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October 19, 2012

The North American Martyrs

The North American Martyrs were eight Jesuit missionaries commissioned to work among the Huron Native Americans during the mid-17th century.
By the late 1640’s, these brave missionaries were making progress in their labors with the Huron and they were said to have made thousands of converts during this time. Nevertheless, within Huron communities, these men of faith were not universally trusted. Many Huron considered them to be evil shamans who brought death and disease wherever they travelled. Their arrival had coincided with great epidemics in 1634 and afterwards of smallpox and other infectious diseases, to which the aboriginal peoples had no immunity.
Between the years of 1642 and 1649, eight members of the Society of Jesus were killed in North America, after extreme torture by members of the Huron and Iroquois tribes. These men had worked hard to bring the Christian faith to the natives of that region. 

The Iroquois considered the Jesuits legitimate targets, as the missionaries were nominally allies of the Huron. They had often helped organize resistance to Iroquois invasions. Ultimately, these Jesuit missionaries would meet their deaths as martyrs in various locations in Canada and upstate New York.  They include:

1642: St. René Goupil
1646: St. Isaac Jogues
1646: St. Jean de Lalande
1648: St. Antoine Daniel
1649: St. Jean de Brébeuf
1649: St. Noël Chabanel
1649: St. Charles Garnier
1649: St. Gabriel Lalemant

The North American Martyrs, in whose honor Martyrs’ Court Residential Hall was dedicated at Fordham in 1951, found their courage in their love for those to whom they were sent.  May God’s love cast out all our fear of putting our lives at the full service of others.

St. Jean de Lalande
Considered one of the North American Martyrs, Jean de Lalande was a French teenager who offered his services to work with the Jesuit missionaries in Canada in the mid-17th century.  He served as a companion to Father Isaac Jogues, a French Jesuit priest missionary, on a fated peace mission to Ossernenon, located in upstate New York.  Father Jogues had earlier asked for someone who was “virtuous, docile to direction, courageous, one who would be willing to suffer anything for God.” Undeterred by the priest’s description of what was needed, he ultimately endured all of this and more as a captive. St. Jean de Lalande was martyred on October 19, 1646 when he attempted to recover the slain body of Father Jogues from the paths of the village.  His faith and heroism were acknowledged by his canonization as a saint of the Church in 1930.

St. René Goupil
René Goupil was born in 1608 in the little village of  St. Martin in France.  As a young man he became a Jesuit novice with the intention of serving as a lay brother, but ill health prevented him from taking his vows.  Skilled in the care of the sick and possessing a practical knowledge of medicine, he ultimately resolved to sail to New France in order to help the Jesuit missionaries he had earlier hoped to join.

Father Isaac Jogues found him working in the Quebec hospital in 1642, and was delighted when he volunteered to travel with him to the Huron country to serve as an infirmarian at Mission Sainte Marie.  Both were captured by the ferocious Mohawk Iroquois on the St. Lawrence River, along with a large number of Christian Huron.  It was on the torture trail to the Mohawk country that Father Jogues received René’s perpetual vows as a Jesuit brother.  Six weeks after their arrival at the village of Ossernenon, René became the first of the eight martyrs to die and thus the first canonized saint of North America.

Buried by the loving hands of Father Jogues himself, René’s holy relics rest in an unmarked grave in the Ravine on the Auriesville Shrine property in upstate New York.

St. Isaac Jogues
Father Isaac Jogues and his companions were the first martyrs of the North American continent.  As a young Jesuit, Isaac Jogues, a man of learning and culture taught literature in France.  He gave up that career in 1636 to work among the Huron people in the New World.  The Huron were constantly warred upon by the Iroquois and, in a few years, Father Jogues was captured by the Iroquois and imprisoned for 13 months.  His letters and journal tell how he and his companions were led from village to village, how they were beaten, tortured and forced to watch as their Huron converts were mangled and killed.

An unexpected chance for escape came to Isaac Jogues through the Dutch, and he returned to France, bearing the marks of his sufferings.  Welcomed home as a hero, Father Jogues might have sat back, thanked God for his safe return and died peacefully in him homeland.  But his zeal led him back once more to the fulfillment of his dreams.  In a few months, he sailed for his missions among the Huron.

In 1646 he and Jean de Lalande, who had offered his services to the missioners, set out for Iroquois country in the belief that a recently signed peace treaty would be observed.  They were captured by a Mohawk war party and, on October 18, 1646, Father Jogues was tomahawked and beheaded.   He and seven of his brave companions were canonized as saints by the Church in 1930. 

O God of life, you called and strengthened
Saints Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brébeuf, and René Goupil
and their companions to preach the Gospel
by their steadfastness in fidelity, even unto death.
Through their example and their intercession,
strengthen us in our faithfulness to live the good news of salvation,
through Christ our Lord.

©2012 Fordham University

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