Models of Mercy: Saints John de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues

The witness and martyrdom of Sts. John de Brébeuf, Isaac Jogues, and their companions was not fruitless. Ten years after their martyrdom, St. Kateri Tekakwitha was born - she was part of the Mohawk tribe, the tribe which had killed these Jesuit missionaries.

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.

They are priests, St. John de Brébeuf , 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.

The feast of the North American Martyrs is on Oct. 19. But on March 16, we celebrate the feast of St. John de Brébeuf.

Mission to the Hurons
In 1626, Fr. John de Brébeuf traveled across the Atlantic from France to the peninsula of Lake Huron to minister to the Huron Indians. He was a gifted linguist, and mastered the difficult Huron language. Canada's oldest Christmas song, the "Huron Carol," is credited to him.

Ten years later, Fr. Isaac Jogues made the voyage to join his Jesuit brother.

Traveling 900 miles upstream the St. Lawrence River in a canoe with few provisions, upon arriving to Brébeuf's camp, Jogues fell ill with a fever that spread to his brothers, and a similar epidemic broke out among the native people. The natives threatened to kill all of the "Black Coats" (Jesuits), but Brébeuf conciliated with them, and within a year they were sharing the Gospel among the Huron tribe. Over the next 10 years, the Jesuits built a church, living quarters, a cemetery, a hospital, and a fort.

When sickness broke out among the natives in 1642, Fr. Jogues was sent to Quebec for supplies and reinforcements from the Jesuits stationed there. Unfortunately, along the journey, the Mohawks spotted them - they were the sworn enemies of the Huron tribe.

War cries
On Aug. 2, 1642, as the 12 canoes of Fr. Jogues, fellow missionaries, and Huron converts were returning along the St. Lawrence River to their people, war cries pierced the air around them. Mohawk warriors came out of the marshes to attack the missionaries and Huron Indians.

The Chief of the Hurons looked to the sky and said, "Great God, to you alone do I look for help." Father Jogues made the Sign of the Cross and gave absolution to his companions. He saw his outnumbered companions being killed or captured. Father Jogues surrendered, and he and his companions were taken to the Mohawk village in Auriesville, New York, today the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs.

Father Jogues was tortured. Even his fingers were gnawed off by the Mohawk tribe. Father Jogues spent the next year in slavery, doing menial work, learning the language, and baptizing children he found dying.

Escape and return
While on a fishing expedition with the Mohawks, Fr. Joques escaped with the help of the Dutch in a settlement near Albany, New York. They gave him passage down the Hudson River to New York City, and from there to France. There he recovered as much as he could from his injuries and was given special permission to celebrate Mass even with the stumps of his fingers.

Father Jogues' only desire was to return to Canada - the place where he was just brutally tortured and almost killed. In June 1644, he returned to Quebec. He travelled and spoke about Christ among the Iroquois and the Huron, and eventually made his way back down to the Mohawks.

Meanwhile, an epidemic had broken out in the Mohawk village. They blamed it on Jogues and the belongings he had left behind. They stripped him naked, slashed him with their knives, beat him, and led him through their village. While he told them he brought peace, and some of the Mohawk council decided to give him freedom, some of the tribe members, the Bear clan, decided to take the matter into their own hands. They invited him to their village, and on Oct. 18, 1646, they tomahawked him, cut off his head and placed it on a pole to warn off any other "Black coats" who wished to come near.

Four years later, the Bear clan travelled upstream to Fr. John de Brébeuf's mission and killed him and the rest of the missionaries on March 16, 1649.

The witness of Fr. Jogues was not forgotten among the Mohawk people. Years later when there was peace among the Hurons, Iroquois, and the Mohawks, a new group of French Jesuit missionaries came to Canada and established a "Mission of the Martyrs." They were well received, and before long, Mohawk converts were traveling to the seminary in Quebec to be trained as Christian leaders.

Seed of the Church
As Tertullian, an early Christian writer wrote, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." The witness and martyrdom of Sts. Isaac Jogues, John de Brébeuf, and their companions was not fruitless. Ten years after their martyrdom, St. Kateri Tekakwitha was born - she was part of the Mohawk tribe, the tribe which had killed these Jesuit missionaries.

You may not be marching into enemy territory where they are waiting with tomahawks to kill you, but we are called by the witness of the martyrs to spread the Gospel of life in the culture of death that surrounds us.

Saint Isaac Jogues wrote shortly before his death, "I shall be happy if our Lord will complete the sacrifice where He has begun it, and make the little blood I have shed in that land the earnest of what I would give from every vein of my body and my heart." Ask the Lord for a fire of love within your heart for the lost and broken, and the courage to go to them and bring them the Good News of the Father's mercy through Jesus Christ.

Saint John de Brebeuf, St. Isaac Jogues, and the North American Martyrs, pray for us!


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