The Way of Beauty The North American Martyrs

Some the most breathtaking scenery in the United States is found throughout Upper New York and northward to the St. Lawrence Seaway.      Two famous pilgrimage shrines are located in this area and deserve special attention for their historic and religious significance.  In this country, October 19th is the feast of the North American Martyrs. First, some history.

New France

In the seventeenth century, French authorities sent a number of expeditions to conduct fur trading in this territory and named it New France.  Soon, French Jesuit missionaries followed to minister to their own and to convert the Native Americans to the Catholic faith. Today this direct form of proselytism toward a native people would be considered out of step with ecumenical norms.

The Jesuit missions began their work early in the 1630s. Our story picks up twelve years later with eight French Jesuits who were martyred while working among these Native Americans.  Here is their story.

The Huron Indians

By the seventeenth century, the Huron Indians, who belonged to the Iroquois Federation, had developed a fairly high way of life. They spoke in the Wendat language, and their religious beliefs had been fixed for years.  Perhaps the Jesuits did not fully appreciate this fact. The Hurons encountered both the Dutch and the French. The Dutch were primarily merchants who established trading posts at the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson; the French came south from present-day Quebec to establish fur trading posts.

Jesuit Relations: Instructions to the French Jesuit Missionaries

Much of what we know about the Jesuits' work among the Hurons was recorded in annual reports, "Jesuit Relations," written by Fathers Paul LeJeune, S.J. and Paul Ragueneau, S.J.  The "Relations" gave the Jesuits a long list of practical instructions to be followed when ministering to the Hurons.  Three of the many are:

"You must have sincere affection for the Savages, looking upon them as ransomed by the blood of the Son of God, and as our brethren, with whom we are to pass the rest of our lives."

"You must so conduct yourself as not to be at all troublesome to even one of these Barbarians."

"You must bear with their imperfections without saying a word, yes, even without seeming to notice them.  Even if it be necessary to criticize anything, it must be done modestly, and with words and signs which evince love and not aversion.  In short, you must try to be, and to appear, always cheerful."    

By 1642, Father Isaac Jogues, S.J., leader of the missionary group, planned to work among the Hurons along the south side of the Mohawk River from east to west. It was only natural for the Native Americans to resent the overtures of the missionaries despite the respect given to them. Why would "black-robed" foreigners want to change their way of life and their religious beliefs? Suspicious, they eventually blamed the Jesuits for the outbreak of small pox and other diseases.
At various times, between1642-1649, the Jesuits were brutally tortured – accused as witch doctors.  Most of them were bludgeoned to death under the tomahawk.  

First Group of Jesuit Missionaries

The first group of French Jesuits answered the call to minister in this region.  These 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 – he was bludgeoned to death.  

For thirteen months, Jogues lingered from brutal torture. Knowing that his index fingers and thumbs were essential to the celebration of Mass, his captives mangled them.

Curiously enough, his escape to France prompted a desire to return to his mission.  Accompanied by John de Lalande, the nineteen-year old donné, Jogues returned to the Mohawk Mission in New York. With papal approval, he celebrated Mass even with stubs as fingers.  On his return to the region, he resumed his work but was soon tortured again.  This time he succumbed.  The date was October 18th, 1646.  Lalande himself was killed the next day.  

Second Group of Jesuit Missionaries

More in The Way of Beauty

The second group of Jesuits was martyred within the confines of Midland at Martyrs' Shrine, Sainte Marie. In 1635, Father Anthony Daniel founded the first Huron Boys' College in Quebec and worked among the Hurons for twelve years until, on July 4th, 1648, still wearing Mass vestments, he was attacked as he ended the celebration of 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. Gentle in manner, massive in body, it is said 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 frail.  Eventually both were captured, tied to stakes and underwent one of the worst martyrdoms ever recorded in history. The Jesuit Relations describes in detail how grisly were their tortures: "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 suffered for three hours before dying on March 16th, 1649. Lalemant died the next morning.   Father Charles Garnier was assigned to the Huron mission at Sainte Marie for thirteen years and then to the mission at Saint Jean.  He was beloved by his congregants, but in 1649, was tomahawked to death about thirty miles from Sainte Marie.

Father Noël Chabanel, S.J.

Perhaps the saddest and most poignant story of all is reserved for twenty-eight year old Father Noël Chabanel who was assigned to work with Father Charles Garnier.  Though he was a brilliant professor of rhetoric and humanism at home in southern France, he had no ear whatsoever for the Huron language. Plagued by a sense of uselessness, he was convinced that his ministry had failed. Feeling a strong repugnance to the life and habits of the Huron, and fearing it might result in his own withdrawal from the work, he bound himself by vow never to leave the mission. Today, in all likelihood, superiors would frown on this extreme position. Chabanel was martyred on December 8, 1649, by a "renegade" Huron.  Yet to the end, he persevered in his missionary activity.

In 1930, Pius XI canonized the North American Martyrs.  The Canadian Catholic Church celebrates their feast day on September 26th.    

The Shrines at Midland and Auriesville

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Because the two shrines are not far from one another, they are popular places to visit at the same time during the summer months or during October when the fall foliage is at its peak period. 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 comprised 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, a familiar feature of Jesuit retreat houses.  There is a large auditorium which seats 6,000 pilgrims.

"The Blood of the Martyrs … the Seed of the Church"

From the earliest days of Christianity, martyrdom for the faith has always been part of the Christian psyche. It was understood that those who openly professed their faith might have to suffer for this pearl of great price. But, it was better to stay alive.

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 were 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. But let us not forget that there are so many ways to be martyred, real and metaphorical.

The North American Martyrs were high-minded men, cultured, refined, and well educated.  For them, the savage, bloody road of martyrdom was transformed into a way of beauty, a road that remains sacred ground.  Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine at Auriesville and Martyrs' Shrine at Midland are among the most frequently-visited pilgrimage sites in the world – both sacred ground.  Those who do visit them are disposed to receive special favors from the saints for whom the shrines are named.  It is said that during her lifetime, Dolores Hope, wife of comedian Bob Hope, made a pilgrimage to Auriesville almost every year.

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