All martyrs are remarkable, but in the long list of the Church’s martyrs, the North American Martyrs deserve singular praise. Their names are René Goupil, Isaac Jogues, Jean de Lalande, Antoine Daniel, Jean de Brébeuf, Noël Chabanel, Charles Garnier, and Gabriel Lalemant. These men, seven priests and one lay missionary, belonged to the Society of Jesus and burned with a desire to bring the Gospel to the New World (New France to be more precise). Even without their martyrdoms, even if they had returned to France in old age and died peacefully in their beds, words like “heroic,” “zealous,” “holy” and “courageous” would certainly be found with regularity in their biographies. But they didn’t return to France.
This was a time before snowflakes and safe spaces.
In the first half of the 17th century, these brave men endured hardships and uncertainties in a long journey across the Atlantic and, when they finally arrived, they set foot on a vast swath of barely explored land. Imagine what January in Ontario must have been like in 1640. Imagine what leaving the relative safety of a French settlement, crossing through seemingly impenetrable forests and into Huron territory without anything but your faith in God must have been like. Imagine trying to learn the difficult languages and customs of these exotic tribes, ultimately unsure if you were making gradual progress or walking into a fatal trap.
This task was not for the faint of heart. It was a task for real men, men endowed with heroic levels of fortitude, faith, hope and love.
Eventually, these men were captured by hostile tribes who viewed them as dangerous invaders. They were tortured and killed. The mutilations these men endured is perhaps without parallel in the history of the Catholic Church. This account, by Christophe Regnaut, gives graphic details about the martyrdom of Father Jean de Brébeuf. It’s hard to read, but it doesn’t fail to inspire.
The Iroquois came, to the number of twelve hundred men; took our village, and seized Father Breboauf and his companion; and set fire to all the huts. They proceeded to vent their rage on those two Fathers; for they took them both and stripped them entirely naked, and fastened each to a post. They tied both of their hands together. They tore the nails from their fingers. They beat them with a shower of blows from cudgels, on the shoulders, the loins, the belly, the legs, and the face,—there being no part of their body which did not endure this torment. ” The savages told us further, that, although Father de Brebceuf was overwhelmed under the weight of these blows, he did not cease continually to speak of God, and to encourage all the new Christians who were captives like himself to suffer well, that they might die well, in order to go in company with him to Paradise. While the good Father was us encouraging these good people, a wretched Iron renegade,—who had remained a captive with he Iroquois, and whom Father de Brebœuf had formerly instructed andbaptized,—hearing him speak Paradise and Holy Baptism, was irritated, and said [page 27] to him, ” Echon,” that is Father de Brebœuf’s name in Huron, ” thou sayest that Baptism and the sufferings of this life lead straight to Paradise; thou wilt go soon, for I am going to baptize thee, and to make thee suffer well, in order to go the sooner to thy Paradise.” The barbarian, having said that, took a kettle full of boiling water, which he poured over his body three different times, in derision of Holy baptism. And, each time that he baptized him in this manner, the barbarian said to him, with bitter sarcasm, ” Go to Heaven, for thou art well baptized.” After that, they made him suffer several other torments. The 1st was to make hatchets red-hot, and to apply them to the loins and under the armpits. They made a collar of these red-hot hatchets, and put it on the neck of this good Father. This is the fashion in which I have seen the collar made for other prisoners: They make six hatchets red-hot, take a large withe of green wood, pass the 6 hatchets over the large end of the withe, take the two ends together, and then put it over the neck of the sufferer. I slave seen no torment which more moved me to compassion than that. For you see a man, bound naked to a post, who, having this collar on his neck, cannot tell what posture to take. For, if he lean forward, those above his shoulders weigh the more on him; if he lean back, those on his stomach make him suffer the same torment; if he keep erect, without leaning to one side or other, the burning ratchets, applied equally on both sides, give him a trouble torture.
After that they put on him a belt of bark, full of pitch and resin, and set fire to it, which roasted his whole body. During all these torments, Father de [page 29] Brebœuf endured like a rock, insensible to fire and flames, which astonished all the bloodthirsty wretches who tormented him. His zeal was so great that he preached continually to these infidels, to try to convert them. His executioners were enraged against him for constantly speaking to them of God and of their conversion. To prevent him from speaking more, they cut off his tongue, and both his upper and lower lips. After that, they set themselves to strip the flesh from his legs, thighs, and arms, to the very bone; and then put it to roast before his eyes, inorder to eat it.
While they tormented him in this manner, those wretches derided him, saying: ” Thou seest plainly that we treat thee as a friend, since we shall be the cause of thy Eternal happiness; thank us, then, for these good offices which we render thee,—for, the more thou shalt suffer, the more will thy God reward thee. “
Those butchers, seeing that the good Father began to grow weak, made him sit down on the ground; and, one of them, taking a knife, cut off the skin covering his skull. Another one of those barbarians, seeing that the good Father would soon die, made an opening in the upper part of his chest, and tore out his heart, which he roasted and ate. Others came to drink his blood, still warm, which they drank with both hands,—saying that Father de Brebceuf had been very courageous to endure so much pain as they had given him, and that, by drinking his blood, they would become courageous like him.
We celebrate the Feast Day of the North American Martyrs today, October 19th. May their prayers merit for us the grace of being bold witnesses to Christ in 2017, just as Jean de Brébeuf was in 1649.