By Fr Shane Sullivan
Singleness of purpose. So might someone paraphrase the early Jesuit spirit. Everything was put at the disposal of the Jesuit’s singular purpose as laid out in the Spiritual Exercises’ First Principle and Foundation: “to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.” No assignment was off limits, the Jesuit was radically available. No sacrifice was too much, everything a Jesuit had was at Our Lord’s disposal, even his life.
Having been trained and formed according to that spirit, the Jesuits accepted the invitation to help evangelise and shepherd the indigenous people of “New France” in 1624. So began the wild mission which saw many young men leave Renaissance Europe for a strange and often savage continent. This mission would demand every bit of what they had vowed.
Beginnings of the Mission
John de Brebeuf was the among the first to venture to the New World in 1925, hoping to win souls from the darkness of sin and error and set them on a course towards heaven. After a brief period in which he lived with the nomadic Algonquin peoples, Brebeuf went to serve the more established Huron people. He learned their language and won their respect. They gave him an Indian name, calling him Échon, which means one who carries his own share at portage. He stayed amongst them even when his first companion (a Franciscan priest) was recalled by his superior, virtually becoming a member of their tribe. It pained him to leave them briefly in 1629, returning to France, but he returned to serve the Huron for the rest of his life.
Fr. Anthony Daniel came some years later and learned how to speak the Huron language and serve the people from Brefeuf, as did Fathers Isaac Jogues and Charles Garnier. They were called the Blackrobes by the native people, on account of their soutanes. Like Brebeuf they were also accepted into the communities and given native names: Fr. Daniel was known as Antwen, Fr. Jogues as Ondessonk and Fr. Garnier as Ouracha. In 1637 a terrible wave of Influenza swept through the Huron communities the priests served. The native medicine men, jealous of the influence won by the Blackrobes, stoked suspicion and superstition amongst their people, that it was these strange newcomers who were responsible for their death and misery. For a few months they lived and served under the threat of death at the hands of angry warriors. Leaving was never considered. Their lives were not their own, they would spend themselves until their dying breath in that singular cause to which they had dedicated their lives.
Torture and Martyrdom
The layman helping the Jesuits, Rene Goupil, a former Jesuit candidate himself, was the first to die for the Faith in 1642 after being captured by the warlike Iroquois people while on an expedition with Fr. Isaac Jogues and some Huron braves. He died only after enduring horrific torture at the hands of the Iroquois, which Jogues experienced also. Under incarceration Goupil asked Jogues if he could make his solemn profession and die a Jesuit. Jogues couldn’t but be amazed by Goupil’s dedication and joyfully received him into the Society of Jesus a short time before he fell under a warrior’s tomahawk. Jogues survived 13 months of torture and imprisonment before he escaped and was returned to France by some virtuous Protestant Dutch traders. He was a cause célèbre back in France for what he had endured- his torturers had chewed off some of his fingers- even the Queen reverently examined his mangled hands. Like Brebeuf before him he could not stay in the comfort of home when he knew men and women were dying without the sacraments or the knowledge of the Faith. Fr. Isaac Jogues was granted permission to return to his beloved Huron people. There amongst them he was captured again by the Iroquois, along with another helper of the Jesuit cause, the young John de Lalande, and they were put to death in the winter of 1646.
Fr. Anthony Daniel was next- also killed by the ferocious Iroquois a few months later. While celebrating Mass with the Christian Huron an Iroquois war party stormed the village. He told them to keep the Faith until their dying breath, to run and hide until danger had passed. And then in order to distract the attackers he emerged from the longhouse-chapel holding the Crucifix high over his head and walked calmly towards the attacking warriors. They paused momentarily, stunned and confused by his courage and then fell on him mercilessly.
The next year (1649) Fr. John Brebeuf and his young charge Fr. George Lalement were tortured and killed in the same way as Rene Goupil in 1642, by the Iroquois war parties returning though their villages in which everyone came out to join in the torment of the prisoners of war.
Fr. Garnier and Fr. Chabanel died in December of that same year at the hands of the native people they had given all to serve.
That singleness of purpose which characterised the eight North American Martyrs and their Jesuit brothers would go a long way in the renewal of the priesthood so sorely needed in our Church and country. Let’s pray for priests. May God give them a crystal-clear knowledge of their purpose and a willingness to sacrifice everything in pursuit of it: their reputation and popularity, all their efforts and comforts, even their very lives. North American Martyrs- pray for us!