Heroes of the Church and
the North American Indians
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If ever a story inspired me, it was that of the North American Martyrs. In an age of apostasy and religious indifferentism, it is ever more imperative that we learn about these zealous missionaries and ask their intercession.
A statue of Father Isaac Jogues at Auriesville, where he was slain by the Mohawks in 1646
Who were the North American martyrs? Sts. Isaac Jogues, Rene Goupil, Jean DeLalande, Jean DeBrebouf, Gabriel Lalemant, Antoine Daniel, Charles Garnier, and Noel Chabanel - men of a caliber of the first twelve Apostles who took seriously Christ's command: "Go ye into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He who believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be condemned" (Mark 16:16).
These French missionaries, who were inspired by the spirit of the Counter-Reformation, looked upon the New World as an opportunity to recover among savage souls the losses inflicted by the recent crisis of Protestantism that had fractured the unity of Catholic Europe. With the aim of saving the souls of the Indians by converting them to Catholicism, they lived among them, learned their languages, devoted themselves completely to teaching them the truths of the Faith, and even eagerly offered the sacrifice of their very lives.
Among the first wave of Jesuit priests to come to what was then called New France, now Canada and parts of New York State, was Fr. Isaac Jogues, a learned and zealous young French priest. He arrived in New France on July 2,1636 at age 29. Fr. Isaac Jogues was quite anti-ecumenical, he took seriously the teaching mission of the Catholic Church to bring all souls to her bosom.
St. Ignatius: Go and conquer all nations for Our Lord Jesus Christ
He was not of the mind of a modern "missionary" who places no importance on working for the conversion of infidels. He followed the goal of the true Jesuits, who like their founder St. Ignatius of Loyola, wanted to convert all ends of the earth to the Catholic Faith. For them, to refrain from transmitting to all men the complete deposit of the Catholic Faith would be nothing less than to betray the mission of the Church. It would be to deny men a fundamental right to truth.
Today, since Vatican II, a different spirit dominates the missionary field. The missionary is supposed to admire the false religions, even pagans and infidels, since no one would be in error. The progressivist notion supported by the post-conciliar Church that all religions lead to God has annihilated the Catholic missionary spirit. I imagine that St. Isaac Jogues is lamenting the state of the missions today, so very different from the spirit of those holy men and women of the past who offered their very lives to defend and spread the one truth of the Catholic Faith.
Leaving the country of his birth to go to the Hurons and Algonquins in the New World was a decision Fr. Issac Jogues willingly made. Unfortunately, the Iroquois for the most part were obstinate, but there were a significant number of conversions among the Hurons and Algonquins. Thanks to the help of the French fur-trader and early settler of New France, Samuel Champlain, the Huron and Algonquin Indians who were his friends were more disposed to receive the missionaries.
A 17th-century sketch of Samuel Champlain
To open the way, Champlain told the Indians this about the Jesuit priests from France: "These are our fathers. We love them more than we love ourselves. The whole French nation honors them. They do not go among you for furs. They have left their friends and their country to show you the way to Heaven. If you love the French, as you say you love them, then love and honor these, our fathers" (Fr. John O'Brien, Saints of the American Wilderness, p. 119).
One can see from Champlain's statement to the Hurons that even as an adventurer and trader, he understood the important mission and role of the Jesuits. For him, it was very simple: If the pagans could be saved without the Catholic Faith, then why would these priests sacrifice everything and suffer constant discomfort, rejection, persecution and even atrocious torments? There would be no reason for such a great sacrifice.
Captured in 1642 by the Iroquois, St. Isaac Jogues was tortured for 13 months. During that time, he taught the Faith to any who would listen, and finally escaped. In 1644, he returned to France to recuperate, and there he saw his dear mother for the last time. She wept to see the scars on his hands, as the brutal Indians had cut off some of his fingers with shells and knives and eaten them, as was their custom. She fondled his mutilated hands and knew there was no way of convincing him to remain in France.
What compelled him to want to return to so cruel a land? It was his love for his spiritual children, his beloved Huron converts whom he stood by to the end. On his return to New France, he assisted William Couture, an envoy of France, in communicating with the Indians. No white men were as well versed in the Indian languages as Jogues and Couture.
It was on the Mohawk mission in Ossernenon that he and his lay missionary companion John de LaLande met their death as martyrs of Our Lord Jesus Christ, thus sanctifying the land immersed in what Fr. Jogues called "demonic worship.” Instigated by the medicine men, the shamans, who spread rumors that the blackrobes were responsible for the epidemic and failing crops, a group of Mohawks on the warpath made him a captive. One Indian tore strips of his flesh from his arms and neck, saying, "Let us see if this white flesh is the flesh of an oki (devil)."
The Saint simply replied, "I am a man like yourselves, but I do not fear death or torture. I do not know why you would kill me. I come here to confirm the peace and show you the way to Heaven, and you treat me like a dog" (Ibid., p. 87).
The Indians admired his courage, but the fury of the shamans could only be satisfied by his death. On October 18, 1647 Fr. Isaac Jogues was brutally tomahawked and scalped by an Indian chief. The American historian Francis Parkman, who was by no means a devout Catholic, wrote this about St. Jogues:
"Thus died Isaac Jogues, one of the purest examples of Roman Catholic virtue that this Western Continent has seen. The priests, his associates, praise his humility, and tell us that it reached the point of self contempt, a crowning virtue in their eyes..... With all his gentleness he had a certain warmth or vivacity of temperament; and we have seen how, during his first captivity, while humbly submitting to every caprice of tyrants and appearing to rejoice in debasement, a derisive word against his Faith would change the lamb into a lion, and the lips that seemed so tame would speak in sharp, bold tones of menace and reproof" (Ibid., p. 89).
Recently I found myself speaking of St. Isaac Jogues and the North American martyrs to an acquaintance. It seems I happened to use a very taboo word when I said the Indians were "savages." The person was quick to rebuke me: “How dare you! Don’t you know they are Native Americans and we should respect their culture?”
Iriquois masks worn in ceremonials to the demon spirits
Well, the devout Jesuits who loved them so dearly as to give their lives for their salvation also called them savages. They knew the Indians very well - they lived with them and traveled with them. They also suffered tremendously from the ferocious, inhuman torments inflicted by these Indians.
In addition to the practice of cannibalism and rampant promiscuity, the savages were immersed in a superstitious ignorance. They were guided not by reason or doctrines, but by an almost blind faith in medicine men who performed secret ceremonies and made incantations to what the Jesuits knew were devils. Sacred Scripture tells us very clearly, "All the gods of the heathens are devils." Psalm 95:5.
Because of the courage and zeal of Jesuit missionaries like St. Issac Jogues, some of these savages escaped the perversity of Satan. The names of the North American martyrs should be inscribed on our minds, and we should ask their intercession that this country might still become a Catholic land.
In conclusion, I would like to mention several of the most impressive converts made by these early Jesuit missionaries. One was baptized Joseph Chihouatenhoua, a married Huron who abandoned the superstitions of his ancestors and became a loyal disciple of the Black-robes, a friendship that lasted into eternity. He became a devout and knowledgeable Catholic, even studying and learning Latin. He also died at the hands of the Indians who refused to accept the sweet yoke of Christ.
Another remarkable Indian convert to the Catholic Faith, was a famous Huron war chief by the name of Ahatsistari. "Thither came one of the greatest war chiefs of all the Hurons into the Church. On Holy Saturday 1642, he and a number of other Hurons were received by Jogues and other missionaries into the Church. Ahatsistari was baptized Eustace" (Ibid., p. 35).
These conversions would have never occured without the sacrifice, and pure, untainted faith of the Jesuit missionaries. May their zeal inspire new apostles with that same burning fire for the salvation of souls in our own days, and bring down upon our country the blessings of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Related Topics of Interest
Catholicism in Colonial America
La Conquistadora: Our Country's Oldest Madonna
Ven. Antonio Margil of Jesus: Apostle of New Spain and Texas
Refuting the False Statements about Life in the Middle Ages
Defending the Crusades
The Swan's Song of Galileo's Myth
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