrimage shrines are located in this region.
The bucolic hamlets of Auriesville, New York and Midland, Ontario celebrate the lives of the North American Martyrs, six French Jesuit priests and two assistants or donnés. There they ministered to the Iroquois confederacy of five nation-tribes. With the growing number of Indian converts, came a wave of persecution in the 1840s against the missionaries. At various times, from 1642-1649, they were brutally tortured, having been accused of being witch doctors. Most of them fell under the tomahawk. Pilgrims to Auriesville and Midland walk on sacred ground.
Who Were These French Jesuit Missionaries?
The first group of missionaries included Father Isaac Jogues, and two donnés, René Goupil and John Lalande. Due to deafness, Goupil could not be ordained a Jesuit but was trained as a doctor and surgeon. After years of ministering to the Indians along the St. Lawrence River, Jogues and Goupil were captured. Goupil was the first of the eight to be martyred—tomahawked. For thirteen months, Jogues was brutally tortured and enslaved—his fingers, mangled. His escape to France brought on a desire to return to his mission. John de Lalande, the nineteen-year old donné, accompanied Jogues back to the Mohawk Mission in New York. With papal approval, Jogues celebrated Mass even with stubs as fingers. When he was again tortured, this time he succumbed. The date was Oct. 18, 1646. Lalande himself was killed the next day. Pilgrims to Auriesville walk on sacred ground.
The second group of the Eight was martyred within the confines of Midland at Ste. Marie, Martyrs’ Shrine. In 1635, Father Anthony Daniel founded the first Huron boys’ College in Quebec and labored among the Hurons for twelve years until, on July 4, 1648, still wearing Mass vestments, he was attacked as he ended celebrating Mass. His martyred body was thrown into the flames of the burning church.
The thirty-three year old, Father Jean de Brébeuf was a gifted linguist and mastered the Huron language. Massive in body, gentle in manner, it is said that he had the heart of a giant. Like Brébeuf, Father Gabriel Lalemant was a gifted scholar, professor and college administrator, but unlike Brébeuf, his body was not strong. Eventually both were captured, tied to stakes and underwent one of the worst martyrdoms ever recorded in history. Brébeuf suffered for three hours before dying on March 16; Lalemant died the next morning. The year was 1649. The Jesuit Relations describes in detail how grisly their tortures were: ‘The Indians dismembered their hearts and limbs while they were still alive, and feasted on their flesh and blood’ (L. Poulot, “North American Martyrs,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 507). Brébeuf died on March 16, 1649, and Lalemant, on the next day. Father Charles Garnier was assigned to the Huron mission at Ste. Marie for thirteen years and then to the mission at St. Jean. He was beloved by his congregants, but in 1649, he was bludgeoned to death about thirty miles from Ste. Marie.
Perhaps the saddest and most poignant story is reserved for twenty-eight year old Father Noël Chabanel. Though he was a brilliant professor of rhetoric and humanist at home in southern France, he had absolutely no ear for the Huron language. Plagued by a sense of uselessness, he was convinced that his ministry had failed. Yet to the end, he persevered in his missionary activity. Pilgrims to Martyrs’ Shrine walk on sacred ground.
In 1930, Pius XI canonized the North American Martyrs. The American Catholic Church celebrates their feast day on October 19, and in Canada, on September 26.
The Shrines at Midland and Auriesville
Because the two shrines are not far from one another, they are popular places to visit around the same time during the summer months. Martyrs’ Shrine at Midland has a church and museum that feature seventeenth-century maps, songs written by Brébeuf, a history of the shrine, and the stories of the Canadian martyrs. It offers the pilgrim a walking tour to get a sense of how the Jesuits lived, worked, and prayed among the Huron Indians. One can see the simulated rustic village that comprises a chapel, living quarters, and classroom where the Jesuits carried out their apostolates.
The shrine at Auriesville has a similar layout. One of its most popular features is the expansive outdoor Stations of the Cross. There is a large auditorium which seats 6,000 pilgrims for Mass, lectures, and visual presentations.
“The Blood of the Martyrs … the Seed of the Church”
Martyrdom for the faith has always been part of the Christian psyche. When the missionaries were assigned to work in New France, martyrdom could not be ruled out, just as danger and death cannot be ruled out for policemen or firefighters. Missionaries expected to die for the sake of Christ, though they did not seek it out. It is a stark reality that remains a constant for missionaries today. The North American Martyrs were high-minded, cultured and refined men. The way of beauty was, for them, was the savage, bloody road of martyrdom. Sacred ground.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.