North American Martyrs North American Martyrs

Saints for those who suffer for the Faith

17th century

Feast day Oct 19

The Early Church Father Tertullian famously wrote, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

The relevance and importance of this quote for the North American Church clearly resonates through the story of the North American Martyrs. These eight French Jesuits seeded the Faith in the continent on which they shed their blood as they answered Christ’s mandate to “make disciples of all nations.” Canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930, these holy martyrs faced intense trials and nearly every imaginable kind of physical and spiritual suffering at the hands of those they evangelized. They provide us with a lasting example of heroic virtue and missionary zeal. Three among them are considered the first canonized American saints, having died in the present-day United States: Sts. Isaac Jogues, René Goupil and Jean de Lalande. The others who died in Canada are Sts. Antoine Daniel, Jean de Brébeuf, Noël Chabanel, Charles Garnier and Gabriel Lalemant.
From 1636 to 1642, St. Isaac Jogues was part of the Jesuit missionary band traveling throughout regions including modern day Canada and New York. They evangelized the Native Americans — chiefly, the Huron, Algonquin and Iroquois. The accounts of their saintly lives and deaths are harrowing and inspiring.

In the summer of 1642, Jogues and the surgeon-turned-Jesuit brother, St. René Goupil, were accompanying a large group of Huron warriors homeward when they were ambushed by Mohawks (part of the Iroquois Confederacy) at Lake Champlain. Many died, but the rest were taken prisoner, with Jogues and Goupil among them. Both were victims of torture and Jogues had most of his fingers cut off. Goupil was martyred shortly after professing his religious vows in the presence of Jogues for teaching a small boy the Sign of the Cross. Commenting on this, Jogues wrote, “this angel of innocence and martyr of Jesus Christ gave his life for him who had given him his.”

Jogues remained captive after Goupil’s death in the Mohawk village of Ossernenon, near present-day Auriesville, New York. During that time, he sought ways to evangelize secretly and simply by engraving crosses and the holy name of Jesus on tree bark throughout the region. After Jogues was ransomed by Dutch traders for a hefty sum, they financed his return voyage to France. On the way, he visited the New Amsterdam colony on Manhattan Island, becoming the first Catholic priest to set foot in what is now New York City.

On Christmas Day, 1643, Jogues arrived home and was able to attend Mass for the first time in more than 16 months. The stories told about Jogues and his missionary counterparts made it surprising he still was alive. He was so mutilated by the Mohawks that he scarcely was recognizable. Because Church laws at the time allowed only certain fingers of the priest to handle the Eucharist, Jogues was granted special permission to celebrate Mass by Pope Urban VIII, who considered it unjust to refuse a “living-martyr” the privilege of drinking Christ’s blood.

For nearly a year in Europe, Jogues was a well-received hero of the Faith. However, to the shock of many, Jogues longed to depart again for the American missions, and did so in 1645.

Once back in the Mohawk Valley, Jogues attended tribal peace negotiations, which gave great hopes for future ministry among the Iroquois. After a trip to Canada, Jogues returned to the Mohawk Valley with  Jesuit brother St. Jean de Lalande in the fall of 1646 to find that the peace had not lasted. The superstitious Iroquois misunderstood Jogues’ intentions and blamed his “magic” for bad crops and an outbreak of disease due to a chest of vestments and books left behind during the trip. Jogues suffered fiercely, enduring a night of torture before his martyrdom, after which his body was discarded in a nearby river. The next day, Oct. 19, de Lalande suffered a martyr’s death while seeking to reverence the remains of Jogues and retrieve his body.

Michael Heinlein writes from Indiana.