The Magnificent Eight: the North American Martyrs

By Matthew August

"The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church” — Tertullian.

During the 17th century, six priests and two laymen from the Jesuit order set out on a heroic mission to teach the natives of North America about Jesus Christ. They stood with bravery in the face of suffering, and they were viciously tortured and killed. They are remembered as the North American Martyrs.

On Oct. 19, Catholics remember these eight men who sacrificed their lives to spread our faith.

They are priests, St. John de Brebeuf, St. Antony Daniel, St. Charles Garnier, St. Isaac Jogues, St. Gabriel Lalemant, St. Noël Chabanel, and oblates St. René Goupil and St. John de Lalande.

New France
Many people warned the group of men of the dangers that lay ahead. The territory they went to evangelize, then called “New France,” was an extremely hostile environment. There was rampant disease, food shortage, a severe climate, and isolation. On top of those circumstances was the hostile population, who had no qualms about using tools of torture.

They traveled across the ocean with God-given zeal to preach the Gospel to the Native Americans who had never heard the Good News of our faith. They taught primarily to the Huron, but were raided by the brutal Iroquois people.

Each of the North American Martyrs deserves his own article, but they were all tied together with one mission: to proclaim the Gospel.

Saint John de Brebeuf’s skills as an evangelist were evident. He was gifted in languages and quickly learned the Huron traditions and customs. He often would help the other missionaries learn the language so they could be more effective in communicating Christ’s teachings.

Other men struggled with the process, but God used them despite their shortcomings. Saint Noël Chabanel is remembered for his perseverance through his many failings. He didn’t find joy in the work, became ill from the food, and couldn’t seem to learn the Huron language, despite practicing great focus and effort. Chabanel believed he was a failure, but God certainly didn’t see him as one.

When the Iroquois people invaded the Huron, they captured several of the Jesuits. They were imprisoned for more than a year by the tribe and forced to watch as the Huron were tortured, mangled, and ripped apart while still alive.

Saint Isaac Jogues was beheaded by the Mohawks. Saint René Goupil was also decapitated for making the sign of the cross on the Native American children. Saint Antony Daniel was thrown into a chapel and burned alive. Saint John de Brebeuf, the group’s leader, finally died after hours and hours of extreme torture. The rest of the men met the same brutal fate.

Grace of martyrdom
“My God and my savior Jesus, what return can I make to you for all the benefits you have conferred on me?” prayed St. John de Brebeuf. “I make a vow to you never to fail, on my side, in the grace of martyrdom, if by your infinite mercy you offer it to me some day.”

I refer to these men as the "Magnificent Eight," and they have so much to show us about the missionary life — but there is no need to expose ourselves to extreme danger or travel to far off lands to follow their example.

One of the valuable lessons they taught us is the importance of heavenly zeal, a passion for the mission God gives us.

Each of us has our very own mission that we are called to in the depths of our hearts. When the Magnificent Eight collided into suffering and despair, they constantly reminded themselves of their divine mission. It gave them the strength to persevere and move forward.

The Magnificent Eight embodied Divine Mercy. They vowed to treat every one of the Native Americans with love. In the missionaries’ eyes, nothing divided them from the natives. They were all brothers and sisters in Christ. In our struggles on earth, Christ meets us where we are. These men did the same for the Native American people. They left their life of comfort and security to meet these people with the hope of bringing them everlasting life.

Mercy by example
For us, this could be making the effort to reach out to someone new and show them God’s Mercy and Love by our example. This could be through a simple smile or a kind word. Our kindness will affect someone who may become inspired to do the same for someone else. Thus, our efforts will ripple out to the world.

Finally these men weren’t afraid to speak boldly about their faith. They preached the gospel with confidence. Do we have the same confidence when speaking about our faith with others?

When St. John de Brebeuf was about to die, he looked at the Huron people beside him and said:

“God is the witness of our sufferings, and will soon be our exceeding great reward. Let us die in this faith … Sustain with courage the few remaining torments. They will end our lives. The glory which follows them will never have an end.”

North American Martyrs, the Magnificent Eight, pray for us.

Photo: Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine.


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