Imagine growing up in Orléans of Saint Joan of Arc fame, in the 1600s. Recovered from the Hundred Years’ War, this north-central French city on the Loire River, has the amazing Gothic Cathedrale Saint-Croix d’Orleans, or Cathedral of the Holy Cross, a thriving university dating back to the 1230’s, and is a transportation center, filled with culture and commerce.
Next, imagine you receive a fine education and are ordained a Jesuit priest. You can fit right in with intellectuals and rulers of Orléans. But you feel called to remote forests, to serve people who have never seen a modern city, don’t speak your language and are fierce warriors.
This is Saint Isaac Jogues’ story and it has given me chills since childhood. His superiors sent this native of Orléans to serve allies of the French, the Hurons and Algonquins, in North America, in territory called “New France.” In a canoe en route, several Christian companions and he were captured by Mohawk Iroquoise. Father Isaac Jogues could have easily died from blood loss or gangrene after his captors tortured him and chopped off several fingers.
He survived and became a slave of the Mohawks, seeking every chance to teach the tribal people about Jesus and God’s mercy. When Dutch merchants learned of his plight, they smuggled him off to present-day Manhattan.
Miraculously, he sailed back to France, where people greeted him as a "living martyr." He was even given special permission by Pope Urban VIII to celebrate Mass with his mutilated hand, since the Eucharist is only supposed to be held by the thumb and forefinger.
He had certainly earned safety in some quiet assignment. But after just a few months of recovery, Father Isaac Jogues headed back to North America.
A shaky peace was forged between the Iroquois, Huron, Algonquin and the French, and in 1645, Father Isaac Jogues and lay helper Jean de Lalande went into Mohawk country to act as ambassadors. But illness and crop failure had hit the Mohawks. Europeans immigrating into the New World, especially children, were helping to spread smallpox. But Indians feared the missionaries were magicians who were casting spells on their tribes.
The missionaries preached peace, but when they were captured by a hostile group of Mohawks, they were taken to their village of Ossernenon, now Auriesville, New York. The Turtle and Wolf Clans of the Mohawks argued for the priest’s lives and wanted to free them. But members of the fierce Bear Clan, ambushed the men from behind, using tomahawks to behead them.
For my Catholic Vitamins podcast "J-for Jubilee," I told how my family drove along the Saint Lawrence Seaway, past Quebec City to the spectacular shrine of St. Anne de B’eaupre. We didn’t realize at the time that when Father Isaac Jogues was martyred by the Mohawks, his body was thrown into the St. Lawrence River.
Just about ten years after this martyrdom, an Indian maiden was born near Ossernenon. Kateri Tekakwitha was the daughter of a Mohawk chief and a Catholic Algonquin woman, and it is thought she belonged to the Turtle Clan who had argued to save Father Jogues and Lalande.
Kateri lost her brother and parents to smallpox, that also left her with impaired vision and facial scars. She was quiet, avoided social gatherings, and covered her head with a blanket to spare others the sight of her scars. She was mocked and cast off by her tribe because she took a vow of virginity, consecrating herself to God. When she died at the age of 24, eyewitnesses saw her smallpox scars fade and her face bloom into beauty.
“The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Tertullian penned these words around the 2nd-3rd century after Christ. It seems that the sacrifice of Saints Isaac Jogues and Jean de Lalande watered the soil that nurtured Kateri, known now as the Lily of the Mohawks.
In the United States, we celebrate the Feast of the North American Martyrs, also known as St. Isaac Jogues and Companions, on October 19. And on October 21st this year, Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to canonize Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha.
It seems something really significant, some powerful force for good, will be unleashed with this event. And the Native American community? It has waited for this canonization day for centuries.
I started my Missionary Moment for the Catholic Vitamins "M for Mercy" podcast this week by playing the Huron Carol on recorder. The Carol was written in 1643 by Father Jean de Brebeuf, another North American Martyr. He wrote the words to the Carol in the language of the native Huron/Wendat people and based the tune on a traditional French folk song. He overcame tuberculosis to come serve the Hurons near Lake Huron, and many of the Indians came to love him and follow his faith. When he was later captured and tortured by Iroquois, the warriors consumed his heart because they hoped to gain his courage. He was a massive, powerful man with a gentle way, and people said he did not cry out in pain even once at the end.
Not everyone has the courage of Saints Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brebeuf or the other North American martyrs. But we do have the actual saints rooting for us. Their interest in saving souls didn’t end when they reached heaven.
Maybe this October, as we put out our pumpkins, we can call on all the saints and remember that Halloween is really All Hallow’s Eve, the day before All Saints’ Day, honoring all saints in heaven, known and unknown.
You might plan a trip to the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs, also known as the Shrine of Our Lady of the Martyrs, in Auriesville, New York. Or visit the National Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine outside of Fonda, New York, also the site of the only fully excavated Iroquois village in the country. My husband and I took our children to the rustic chapel and museum in a 200-year-old barn near Fonda some years ago, and it was an awesome experience to pray and learn more about our North American saints.
With the saints on our side, any first timid steps into holiness will grow bolder with practice. Even if we’re in a situation or time in our life when we’re especially hidden or lonely – we can be assured we’re not alone in living our faith. Holiness spreads. It bridges heaven and earth – and practiced on a large scale, will renew a nation.
Article first appeared at Finerfields.blogspot.com and as a SQPN-affiliated Catholic Vitamins podcast. © By Marianna Bartholomew 2012