Skull of St. Jean de Brébeuf Tours US

Packed in a Volkswagen manned by three Jesuit priests, the relic is slowly making its way across the country.

A close-up of the relic of St. Jean de Brébeuf’s skull, and relics of his fellow missionaries, on display at Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, Colorado
A close-up of the relic of St. Jean de Brébeuf’s skull, and relics of his fellow missionaries, on display at Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, Colorado (photo: Photo courtesy of Regis Jesuit High School)

The skull of St. Jean de Brébeuf, packed in a Volkswagen manned by three Jesuit priests, is slowly making its way across the U.S.

Father de Brébeuf, a Jesuit priest who evangelized the native Huron people in modern-day Ontario, was martyred by the Iroquois in 1649. Now, 375 years later, his missionary work continues through the tour of his relics.

The tour, which began in Colorado on Feb. 9, will last almost a month, ending in New York City on March 6. The relics of his fellow missionaries, St. Gabriel Lalemant and St. Charles Garnier, travel along with his skull, as the three priests continue the saints’ missionary work.

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A close-up of St. Jean de Brébeuf's skull in the reliquary(Photo: Courtesy of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province)


The Journey and Devotion  

Married couples place their wedding rings on the reliquary; families with children from the ages of 2 to 5 kneel together as a family; a little girl prays for “her sparkly boots and her little pony.” 

Jesuit Father Michael Wegenka, a priest on the tour, recalled these “heartwarming” reactions to St. Jean de Brébeuf’s relic. 

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A couple prays before the relic at Our Lady of Wisdom University parish, Texas State University. (Photo: Courtesy of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province)

There has been a “great response” from people who come and see the relic, he says, with some driving more than an hour to pray before it.

For his part, the journey deepens his connection with the “missionary spirit” of his religious order.

“The Jesuits have a long history of being missionaries and traveling long distances together in order to spread the Gospel,” Father Wegenka said. “And so this is just one of the more unusual, but consoling, experiences of that kind of missionary spirit.” 

Isaac Beck, a layman who serves as the guardian of the relic, says it has been an ‘honor and a privilege” to help bring the relic “to so many people all over the United States.” 

As the relic’s guardian, he remains with it constantly. The 375-year-old relic must be guarded carefully and attentively, “like an infant,” Father Wegenka said. 

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Isaac Beck, the relic ‘guardian,’ helps Jesuit Father Michael Wegenka move the reliquary with care. (Photo: Courtesy of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province)

“People are very moved when they see the relic,” said Beck, who is discerning becoming a priest for the Society of Jesus. “Sometimes, some people are in tears, which is very touching. People are going through so [many] different crosses in their life, and they’re bringing these prayer intentions for healing and intercession.” 

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Dominican sisters pray in front of the relic at the Nashville cathedral.(Photo: Courtesy of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province)


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A family prays before the relic at St. Isidore Catholic Student Center, Kansas State University.(Photo: Courtesy of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province)


Who Was St. Jean de Brébeuf? 

Father de Brébeuf was a French missionary to the Indigenous tribe the Hurons, a more sedentary tribe that was often at war with the more aggressive Iroquois. Skilled at learning their language, Father de Brébeuf recorded the first Huron grammar dictionary and immersed himself in the culture.

“The Jesuits were known for embracing a strategy of enculturation, so they didn't come try to Europeanize the Indians,” said Jesuit Father Joseph Hill, who helped organize the tour. “[St. Jean de Brébeuf] became Huron. ... He lived like them. He was accepted into their longhouses and around their fires.”

But conversion to Catholicism was a challenging hurdle for Hurons, as they had a culture rife with sexual immorality, violence, and sometimes selective cannibalism. Meanwhile, the Jesuits were often blamed for spreading disease and for other disasters like defeats in battle and crop failure. 

But Father de Brébeuf embraced the Hurons, even writing the Huron Carol in 1643, a Christmas carol still used today. After a slow trickle of conversions, by 1647, thousands of Hurons became Catholic.

The saint is remembered not only for his skill at language, but also for his imposing strength and stature. 

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Jesuit Father Juan Ruiz, another priest traveling with the relic, tells the story of the North American Martyrs.(Photo: Courtesy of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province)

“Jean de Brébeuf was a big Norman,” said Father Hill. “He was very tall, and he was known for his strength. In fact, one of his names that the Indians gave him was ‘he who carries the heavy load.’”

“And he was chosen for the mission, we think, because of his physical attributes, because they knew it was going to be very difficult physically,” Father Hill continued. “So he’s a strong man, but also very gentle, also very loving.”

This “juxtaposition,” Hill observed, “captures something of the paradox of the Christian” as we follow Christ who was “morally strong” but “showed great love.”

Father Wegenka said that the strength of Father de Brébeuf really “captures my imagination.”

“He’s known as the Echon,” Father Wegenka explained. “It’s the name given him by the Huron people that he ministered to. And it means ‘man who carries the heavy burden.’ And I think that's just something that, especially for many men, we strive for — to carry heavy burdens, even the cross, with great love.” 

Father de Brébeuf and his fellow missionary Father Lalemant were captured by the Iroquois during a battle against the Huron in 1649. They were tortured and then martyred; Father de Brébeuf’s heart was cut out. 

“He loved the cross, and his whole life, especially in the mission, was, in a sense, in anticipation of his martyrdom,”  Father Hill said. “And he was ready and willing to give his life and to shed his blood for Christ and for the people that he was evangelizing.”

Father de Brébeuf had mystical visions of Christ’s passion and death, Father Wegenka noted.

“[He] recognized that every suffering that he experienced was an invitation to unite himself to Christ in his passion,” he said. 

Pope Pius IX canonized Father de Brébeuf in 1930, along with the other North American Martyrs, including Sts. Lalemant and Garnier, who were all martyred in the 1640s while evangelizing to the Indigenous peoples of the Americas.

St. Jean de Brébeuf is now associated with miraculous healings, Father Wegenka said. 

“In the shrine in Midland, Ontario, there’s a whole wall of crutches of people who have used a crutch in order to go to the shrine and have left it behind when they left,” he said, in reference to the Martyrs’ Shrine, where the skull normally resides. 


A Saintly Friendship 

Relics can be unnerving, especially a fully intact skull. 

“It’s very jarring, and we don’t always know the reactions that people will have when they see the skull relic of a missionary and martyr,” Father Wegenka said. 

One little girl, he recalled, saw the reliquary and then rushed back to her mother saying, “Mommy, I’m scared.” 

But traveling with a saint — even a dead one — can be quite comforting. As he has traveled with the relic, Father Wegenka said he has found “a spirit of friendship with Brébeuf.”

Taking a priceless relic across the border and through a snowstorm has created some "anxious moments,” Father Wegenka says, but “somehow everything seems to go smoothly.”

He said that he has seen “God’s providence” in “the intercession of the saint who is traveling with us” and has an “abiding sense of confidence that God’s protection” is with him as he has journeyed with the relic. 

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Jesuit Father Joseph Hill talks about veneration of relics at Jesuit High School of New Orleans.(Photo: Courtesy of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province)

Encountering a relic can “confront people with the reality of just how incarnated our faith is,” Father Wegenka noted. 

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Students at Regis Jesuit High School approach the relic of St. Jean de Brebeuf.(Photo: Courtesy of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province)


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Two young military men pray before the relic at the University of Texas at Austin.(Photo: Courtesy of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province)

“God works miracles and works graces through physical instruments,” Father Hill added. “And he's done that through the bones of the martyrs and of the saints over the centuries.”

“St. Jean is enjoying the beatific vision in heaven, and he is still related to his physical body in some way,” Father Hill explained. “So, to draw close to his physical body is to draw close to him, and to come close to what he is receiving in heaven.”

The practice of relics, Father Hill noted, goes back to the early Church, where Masses would be celebrated in nooks in the catacombs, with the tombs of buried Christians.

Those chapels “are the first-century A.D. testimony to the veneration of relics,” he noted. 

By venerating the relics, “we’re proclaiming the mighty deeds of God in the lives of these people,” Father Hill explained. 

“What God did in the life of St. Jean de Brébeuf is extraordinary,” he said. “And we should be telling the story to show what God can do in the lives of individuals who give themselves fully to him.”


Legacy of the Saints 

As a vocations director for the Society of Jesus, Father Hill noted that saints are especially important for young people in light of “revisionist history.” 

“I think we are in an age where we lack heroes,” he said. “Especially this revisionist history that’s been going on, some of the heroes that were held up in the past are now being torn down and their statues are being taken — even great leaders in our country, like Washington or Lincoln.”

“The tar is being used to tarnish any icon from the past,” he noted. 

But as Catholics, “the saints are our heroes,” Hill said.

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Students at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory of Houston venerate the relic of St. Jean de Brébeuf. (Photo: Photo by Nikki Pomer, Strake Jesuit College Preparatory)

“The example and witness of the saints together as a collective is the most extraordinary group of people in the history of human civilization,” he said. “We should feel so much strength and confidence through the intercession and the example of our saints, and that should help build us up in our faith and our witness to the Gospel in our own time.”