28th Thursday of Ordinary
Memorial of North American Martyrs
Rm 3:21-30; Lk 11:47-54
Today we commemorate the eight North American Martyrs: St. John de Brebeuf, St. Isaac Jogues, and their companions. Their deaths took place between 1642 and 1649.
The first of these eight to arrive in Canada was John de Brebeuf in 1615 with two other Jesuit companions. One of those two companions, Ennemond Masse, had been part of an earlier group that had attempted to make a mission there in 1608 but had been driven away by English pirates.
At such an early date, conditions were still quite primitive among the Indians in upstate New York and Canada. By contrast, things were quite a bit more sophisticated in France where all these eight missionaries came from. The ship-crossing of the Atlantic was time-consuming and still a bit risky. Once in Canada, their journeys were sometimes as much as 600 miles. Travel by canoe and foot was arduous and often dangerous. They had to have a real love for God and for souls to keep them motivated.
John de Brebeuf was an unlikely candidate for the challenging task. When he entered the Jesuit house of studies in Rouen he had not been strong enough to follow the usual courses of studies or to teach for any length of time. It can be expected that he was sensitive to the hardships of missionary life. While living among the Algonquin Indians his first winter he had to endure being kept awake almost all night by fleas, and smoke so thick in the log cabin that it burned his eyes and lungs.
For quite a few years they didn’t make many converts. The results of their labors were discouraging. The Indians blamed them for some of the diseases they got. Gabriel Lalemont wrote, “We have sometimes wondered whether we could hope for the conversion of this country without the shedding of blood.” John de Brebeuf and Isaac Jogues were praying that they might be allowed to share in suffering and martyrdom. Brebeuf wrote, “For two days without break I have felt a great desire for martyrdom. My God and Savior Jesus, what return can I make to you for all the benefits which you have conferred upon me? I make a vow to you never to fail, on my side, in the grace of martyrdom, if by your infinite mercy you offer it to me some day.”
Isaac Jogues and Rene Goupil were the first to face suffering and death. They were captured in 1642 by the Iroquois Indians and severely tortured and mutilated. They lost their nails and then their fingers. At night they were laid out naked on the ground in chains and had hot coals and ashes thrown on them. Rene Goupil was eventually tomahawked to death when he was seen to make the sign of the cross over some children. He, too, had been an unlikely candidate for the rigorous missionary life. He had originally been a Jesuit novice but had to leave because of his health. He had then become a surgeon and gone to Canada, where he offered his medical services to the missionaries and become one of their helpers. He died on September 29th, 1642.
After several months of captivity, Jogues was ransomed by Dutch traders. He returned to France and got permission to celebrate Mass with his mutilated hands. By 1644 he was back in Canada again, and was martyred along with his assistant, the layman Jean de la Lande, on the 19th of October 1646.
Continuing the theme of unlikely candidates, another one of the eight was Noel Chabanel. He had been a reluctant missionary, unable to adapt to the harshness of the life or learn the Huron language and accept their customs. Despite his natural feelings of revulsion, however, he had taken a vow to remain working on the mission in North America until he died. He was martyred on December 8th, 1649.
If our wills are generous enough, God is able to take our deficiencies and accomplish great works with them.