The word “martyr” comes from a Greek word meaning “witness.” By definition, a martyr is somebody who suffers death for the Catholic Faith as a witness to Christ.
A group of saints that fit this category so well is the North American martyrs, who gave witness to the Faith by the shedding of their blood for the conversion of the Native Americans.
Who Were They?
Eight French Jesuits traveled to the New World -- what is now Canada and New York -- to convert the natives. After enduring years of suffering and hardship, they paid the ultimate price by willingly shedding their blood for Christ.
There were six priests: Frs. Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brebeuf, Noel Chabanel, Charles Garnier, Gabriel Lalemant, and Antoine Daniel, along with two lay helpers: Rene Goupil and Jean de Lalande.
The missionaries studied at the most prestigious universities in France, acquiring a thorough understanding of the sacred and natural sciences. They knew how to chart maps, make astronomical and meteorological observations, and were able to provide detailed observations of the fauna and flora they discovered on their travels.
Canada at the turn of the 16th Century
At the start of the 1600s, the country of New France was a vast and untamed wilderness. This immense land was populated by thousands of natives whose whole existence seemed to revolve around warfare, and who delighted in torture and bloodshed.
By 1608, a French settlement had been established at Quebec. Soon afterward, the first Jesuit missionaries began arriving to minister to the colonists and natives.
While the Jesuits arrived in New France, a bloody religious conflict known as the Thirty Years War (1618-48), was raging back home. During this period, England and France were often engaged in warfare, which reverberated in North America as well. The two most prominent Indian confederacies often joined in this conflict, with the Hurons choosing the side of France and their sworn enemies, the Iroquois, preferring to fight for England.
The rivalry between these two powerful Indian nations caused the Jesuits great suffering and nearly lead to the extermination of the Huron nation.
Epic Mission: The Spiritual Conquest of a Continent
The huge area of land known as Huronia was destined to be the first mission territory of the Jesuits. Stretching from the north shores of present-day Lake Ontario, northwards to Georgian Bay, this vast tract of land was home to the Huron nation.
The Jesuits intended to conquer the North American continent for Christ. But, due to a shortage of missionaries, they were compelled to limit their activities to New France.
Even though the Jesuits were compelled to limit their activities to New France, their vision remained lofty: the conquest of the whole continent for Christ.
In their great zeal, missionaries made a plan to plant the Cross in every Indian village and establish missions among every native tribe. Indeed, the Jesuits did everything in their power to baptize the natives and bring them into the fold of the one, true, Church.
Saint Charles Garnier
A typical example of this is Fr. Charles Garnier, who, with his dying breath tried to save the soul of another man. Born in Paris, France in 1606, Charles Garnier’s entire life was characterized by an indefatigable zeal for souls. He entered the Society of Jesus, and in 1635 was ordained a priest. Shortly after, he began earnestly requesting his superiors to be sent to the Canadian missions. He set sail for New France in 1636 and before the ship made landfall, Fr. Garnier brought several of the ship’s fallen away Catholics back to the Faith.
Upon his arrival at the missions, Fr. Garnier set to work with his usual energy. He did not hesitate to travel thirty or forty miles on a blazing summer’s day in order to baptize a dying native. He would even go so far as to carry a sick person on his back up to six miles or more just to be able to baptize them.
In December of 1649, Fr. Garnier was ministering to a community of Petun natives in the town of Etarita, when the village was attacked by the Iroquois. The Iroquois braves streamed into the village and set fire to the cabins and cutting down everyone in their path.
Fr. Garnier rushed into the burning cabins trying to save as many souls as possible, but he was soon surrounded by the Iroquois and fell pierced by two bullets. Amazingly, he was still alive, and seeing a wounded native lying nearby he crawled towards him in order to provide spiritual assistance. At that moment, an Iroquois brave pounced upon him and killed him with a tomahawk.
Fr. Garnier’s extraordinary life is typical of all the other Canadian Martyrs who lived out Our Lord’s words, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).
Apostolate Among the Natives
In the field of apostolate, the Jesuits proved to be masters, instructing the natives in the Catholic Faith through many ingenious means, such as putting the truths of the Catholic faith into songs for the young Hurons. In fact, the missionaries placed great emphasis on this apostolate with the young natives.
Saint Antoine Daniel was especially devoted to this youth apostolate.
A native of the city of Dieppe, in Normandy, France, Antoine Daniel was ordained a priest for the Society of Jesus in 1630. Two years later, he sailed to the New World to take up missionary activities on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.
Later on, he did work on the mainland at a village called Ihonatiria. He made inroads in his work with the native children who, although unruly and irascible, were won over by Fr. Antoine’s kind ways. The priest had such great success that before long he taught them to sing the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Ten Commandments. He got a choir together that would sing at the Masses and as a result attracted a great number of curious adult Hurons to the religious ceremonies.
Eventually Fr. Antoine came to Quebec where he established the first college for boys in North America. He ended up at the Huron village of Teanaostaye, where, on July 4th, 1648, an Iroquois war party appeared at the town gates. Fr. Antoine rushed to the chapel were the terrified inhabitants were gathering. He gave general absolution to them, and taking his handkerchief, dipped it in holy water baptizing all the catechumens who were present.
His next move was totally unexpected. This courageous priest left the chapel and walking towards the bloodthirsty Iroquois commanded them not to enter the chapel. The astonishment of the Iroquois warriors quickly gave way to rage, and they charged at him.
Fr. Antoine was hit by a bullet and killed instantly. Taking his body, the Iroquois tossed it into the chapel, which they set ablaze. Thus died a great apostle described by his Jesuit superior as “a man of great courage and endurance,” a priest who “burned with a zeal for God more intense than any flame that consumed his body.”
“I have a strong desire to suffer for Jesus”
Shortly before his martyrdom, Fr. Jean de Brebeuf declared: “I have a strong desire to suffer for Christ,” a devotion shared by his fellow missionaries.
This extraordinary willingness to suffer for a higher good encapsulates the spirit of these brave men who acted as other alter Christos, ready to die for the sake of the Cross.
St. Isaac Jogues is another salient example. Born in Orleans to a distinguished family, he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Rouen and when asked what he wished for he answered, “Ethiopia and martyrdom.”
After his ordination to the priesthood, he arrived in New France in 1636 to take up the arduous life of a missionary.
Eventually, Fr. Jogues was captured and tortured by a band of Iroquois. His hands were horribly mutilated and his thumb was sawn off. He remained in captivity for thirteen months and underwent many terrible hardships. At last, he escaped, and after recuperating in France eagerly returned to the mission field.
In 1646, Fr. Jogues along with his lay helper, Jean de Lalande, returned to the place of his captivity at Ossernenon (Auriesville, NY). The object of their trip was to negotiate a peace treaty between the Hurons and Iroquois. Shortly before his departure, in a letter to a fellow Jesuit, Fr. Jogues writes, “In very truth it will be well with me, it will be a happiness for me, if God be pleased to complete the sacrifice there where He began it.”
God heard this humble prayer when the Iroquois, in a sudden act of treachery, captured and killed Fr. Jogues and his companion, Jean de Lalande, with tomahawks in October of 1646.
Not all the North American martyrs were Jesuits. Jean de Lalande and Rene Goupil were both laymen.
Rene arrived in New France in 1640 to serve as an assistant in the mission. He was the youngest martyr, surrendering his life to God at the age of 34. Rene Goupil was tomahawked by an Iroquois war party because he taught a native boy to how to make the sign of the Cross and died heroically uttering the words “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”
“The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church”
Early Christian author and apologist, Tertullian, in his work Apologeticus notes that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
In their zeal to convert souls, the Jesuit martyrs were willing to shed their blood in order that the seed of the Gospel would bear great fruit.
Shortly before their deaths the two Jesuits priests, Jean de Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant, while working together in the same mission, decided to make an offering of their lives to God as a way to further the missions in Canada.
God accepted their offering. In March of 1649, Frs. Brebeuf and Lalemant were visiting the Huron village of St. Louis when a large band of Iroquois warriors descended on the village killing most of the defenders and taking the two priests captive to torture them.
They chose Fr. Brebeuf along with several Huron Christians as the first victims and commenced their brutalities by breaking the bones of the Jesuit’s hands and tearing out his fingernails.
Next, he was tied to a post and in an effort to break his indomitable spirit, they burned his body with torches. A renegade Huron came forward and in mockery of Baptism, poured boiling water over him. When Fr. Brebeuf did not cry but remained calm, his tormentors were greatly infuriated. Taking knives they cut strips of flesh from his legs and arms and after roasting them ate them before his eyes.
Seeing the heroic Jesuit’s strength begin to fail, the Iroquois scalped him and one of them cut out his heart and ate it, while others drank his blood hoping to acquire some of his remarkable courage.
All through the night Fr. Brebeuf’s companion, Fr. Gabriel Lalemant, suffered unspeakable tortures. In the morning, Fr. Lalemant’s agony came to an end with the blow of a tomahawk, and this Jesuit missionary, frail in body but strong in spirit, went to his eternal reward.
By shedding their blood for the cause of Christ, the martyrs laid the foundation for the Catholic Faith throughout North America.
Selfless Devotion, Love and Obedience to Holy Mother Church
What led these great men to become Jesuits, travel to New France as missionaries, embrace every kind of privation and hardship, and finally die a gruesome death?
Only a sublime motive is capable of producing such a high degree of devotion and heroism. Only a profound union with the Cross of Christ can inspire such noble and selfless sacrifice. These eight martyrs were true friends of the Cross. They demonstrated a burning love for the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ for the sanctification of souls.
Just as the North American martyrs embraced their crosses and conquered Heaven for all eternity, Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira bids every Catholic accept and love their own crosses:
“If we misunderstand the role of the cross, refuse to love it and fail to walk along our own Via Dolorosa, we will shirk Providence’s designs for us. We will be unable, with our dying breaths, to repeat the sublime exclamation of Saint Paul: ‘I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. As for the rest, there is laid up for me a crown of justice, which the Lord the just judge will render to me in that day”’ (2 Tim. 4:7-8).
- Jesuit Martyrs of North America feast day: October 19 and September 26 in Canada.
- Beatified on June 21, 1925 in Rome by Pope Pius XI
- Canonized on June 29, 1930 by Pope Pius XI.
Shrines to visit:
In Canada: Martyr’s Shrine
16163 Highway 12 West
Midland, Ontario, Canada
In the United States: National Shrine of the North American Martyrs, Auriesville, New York (also known as Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine)
136 Shrine Rd #2
Fultonville, NY 12072
Sources and recommended reading:
Saint Among Savages: The Life of St. Isaac Jogues by Francis Talbot
Saints of the American Wilderness by John O’Brien, Sophia Institute Press, 2004.