The North American Martyrs Shed Their Blood in the Name of Christ

SAINTS & ART: Steeled by the example of these great saints, let us not be ashamed of proclaiming the name of Jesus in the public and private lives of Canada and the United States.

Background: The Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, New York. Foreground: 1740 drawing of the martyrdom of Sts. Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalémant.
Background: The Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, New York. Foreground: 1740 drawing of the martyrdom of Sts. Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalémant. (photo: Shutterstock / Library and Archives Canada)

Eight Jesuit missionaries were tortured and killed over a seven-year period, from 1642-49, in what is today upper New York State and Ontario. They were Sts. René Goupil, Isaac Jogues, Jean de Lalande, Antoine Daniel, Jean de Brébeuf, Noël Chabanel, Charles Garnier and Gabriel Lalémant. 

The French had begun settling Canada in the early 1600s. As with the Spanish in Latin America, French arrival in Canada opened the door to Christianization of its native peoples. The Jesuits were the primary agents of that missionary evangelization work.

They also walked into conflicts among the various Indian tribes. Their missionary work among the Hurons began to yield some success. But the Hurons and Iroquois were rivals. And the region was in contention.

For Americans today, upper New York State is largely unknown. Some might say Sleepy Hollow starts in Tarrytown and continues north. When people conflate New York State and New York City, the rest of the Empire State often becomes the “long drive” between New York City and Montréal. 

That is not to justify that caricature. My point is different: in the 1600s and 1700s, that area was a live bone of contention, a dangerous region where the interests of world empires intersected. The French were moving along the St. Lawrence; the Dutch, and later the English, along the Hudson. Upper New York State would be where they met and clashed, at first through surrogate warfare among the Native Peoples, then later with imperial troops themselves. Later, even after the French were defeated by the English in Québec, a key moment in American independence would occur in the region, at Saratoga, where American would defeat British forces. Those who remember American history know that prejudice against the “encroachment” of Catholic Québec was strong in northern New England and contributed to Revolutionary sentiments in Massachusetts. One of America’s first novels, Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, is set in northern New York. So this region was very much a contested frontier from the 1600s until almost the 1800s.

But we need to back up. When the North American Martyrs were being murdered, French settlement in Canada was really only in its second generation, and the Dutch and English were just sparring over New Amsterdam. But all those countries made allies with local peoples. The Hurons were considered aligned with the French, the Iroquois with the Dutch and English. The French were Catholics, the Dutch and English Protestants (and English Protestantism was going through its rabidly Puritan phase). And the Jesuits, rightly or wrongly, were also seen by the Iroquois as agents of France.

The Iroquois, therefore, preyed on the Jesuits. The first ones — Jogues and Goupil — were captured as they were canoeing to mission sites. They left Aug. 1, 1642, the day after the feast of St. Ignatius, and were ambushed and captured Aug. 2. 

Jogues was a priest, Goupil was not. The French Jesuits did not allow Goupil to continue his vocation in France because of his “physical infirmities.” So he went as a layman, with surgical skills, to the New World and attached himself to the service of the Jesuits there. After his capture, Goupil and Jogues were tortured. They were beaten with clubs and irons, fingers were amputated, and hot coal and ash heaped on them. Finally, on the feast of St. Michael, after 57 days of such treatment, an Iroquois tomahawk split the “physically infirm” Goupil’s head open. His naked body, gnawed by dogs, was dragged near a river. This is not my gory description: read St. Isaac Jogues’ description of that martyrdom here.

Jogues spent almost a year in captivity before he had a chance to escape. He ministered to other Catholic prisoners held by the Indians, but could not celebrate Mass because several of his fingers were cut off. He escaped by reaching the Dutch near today’s Albany. Eventually, they transported him back to Europe, where he arrived Dec. 25, 1643, almost 15 months after his capture. The Pope gave him a special dispensation to celebrate Mass with his injured hands.

But Jogues would not stay in France. In 1644, Jogues returned, serving the Native Peoples’ communities in various ways until 1646, when he and a lay Jesuit associate, Jean de Lalande, were captured by the Iroquois. Jogues was felled with a tomahawk in the head on Oct. 18, Lalande the next day. Both were then beheaded and their bodies thrown into the Mohawk River.

The stories of Jogues, Lalande and Goupil can be found on the website of the North American Martyrs in Fultonville, New York (northwest of Albany), here.

Jean de Brébeuf first came to Canada in 1625 and remained until 1629. Dangerous conditions there led to his return to France, where he was a preacher and confessor. But he came back to Canada in 1633 and remained until his martyrdom 16 years later. He and Gabriel Lalémant were captured by the Iroquois in late winter 1649. They were tied to stakes and ritually tortured, including bodily mutilation. To mock the baptism to which the Jesuits attached so much value, the Indians repeatedly poured vats of boiling water over their victims. Because Brébeuf proved himself so brave under such torture, the Iroquois finally consumed his heart and blood. Francis Talbot’s 1956 Saint among the Hurons remains the best biography of Brébeuf.

Pope Francis’s 2022 “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada was intended to address the abuses of the Canadian Indian “residential schools,” a system created much later — in the late 1800s by the Canadian government — to assimilate what today they call “First Nation” peoples by denying their Indian culture. His visit was the reiteration and culmination of the Church’s addressing those abuses over the previous three decades. 

I note this because there is an element in contemporary woke culture that considers the whole missionary enterprise that took place during the colonial era in the Americas to be illegitimate and seeks to “cancel” many of those missionaries, e.g., St. Junípero Serra in California. That the intersection of throne and altar — imperial ambitions with missionary work — has at times in history been problematic for the Church, that evangelization work remains legitimate. Mexico is far better off under Our Lady of Guadalupe than Aztec “gods” who demanded human sacrifice. The ideological blinders of the woke — including their reversion to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s mythology of the “noble savage” — refuses to recognize that all human beings — First Nation peoples, European arrivals, Inuit — are sinners in need of redemption. They need to make moral progress, and will not do that by “enlightenment” but conversion in Christ. What some of the colonial powers did in the Americas was “savage,” but what the Natives did to Goupil, Brébeuf, Jogues, Lalande, Lalémant and company was not “noble.”

Today’s illustration comes from a 1740s drawing of the martyrdom of Brébeuf and Lalémant held by Libraries and Archives Canada. The sketch shows the martyrs being bound to poles by their captors. It’s March, as the birds migrating above suggest. Iroquois already hold pots of boiling hot water to “baptize” the two martyrs, while another vat boils in case they need rebaptism. Both died with the name of Jesus on their lips.

I chose this illustration for two reasons. The first is its age. It dates from about a century after the martyrdoms, when this entire region still remained in play between France, England and their Native surrogates (the French and Indian War is still in the future). The second is because it captures the unique odium fidei, the “hatred of the faith” that drove their torturers. “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34) might perhaps modify their culpability, as they mocked a sacrament they probably did not understand. But because God has also written his law on our hearts (Romans 2:15), we cannot pretend that such malicious torture could be done in morally good conscience. 

The North American Martyrs shed their blood in the name of Christ to bring the faith to Canada and the United States. Let us not be ashamed of proclaiming his name — the name for whom they died — in the public and private lives of both countries.

(One fun fact about St. Jean de Brébeuf: he may have written the first Christmas Carol in North America, based on a French melody: the “Huron Carol.”)