The Canadian Martyrs and a Strange Death Wish
We’ve all read about those Europeans who came to the colonial Americas to live. But what of those who came to die? Among the more religiously minded colonists, especially those who belonged to the Society of Jesus, the notion of being a martyr, of joining the hallowed ranks of the early converts slaughtered in Roman coliseums, was an appealing one. Or, at least, so they claimed.
The Canadian Martyrs, all of whom are now venerated as saints by the Catholic Church, have become perhaps the most famous of all the Catholic priests and missionaries killed by the indigenous peoples to whom they proselytized. All in all, this group of Jesuit missionaries holds eight members: René Goupil, Jean de Lalande, Isaac Jogues, Antoine Daniel, Noël Chabanel, Charles Garnier, Jean de Brébeuf, and Gabriel Lalement.1
All these men had their deaths described in the Jesuit Relations, a compendium of letters sent by Jesuit missionaries in colonial Canada back home to their superiors in France. Let’s go through a few of them shall we?
The first of the Canadian martyrs to loss his life across the Atlantic from where he’d first drawn breath was René Goupil. A young man, holding the station of donné and not a fully ordained Jesuit, Goupil began his journey toward martyrdom when he agreed to accompany Isaac Jogues, whose name also appears on that ill-fated list, and Wendat allies on a journey to Wendake, the homeland of the Wendat that lay between Lake Simcoe and Lake Huron. Somewhere along the road this party became the prey of an Iroquois war band. According to Jogues, as he and Goupil were seized by the Iroquis, Goupil told his superior, “O my father, God be blessed; He has permitted it, He has willed it, — His holy will be done. I love it, I desire it, I cherish it, I embrace it with all the strength of my heart.”2 Now in the hands of the Iroqouis, enemies of these missionaries’ Wendat allies, Jogues made sure to hear the young Goupil’s confession, give him absolution, and officially make him a Jesuit.
In his Relation, Jogues told how, on their journey to the village where Goupil met his ultimate fate, their captors “loaded us with blows, covered us with blood, and made us experience the rage of those who are possessed by the demon.”3 The two missionaries even had their nails torn out and fingers crushed, which Goupil, the newly minted Jesuit that he was, “endured with much patience and courage.”4 After six weeks among the Iroquois, and much tribulation, Goupil had his suffering cut short by several hatchet blows to the head. As Jogues recounted, Goupil fell, his body still, “his face to the ground, pronouncing the holy name of JESUS.”5
After witnessing Goupil’s torture end in his death, and even being tortured himself, one would think Jogues would have been eager to leave Wendat and Iroquois territory behind, working from the realitive safety of Montreal, or even trying to return to France. But no! Just a few months after returning from his captivity among the Iroquois, Jogues agreed to go back to their country as a missionary. In a letter written before his departure, Jogues seems to hope for martyrdom, saying that God continued to supply “new opportunities for dying to myself and uniting myself inseparably to Him.”6 Going even further, Jogues said he felt blessed to serve in this mission and that “if the little blood which I have shed in that land were as the pledge of that which I would give him from all the veins of my body and my heart.”7
Just as René Goupil seemed elated at his capture (or so Jogues made it seem in his recounting of the story) and chance to die for the Catholic faith, so too did Isaac Jogues march all too willingly to his death. Not only did his desire for martyrdom echo that of Goupil, but his death was almost a mirror image. While in an Iroquois village, Jogues entered a longhouse where, according to the Jesuit Relations, “there was a traitor with his hatchet behind the door, who, on entering, split open his head; then immediately he cut if off…”8
This account of Jogue’s death was penned by Jerome Lalemant, a higher up in the Jesuits’ Canadian branch. At the beginning of this letter to his superiors in which he described Jogues’s death, Jerome Lalement told how the Native Americans to whom they prosthelytized often thought them shamans who could induce illness, and so he and his fellow Jesuits “expected to be murdered, in all the places we have been; and even now we are not without hope of one day possessing this happiness.”9 While Lalemant did not himself become a martyr, his nephew, Gabriel, did.
Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalemant became the last of the Canadian martyrs. Living among the Wendat in a village the Jesuits denoted as St. Ignace, Brébeuf and Lalemant were taken prisoner by the Iroquois. According to what the Jesuits claimed were Wendat reports, “the Iroquois came, to the number of twelve hundred men, took our village, and seized Father Brébeuf and his companion [Lalement].”10 According to those same reports, the two Jesuits became the focal point of Iroquoian ire. Tied to a pole and stripped naked, the missionaries had had their finger nails removed, before being beaten. But their torture did not end there.
The Jesuits had boiling water poured over them, three times. After which hatchets pulled from a fire were hung from their shoulders like a necklace, burning the skin on all sides of their body. And, as Brébeuf apparently kept preaching to the soldiers as they tortured him, “to prevent him from speaking more, they cut off his tongue, and both his upper and lower lips.” Later in the day, Brébeuf and Lalemant succumbed to their wounds, dying on March 16, 1649.11
After finding the bodies, the Jesuit Christophe Regnaut told how Brébeuf’s corpse had “had his legs, thighs, and arms stripped of flesh to the very bone.” And, yet, despite the horror of that sight and the stories of unbearable pain, Regnaut claimed that he and his fellow Jesuits “have never loved our vocation more, than after having seen that it can raise us even to the glory of martyrdom.”12
The depictions of the torture of the Jesuits is not intended to be a demonization of the Iroquois or a veneration of the Jesuit martyrs. I have attempted to show how even after hearing reports and seeing the damage done by such tortures (of which the Iroquois were not alone in perpetrating in the seventeenth-century; indeed, one need only look to European settlements to see equal measures of violence), the Jesuits, to a man, still seemed to desire martyrdom – even with the knowledge of all the pain that came with it.
- “Canadian Martyrs,” Wikipedia
- Isaac Jogues, “Account of René Goupil,’ by Father Isaac Jogues,” Jesuit Relations, vol. 28, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites, accessed via moses.creighton.edu/kripke/jesuitrelations.
- Jerome Lalemant, “Father Isaac Jogues Returns for the Third Time to the Country of the Hirquois, Where He Is Put to Death,” Jesuit Relations, vol. 31, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites, accessed via moses.creighton.edu/kripke/jesuitrelations.
- Jacques Buteux, “Letter of Jacques Buteux to the Very Reverend Father Vincent Caraffa, General of the Society of Jesus,” Jesuit Relations, vol. 34, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites, accessed via moses.creighton.edu/kripke/jesuitrelations.