By Eric Sammons
My family descended into the ravine, following the footsteps of one martyr-saint who had searched there for the bones of another. As we traced the downhill path alongside a small stream, we read the words of St. Isaac Jogues describing his search for the body of his Jesuit companion, René.
Killed at the hands of the Iroquois Indians, St. René Goupil would become the first canonized martyr of the United States. We were passing over the holiest ground in our country, we realized, in this out-of-the-way valley in New York.
In the early Church, there was no formal process of canonization. Most of those raised to the altars took a simple path: They died for the Faith.
Martyrdom was central to the faith of the Church in its first 300 years, beginning with St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, the account of whose death in the Acts of the Apostles is a turning point in that book’s story of the early Church. Fourth-century St. Ephrem the Syrian sings the praise of the martyrs in his “Hymns on Paradise”:
Those who have been crowned for our Lord’s sake
with the martyr’s death by the sword
shine out in glory there
with their crowns
because their bodies despised
the persecutors’ fire.
Like stars do they blossom
The awareness of the importance of martyrs gave rise to another phenomenon among early Christians: reverence for the land on which these saints had been killed and buried. The faithful considered the place where a martyr spilled his blood to be holy ground. Aside from Calvary, there was no place on earth more sacred.
It was the martyrdom in Rome of the other two protagonists in Acts — the apostles Peter and Paul — that was one significant factor in that city’s pre-eminence in the early Church. And the honoring of the sites of martyrdom extends throughout Church history; as a little child, St. Thérèse of Lisieux mischievously broke away from her tour group in Rome to kiss the grounds of the Colosseum where so many Christians had died for their faith.
This reverence for the holy ground of the martyrs reflects the Church’s incarnational view of salvation. Men are not just spirits who temporarily reside here on earth waiting for their final, spiritual home in heaven. That God became man and walked this earth means that it is more than a way station; it is a holy instrument through which we draw closer to God and align ourselves to his will.
Christians have always seen the place of martyrdom as a special place where heaven and earth, body and spirit, time and eternity intersect. The veil between heaven and earth is lifted when the martyr leaves this world for life with Christ in eternity. In visiting such a holy site, pilgrims are blessed with a special grace, and filled with a sense of “the nearness of our God.”
In the United States there is only one such sacred place recognized by the Church: Auriesville, N.Y. It was there that three men were killed for their faith over a period of four years.
The first, René Goupil, was a surgeon and lay helper of the Jesuit missions in the early 17th century. He was a companion of Father Isaac Jogues and was captured with him when Iroquois warriors ambushed his party while traveling down the St. Lawrence River. Eventually they ended up in the village of Ossernenon (present-day Auriesville) where they were viciously tortured over a period of months. Goupil was a simple soul, and he befriended the children of his captors, teaching them the basics of the Catholic faith. One day, however, some of the Iroquois were enraged to see Goupil teaching a child the Sign of the Cross. They took a tomahawk to his skull, ending his life while he cried out “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!” Their contempt for him was so great that they hid his body from Father Jogues so that he could not properly bury it.
But Father Jogues, who witnessed this vicious murder and was initially unable to retrieve his body, devoted himself to finding a way to recover the precious relics of this martyr. He searched for the body relentlessly in the surrounding forest. Finally, he found it. In Jesuit Father Francis Xavier Talbot’s book “Saint among Savages” ($17.95, Ignatius Press), the scene is described:
“There lay the yellow skull and bones. The skull was cracked in several places, where it had been smashed in by the blows of the tomahawk. The bones were marked by the teeth of the dogs and foxes that had stripped off the flesh from them. Some of them were half-gnawed. Father Jogues crouched on his knees. He took the skull reverently in his hands and kissed it. He wept and rejoiced. Still kneeling, he lifted up each piece of bone to his lips and deposited it near the skull. He gathered all the smallest fragments scattered about the damp mold of the hollow. They were precious. They were the relics of a true martyr of Jesus Christ.”
Thus Goupil was the first martyr in what would become the United States of America. But he was not the last.
Four years later, after Father Jogues had escaped and then returned under a supposed peace treaty, he and his lay companion, Jean de la Lande, were captured while visiting Ossernenon and were killed by the Iroquois. Their bodies were dumped in the nearby Mohawk River. As a result, this one location is soaked with the blood of three martyrs of Jesus Christ and also cradles the bones of one of those martyrs.
Recently my family made a pilgrimage to this holy ground, where the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs resides. The site of Ossernenon has been preserved on a field adjoining the shrine, and the ravine in which St. Isaac Jogues buried the remains of St. René Goupil is located across the street down a wooded path. As we made our way down to the ravine, I was struck by the dichotomy between the holiness of the site and the terrible violence that had made it so.
How is it that the horrendous act of murder could make a place one of peace and grace? But it should not be surprising, for isn’t that the way of the Christian faith? The greatest act of God occurred when man performed his greatest act of brutality. And God has often used violence against the Church to advance his purpose throughout the centu-ries. Tertullian famously said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. On this principle, all fruit that occurs in the U.S. Church is connected to this sacred place.
In fact, the first “fruit” of the glorious martyrdom of these three saints occurred just 10 years after the death of Sts. Isaac and Jean. In this same village in 1656 was born the “Lily of the Mohawks,” Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha.
Martyrdom can seem far removed from our American experience of the Faith, especially when we contemplate it during a summer vacation. After all, most of us are thinking of trips to the beach and family cookouts during the summer months, not torture and murder at the hands of enemies of the Faith. And it is unlikely that many American Christians will be called to a red martyrdom today.
But every Christian is called to a “white martyrdom” in his own life, in which he continually dies to self in order to “live in Christ.” The businessman who accepts less pay in his job in order to spend more time with his family, the priest who daily sacrifices his own desires to serve his parishioners, the mother who lovingly performs the same tasks day after day in service to her children — all these are little martyrdoms and follow Christ’s command to “take up our crosses daily.”
As American Catholics, we have superb models of true martyrdom in St. René Goupil, St. Isaac Jogues and St. Jean de la Lande, who can intercede for us to accept the grace of martyrdom — whether it be red or white — in our own lives.
Eric Sammons writes from Maryland. He is the author of the upcoming book “Who is Jesus Christ? Unlocking the Mystery in the Gospel of Matthew” (OSV, $14.95). Read Eric's blog: www.ericsammons.com