Braving wilderness, warriors and winter, North American Martyrs gave all for Christ

St. Isaac Jogues, St. Rene Goupil and the other North American Martyrs killed by the Iroquois serve as examples of abandonment to self for the sake of the Gospel. Dispatched to the vast wilderness that was northern Michigan, Ontario and Quebec in the mid-17th century, the Jesuit missionaries left home and fearlessly preached Christ, even to death. 

On Saturday, Oct. 19, we celebrated the feast of the North American Martyrs. At Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, where I serve, these holy Jesuits are commemorated in a Pewabic tile in the sanctuary, into which have been sculpted the weapons of their martyrdom. They are honored in a number of our churches and chapels throughout the Archdiocese of Detroit, and throughout Michigan and other parts of the Midwest and Ontario.

Fr. Jacques Marquette, the famous missionary priest who spent a great deal of his life in northern Michigan, followed very closely in the footsteps of the North American Martyrs. He was also a Jesuit missionary sent from France, and came to the New World soon after the martyrs in order to bring the Gospel to much the same part of the world.

To give a little historical perspective, we need to allow our minds to travel back more than 350 years, to a time when this area was an almost totally unknown wilderness. There was little to no farming in Michigan at the time, and the boom days of the lumber industry were not yet dreamed of. Thick forests covered most of Michigan and stretched farther up into Canada than any living person could reckon.

Into this wilderness of wood and water, of long, frozen winters and hot, bug-infested summers, came a squadron of Jesuit missionaries. These Jesuits bathed the native peoples who came to believe in Jesus with the waters of baptism. And they bathed this very land with the blood they spilled for Christ. When I’m near Lake Huron, I like to look out across the lake and to think about them having worked, and suffered, and died on the other side of the big lake named for the very tribe for which they offered their labors and their lives.

They came to this wilderness from France, which in the mid-17th century offered everything that civilization and culture could offer: community life in cities and villages, fine food, clothing and medical care, perhaps the world’s finest collection of Gothic cathedrals, and world-class educational opportunities. All of this the young Jesuits not only left behind, but longed to leave behind with the burning desire only love can kindle. They were consumed with zeal for the salvation of native peoples about whom they knew only what they had read.

Braving the elements, and certain danger

There are far too many stories about the six priests and two brothers known as the North American Martyrs to tell in one article. So we’ll take St. Isaac Jogues as our particular model for living out the call the Lord makes to us in Psalm 96. Isaac Jogues did everything in his power to “tell (God’s) glory among the nations” and to “say among the nations: the LORD is king.”

St. Isaac was among the first Jesuits to set foot on Michigan territory, up in present-day Sault Ste. Marie, but he spent most of his priestly ministry east of here, in Quebec and northern New York state.

When most priests are first ordained, we are assigned to relatively large and stable parishes where the locals might become occasionally irritated with us, but aren’t likely to cut off our fingers or hack at us with tomahawks. When Isaac Jogues was ordained in 1636, he neither had nor wished for any such assurances.

When most priests are first ordained, we are assigned to relatively large and stable parishes where the locals might become occasionally irritated with us, but aren’t likely to cut off our fingers or hack at us with tomahawks. When Isaac Jogues was ordained in 1636, he neither had nor wished for any such assurances. His first assignment was to serve as a missionary in the wilderness of “New France,” and so he traveled to Quebec in the early summer of that year. From Quebec, he launched zealously into the forest and a life of suffering, isolation, and coping with the constant threat of death.

The food Isaac Jogues and the other missionaries ate was almost always scarce and repellent. The hospitality they received was uneven at best, though many members of the Huron Tribe came to love and revere the martyrs, and embraced the Catholic faith. The shelters they lived in — when they had shelters — were usually cold, crowded and unsanitary.

When I think of how often I become absorbed by the trivial discomforts I experience, I realize how easily the North American Martyrs could have become discouraged by their innumerable and almost unthinkable sufferings. Yet they endured, and persevered, “keeping their eyes fixed on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2).

They had chosen to serve Christ their King during their preparation for missionary life, praying through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). They had chosen to honor and serve Jesus as their King, and they longed to share with others the treasure they had received. They longed to honor the words of the Lord, Who says through the Prophet Isaiah: “It is I who arm you, though you know me not, so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun people may know that there is none besides me. I am the LORD, there is no other.”

Tortured and killed for love of Jesus

In July of 1642, just more than six years after his arrival in New France, Isaac Jogues and Rene Goupil set off as part of a group seeking to evangelize and offer medical services to a group of Hurons living near Three Rivers, Quebec. The expedition had only traveled one day when they came upon some hostile Iroquois, who already had caused the Hurons to flee into the woods. The Jesuits were taken prisoner, and at the hands of their captors suffered terrifying tortures. The Iroquois warriors “fell upon us like mad dogs with sharp teeth, tearing out our nails and crushing our fingers,” St. Isaac would later write. He also reports that they were forced to endure beatings as they “ran the gauntlet” and had hot coals placed on their exposed flesh, while they lay helpless with their hands bound fast.

Isaac Jogues is our authority for this account, because Rene Goupil would not live to write again. In the Jesuit Relations, the documents by which the missionaries shared with their superiors the stories of their labors, St. Isaac tells the story of what led up to St. Rene’s martyrdom:

“After we had been in the country six weeks — as confusion arose in the councils of the Iroquois, some of whom were quite willing that we should be taken back — we lost the hope, which I did not consider very great, of again seeing Three Rivers that year. We accordingly consoled each other in the divine arrangement of things, and we were preparing for everything that it might ordain for us …

“One day, then, as in the grief of our souls we had gone forth from the village in order to pray more suitably and with less disturbance, two young men came after us to tell us that we must return home. I had some presentiment of what was to happen, and said to him, ‘My dearest brother, let us commend ourselves to Our Lord and to our good mother the Blessed Virgin; these people have some evil design, as I think.’ We had offered ourselves to Our Lord shortly before with much devotion, beseeching him to receive our lives and our blood, and to unite them with his life and blood for the salvation of these poor peoples. We accordingly returned to our village, reciting our rosary…”

“Martyrdom of St. Isaac Jogues and Companions” (Lawrence OP/Flickr | CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)

In fact, as St. Isaac predicted, further evil would soon befall them. St. Rene Goupil was martyred when an Iroquois warrior attacked him with a hatchet on Sept. 29, 1642. He died with the Holy Name of Jesus on his lips, as he had often said he wished to do. Isaac Jogues survived and went to France for a time, requiring a special dispensation to offer Mass with mutilated hands, since both of his index fingers and one of his thumbs had been cut off. 

All the time he was in France, however, he longed to return to his beloved mission. He did return, and was killed by a tomahawk blow on Oct. 18, 1646, at the hands of an Iroquois warrior. As did St. Rene Goupil before him, and as would the other North American Martyrs after him, St. Isaac Jogues in life and in death offered himself completely to the Father in union with the Lord Jesus. Later, the man who killed St. Isaac Jogues would himself seek baptism and take the Christian name of Isaac Jogues.

Suffering with the saints

It has been said that the saints provide for us a kind of “living Gospel.” Their lives bring to every age the holiness, the sacrificial and saving love of Jesus Christ. So it is with the North American Martyrs, who have brought the love of Christ to these lands and laid down their lives so that others might truly live.

We are the beneficiaries of their witness, of course. But their heroic virtues call forth from us not only our admiration but also our imitation. Their commitment to Christ, their self-sacrificial love for all people, their devotion to the Blessed Virgin and especially to the Holy Eucharist, are all virtues we need to make our own as we engage in the missions to which God has called us.

And we must be willing to suffer with perseverance. There is no truly Christian life without suffering. In the words of St. John Henry Newman, which beautifully capture the spirit of the martyrs — a spirit we are all called to share:

“O simple soul, is it not the law of thy being to endure since thou camest to Christ? Why camest thou but to endure? Why didst thou taste His heavenly feast, but that it might work in thee? Why didst thou kneel beneath His hand, but that He might leave on thee the print of His wounds?”

In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we come to taste Christ’s heavenly feast. We pray that our worship might help the Eucharist to work in us, to leave on us the print of His wounds, that we might both strive and endure all we must to carry our crosses with Him. And it is good for us to pray that the North American Martyrs and all the saints will offer the prayers and help we need to imitate them, who so closely imitated our crucified, risen, and Eucharistic Lord.

Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.