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Saints for Today: Isaac Jogues and Companions, Priests and Martyrs (Mid-17th C.)

Feast Day: October 19

French settlers established a new colony in the 17th century in what is now Canada, particularly in the area of Quebec. The land was initially used for trading until French rulers decided to build permanent settlements. Religion became a major issue, and France, a Catholic country, sent missionaries from a variety of religious orders to establish schools, hospitals, orphanages, and other social services. Eight members of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), six of them priests and two lay associates, were killed in this new mission territory by members of the Huron and Iroquois tribes between the years 1642 and 1649. These brave missionaries were responsible for the first beginnings of the Christian faith in North America and were willing to endure any hardship to bring the word of the Gospel to a new continent.

The native people in the vicinity of New France (Canada) being introduced to Christianity, the missionaries would often learn the language and translate the catechism and the Bible. The natives however, were hostile not only to Europeans but to Christianity as well. Heroic figures such as Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brébeuf, and others influenced the Catholic Church in both Canada and the U.S., as part of their missionary activity and martyrdom took place in what is now upstate New York.

Isaac Jogues entered the Jesuit religious order in 1624, and in 1636 he was sent to New France as a missionary to the Hurons and Algonquins, allies of the French. Here he penetrated far into the interior. In 1642, Mohawk Iroquois captured Jogues and his companions, a lay brother, Rene Goupil, and Guillaume Couture. They took them back to their village, Ossernenon (modern Auriesville, New York), where Goupil was hacked to death after blessing a native child, while several of Jogues’s fingers were cut off. Forced to live as a slave among the Mohawks, Jogues began to teach them the rudiments of Christianity. He managed to escape after 13 months, and return to Europe. Pope Urban VIII gave this “living martyr” special permission to celebrate Holy Mass with his mutilated hands—normally only the thumb and forefinger may touch the Eucharist.

But Jogues was undeterred by his terrible experiences, and a few months later returned to Canada where a tentative peace had been forged between the Iroquois and the Hurons, Algonquins, and their French allies. In the spring of 1646, Jogues entered Mohawk country, accompanied by a layman, John de Lalande. When sickness and crop failure hit the Mohawks, Jogues became the scapegoat. Jogues and Lalande were clubbed to death and beheaded by the Mohawks.

John de Brébeuf and his companion Gabriel Lalemant had met with some success ministering to the Hurons. They achieved hundreds of conversions, and Brébeuf produced the first Huron dictionary. But they too fell out of companionship with the natives and were eventually captured, scalped, tortured with boiling water and fire, and finally beheaded and partly eaten.

In his diary de Brébeuf had written: “Jesus, what can I give for all the favors you have given me? I will take from your hand the cup of suffering and call on your name…I vow to you, Jesus my Savior, that as far as I have strength I will never fail to accept the grace of martyrdom, if someday you in your infinite mercy should offer it to me, your unworthy servant.”

Heritage, Andrew, ed. “The Book of Saints: A Day-By Illustrated Encyclopedia.” San Francisco: Weldonowen, 2012.
Hoagland, Victor, C.P., ed. “The Book of Saints: The Lives of the Saints According to the Liturgical Calendar.” New York: Regina Press, 1986.
Trigilio, Rev. John, Ph.D, Th.D, and Rev. Kenneth Brighenti, Ph.D. “Saints for Dummies.” Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, 2010.

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