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Feast Day Highlights: The North American Martyrs

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Oct 17, 2016

October 19 is the memorial of Sts. Isaac Jogues and John de Brebeuf, priests and martyrs and companions, otherwise known as the “North American Martyrs.” These saints include: Isaac Jogues, John de Brebeuf (or Jean), Gabriel Lalemant, Noel Chabanel, Charles Garnier, Anthony Daniel, Rene Goupil and John de Lalande. The first six are Jesuit priests, the last two are Jesuit lay brothers. The Catholic Church in North America was founded through the blood of these (and other) martyrs. What these Jesuit priests and lay brothers endured to spread Christianity is amazing—truly super human, obviously only accomplished through grace and total love of God.

I have always had an affinity for St. Isaac and St. John, particularly St. John. I vicariously lived through my parents’ trip to Niagara Falls, some old Canadian towns and the two shrines of the martyrs. In 2011 my sister’s family visited the same sites, since my oldest nephew was taking the name St. John for his confirmation saint, and I was there in spirit. It is one of the trips our family hopes to make soon.

The National Shrine of the North American Martyrs located in Auriesville, New York. This is the site of the martyrdom of St. Rene Goupil (September 29, 1642), St. Isaac Jogues (October 18, 1646) and St. John de Lalande (October 19, 1646) and also the birthplace of St. Kateri Tekakwitha.

The other Martyrs’ Shrine is located in Midland, Ontario, Canada. Saints John de Brebeuf (March 16, 1649), Gabriel Lalemant (March 17, 1649), Noel Chabanel (December 8, 1649), Charles Garnier (December 7, 1649), and Anthony Daniel (July 4, 1648) died near this shrine.

These Jesuit martyrs died between the years of 1642 to 1649. I include all the martyrdom dates because it is a reminder that these priests and brothers did not all die at once. After the first martyrdom of their Jesuit brother, they continued the work of God as a missionary, fully aware that they could be the next victim. Saint Pope John Paul II visited the Canadian Shrine in 1984. His address during that visit mentions this commitment to Christ:

They, like Paul, had come to consider the love of Christ as the greatest of all treasures. And they, too, believed that the love of Christ was so strong that nothing could separate them from it, not even persecution and death. The North American Martyrs, then, gave up their lives for the sake of the Gospel – in order to bring the faith to the native people whom they served. In fact, we are told that their faith was so strong that they yearned and prayed for the grace of martyrdom.

Personal Patron Saint

A few years ago I was reading the Magnificat and was struck by the fact that St. John de Brebeuf died on my birthday, March 16. As my birthday has no feast on the General Roman Calendar, I decided right then that he would be my patron. My mother called me a few hours later and was thinking along the same lines, so we agreed I have a new patron saint. Not only that, my name is Jennifer, which is a form of Joan and John (Jean). For so many years I’ve yearned for a patron saint, even if it would be a particular St. John to be named after.

The Magnificat also had a quote from St. John de Brebeuf, which this section particularly touched me:

The Fathers and Brothers whom God shall call to the holy mission of the Hurons ought to exercise careful foresight in regard to all the hardships, annoyances, and perils that must be encountered in making this journey, in order to be prepared for all emergencies that may arise....

This lesson is very easy to understand but very difficult to put into practice. Having left a highly civilized society, we are now in the midst of a barbarous people who care nothing for our philosophical and theological education. All the fine qualities that make us admired and respected in France are like pearls trampled under the feet of swine, or rather, mules, which despise us utterly when they see that we are not such good pack animals as they. If we could go naked and carry on our backs the load that a horse carries, then we would be wise according to their views and would be recognized as great men, otherwise not. Jesus Christ is our true greatness; it is he alone and his crosses that should be sought in ministering to these people. If we seek for anything else, we will find nothing but bodily and spiritual afflictions. But if we have found Jesus Christ in his cross, we have found the roses among the thorns, sweetness in bitterness, all in nothing.

He wrote this in 1683. I think of our own soft plush-living modern society, and how difficult it would be to make this transition. What daily sacrifices these missionaries made!

Interesting Details about St. John de Brebeuf

In reading some of short biographies of St. John, I enjoyed some interesting facts about him. One, St. John suffered ill-health throughout his life, which meant he couldn’t advance in theological studies, but he was able to undertake this very arduous mission. His missionary work did not thrive—he tried over and over again without gaining one convert for many years. Yet, he persevered and kept returning to the Hurons until he did touch some souls.

I never pictured him as a large man, but the descriptions say he was big, and heavy. I presume that meant he was stocky—the Indians were a bit hesitant to have him in their canoes because of his largeness.

He had great difficulty learning the Huron tongue, but when he finally mastered it, he wrote a catechism in the Huron language and a French-Huron dictionary for the Jesuits. He is also most famous for writing the verses in Huron for one of our favorite Christmas carols. On this feast day and also through Christmas, our family loves to sing the gift left by St. Jean de Brebeuf, the carol “Jesous Ahatonhia“ (“Jesus, he is born”), “‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime” also known “The Huron Carol.” The song’s melody is based on a traditional French folk song, “Une Jeune Pucelle“ (“A Young Maid”), and Father John de Brebeuf used the native Huron language to teach the Nativity story. The melody is so hauntingly beautiful, and the words are so simple and reverent. It has always been one of my favorite carols...and when I found out St. Jean had written verses, I loved it even more. My boys enjoy it just as much, and I find them humming and singing it all through the Christmas season. One year my son even tried to have his atrium learn and sing this carol, just because he loved it so.

To aid singing the carol, we use these picture books: The Huron Carol illustrated by Frances Terrell and The Huron Carol illustrated by Ian Wallace. My boys can’t pick a favorite, so we always sing from both of the books.

And for those that say history can be written all through the story of sports, here is the sports connection with the North American Indians. It has been said that John de Brebeuf named the Indian game “lacrosse” because the stick used reminded him of a bishop‘s crosier (la crosse). This refers to the present-day lacrosse game.

Life of the Jesuit Missionaries

St. John de Brebeuf also gave a list of instructions for Jesuit missionaries to the Hurons, written in 1637. St. Jean was aware that they would always be scrutinized by the Indians, that to respect their way of living was polite and also more apt to open the lines of communication. This list gives another glimpse at the sacrifices these Jesuits made to spread the Gospel in the New World.

Brebeuf’s Instructions to the Missionaries:

  • You must love these Hurons, ransomed by the blood of the Son of God, as brothers.
  • You must never keep the Indians waiting at the time of embarking.
  • Carry a tinder-box or a piece of burning-glass, or both, to make fire for them during the day for smoking, and in the evening when it is necessary to camp; these little services win their hearts.
  • Try to eat the little food they offer you, and eat all you can, for you may not eat again for hours.
  • Eat as soon as day breaks, for Indians when on the road, eat only at the rising and the setting of the sun.
  • Be prompt in embarking and disembarking and do not carry any water or sand into the canoe.
  • Be the least troublesome to the Indians.
  • Do not ask many questions; silence is golden.
  • Bear with their imperfections, and you must try always to appear cheerful.
  • Carry with you a half-gross of awls, two or three dozen little folding knives, and some plain and fancy beads with which to buy fish or other commodities from the nations you meet, in order to feast your Indian companions, and be sure to tell them from the outset that here is something with which to buy fish.
  • Always carry something during the portages.
  • Do not be ceremonious with the Indians.
  • Do not begin to paddle unless you intend always to paddle.
  • The Indians will keep later that opinion of you which they have formed during the trip.
  • Always show any other Indians you meet on the way a cheerful face and show that you readily accept the fatigues of the journey.

Feast Day Food Ideas:

As I constantly repeat, food is very cultural, and merging our faith with our food can be that intertwining of religion and culture. It is not a necessity of the Catholic faith, but if one is living and breathing along with the Liturgy, it can come quite naturally. We all have to eat. Besides providing nutrition, the meal is a social gathering and can incorporate celebration, remembrance, and conduits for conversation and prayer. A certain dish can recall where a saint lived (the geography or culture) or bring to mind his/her vocation, or how he/she died.

Some ideas to celebrate the North American Martyrs:

Huron Indian food—corn, squash, beans, sunflowers, game meat, cornbread

More (gruesome) food would be considering the kind of sufferings the saints endured:

St. Isaac Jogues—some kind of “finger food”, ladyfingers, Catholic Cuisine has a few “finger” recipes.

St. Jean Brebeuf—For All Souls Day there are many recipes for “bone” type foods, sugar skulls. Since part of Father Jean’s skull is a relic on display in Midland, Ontario, a skull would be very appropriate!

Father Jean also died through fire, knives, and his heart was eaten after he died. Heart shaped foods would recall the later part, and foods related to fire or knives (skewered, shish kabobs, etc.) for the former.

Example For Us

The fact that these Jesuit priests and brothers persevered to bring the Gospel to the New World brings to mind Tertullian’s 2nd century Apology against the Roman persecution as quoted by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI:

“Refined as it is”, the African writes, “your cruelty serves no purpose. On the contrary, for our community, it is an invitation. We multiply every time one of us is mowed down. The blood of Christians is effective seed” (semen est sanguis christianorum!, Apologeticus, 50: 13).

This is again an age of persecution against Christians, with both white and red martyrdom. This is also a time where missionary work has to begin again, but now it is not to far corners of the world, but in our own backyards, to our own family, friends and countrymen. The Gospel message is being smothered by so much of today’s culture. These North American martyrs who were willing to give up family, home, country, creature comforts, and even their lives for the sake of the love of Christ and spreading His message are still a model and inspiration for us today, especially for those living in North America.

North American martyrs, pray for us!

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: jgmiller - Oct. 18, 2016 9:31 PM ET USA

    Stephanie, Thanks for the comment! I was thinking of Pope Francis and how he approaches reaching ALL. I see many similarities, such as meeting the person where they are, respecting their personhood, recognizing the differences. Would they agree on everything he's doing? They probably would try hard to understand him.

  • Posted by: stephanie.linden2136 - Oct. 18, 2016 4:10 AM ET USA

    or is "proselytism" the right word?

  • Posted by: stephanie.linden2136 - Oct. 18, 2016 4:09 AM ET USA

    Thank you! Your years of research and strong faith make your articles on the liturgical year shine! I was just thinking about these same Martyrs last week and how they would respond to their jesuit brother's, Pope Francis, comments on evangelization?