The tale of the eight North American martyrs is not for the faint of heart. Indeed, accounts of their evangelization efforts throughout New France (Canada) read more like an action movie screenplay than the Lives of the Saints. The story of the martyrdom of Saints Rene Goupil, Isaac Jogues, John de Lalande, Anthony Daniel, John de Brebeuf, Gabriel Lalemant, Charles Garnier and Noel Chabenel, gruesome as it is, nevertheless radiates with Christian zeal.
The eight North American martyrs, all professed members of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), traveled from their home country of France to Quebec in the 17th century. The purpose of their travels was to evangelize the American Indians, and eventually establish a Jesuit apostolate within the native tribes.
Fr. John de Brebeuf, the first of the eight eventual martyrs, set foot onto New World soil in 1625.
Fr. Brebeuf worked closely with the Franciscan Recollects – a group of missionaries who had been working with the Indians of New France since 1615 – learning about the different tribes that lived in the area, and how to best communicate with them. He eventually focused his efforts on the Huron tribe. The Huron Indian tribe lived relatively stable lifestyles, and lay claim to a robust nation of over 30,000 inhabitants.
July 1626 saw Fr. Brebeuf, along with a Recollect named Fr. Joseph de la Roche Daillon, travel to Huronia, the epicenter of the Huron nation. The two men spent two years together there, living among the Huron people and learning their language and customs. However, Fr. Daillon was called back to Quebec in 1628, and Fr. Brebeuf remained with the Hurons for another year.
During his third year with the Hurons, Fr. Brebeuf made considerable progress in this mission. He had learned the Huron language, and he frequently spoke at tribal councils, explaining the fundamentals of the Faith and describing the joys of heaven.
Following a brief sojourn in Quebec, Fr. Brebeuf was allowed to return to the Huron people in 1633. This time, however, he was accompanied by Fr. Anthony Daniel, an intelligent young Jesuit who had studied law before entering monastic life.
Fathers Brebeuf and Daniel eventually settled in the Huron village Ihonataria. The two priests spent two years together in Ihonataria, and taught the native people about Christ and the Church. Fr. Daniel even crafted a Huron translation of the “Our Father.” During this time, the Jesuits also established Mission Sainte Marie as the “headquarters” of the missionary movement among the Hurons. Fr. Daniel returned to Quebec with six Huron men in 1636, and established the first Jesuit Huron school in New France.
Not long after Fr. Daniel’s return to Quebec, two Jesuit priests, Fathers Charles Garnier and Isaac Jogues, journeyed to Huronia to work alongside Fr. Brebeuf. The three priests tirelessly preached the gospel message of Christ, all the while treating the sick of Huronia against repeated disease outbreaks. The Hurons were also under constant attack from the Iroquois Indians. It seemed that as soon as one outbreak of influenza passed, another disease took its place.
Following years of battle with the Iroquois and various diseases, by 1642, missionaries in Huronia were in need of supplies and medicine. Fr. Isaac Jogues was chosen to lead an expedition to Quebec to retrieve the needed supplies. The party of six Frenchmen and 18 Hurons – including Jesuit novice Rene Goupil – arrived safely in Quebec. But on their return trip, the men were ambushed by a group of Iroquois warriors. The captives were savagely beaten, and paraded from one Iroquois settlement to another, experiencing similar punishments at each stop.
Spending over a year in Iroquois captivity, Fr. Jogues was able to escape his captors and find refuge among a group of Dutchmen at Ft. Orange (located in present-day Albany, NY). Rene Goupil, however, had been executed months earlier, becoming the first of the eight North American Martyrs.
News of Fr. Jogues captivity and escape traveled quickly, and the governor of New Amsterdam (present-day New York City) arranged for the priest’s passage back to Europe. On Christmas day, 1643, Fr. Jogues returned to France. He was warmly received by the Jesuit community as well as all of France. Fr. Jogues’ story was the talk of the town, and he was even the granted a private audience with the Queen regent of France, Anne of Austria.
Fame was not fitting for Fr. Jogues, however. The priest traveled back to Quebec in June 1644, vowing to never leave his missionary brothers again.
Meanwhile, thanks to the fortitude of the Jesuit missionaries, Huronia was becoming a Catholic nation. Nevertheless, the Iroquois continued to attack the tribe, and disease continued take its toll on the Hurons.
However, war was also taking its toll on the Iroquois. Given their weakened state, the Jesuits believed it wise to complete a “good-will” mission to the once mighty Iroquois nation. Perhaps such a mission would warm their hearts and turn their souls to Christ.
Fr. Jogues was asked to make the initial contact with the Iroquois. He returned to the Iroquois camps in 1646, this time a free man. His former captors received Fr. Jogues warmly and peacefully, and diplomacy was achieved. Having establishing a favorable rapport with the Iroquois, Fr. Jogues returned to Quebec.
Witnessing the progress Fr. Jogues experienced with the Iroquois, the Huron people decided to also attempt to establish peace with their enemy. Fr. Jogues agreed to accompany the Hurons on their travels. A young Jesuit novice, John de Lalande, also set out with Fr. Jogues and the Hurons. However, no sooner had the party left Quebec, than the Hurons decided to abandon the mission. The two Jesuits continued on, and were eventually intercepted by an Iroquois war party. Despite the peace and tranquility that Fr. Jogues had experienced during his last visit with the Iroquois, the Frenchmen were captured, brutally beaten and eventually killed.
Back in Huronia, at Sainte Marie Mission, Fr. Anthony Daniel – who accompanied Fr. Brebeuf during his second visit to Huronia – returned to the outpost to spend some time in spiritual retreat. A month after his arrival at Sainte Marie, Fr. Daniel, feeling spiritually renewed, returned to St. Joseph’s Mission in the Huron village of Teanaustaye in July 1648, where he was stationed. Two days after his arrival, Fr. Brebeuf received news that the Iroquois had attacked Teanaustaye, burned the village and murdered Fr. Daniel.
A few months later, in January 1649, Sainte Marie was attacked by a group of Iroquois warriors. Fr. Brebeuf and a fellow Jesuit, Fr. Gabriel Lalemant, were captured and brought to an Iroquois settlement. As was custom, the Iroquois brutally beat the two priests, subjecting them to endless torture. Using tomahawks, fire brands and clubs, the Indians slowly, but gruesomely, murdered the two Jesuits. It was reported that during their torture and death, the two men never screamed in pain, but instead cried out the name of Jesus.
At the same time, two Jesuit priests – Fathers Charles Garnier and Noel Chabanel – were stationed among the Petuns Indians in southwest New France. The men received word from their superiors to travel to St. Joseph’s Mission in Teanaustaye. Afraid to risk the lives of two priests, Fr. Chabanel agreed to travel alone to St. Joseph’s in obedience to the Jesuit superiors’ command. A few days afterward, a group of Iroquois lay siege to the Petun mission, and murdered Fr. Garnier. Likewise, Fr. Chabanel was ambushed on his way to St. Joseph’s and also murdered.
Sainte Marie was eventually abandoned in 1650. The Huron tribe was scattered, and by all accounts, the Jesuit missionaries had accomplished nothing and ruined everything for the natives during their 25-year missionary campaign. However, despite the tragedy of the Huron mission, the seeds of Catholicism were effectively sown into the hearts of the Hurons. God’s grace and love were zealously radiated by the eight North American martyrs and their companions.