Born: January 10, 1607 in Orléans, Kingdom of France
Died: October 18, 1646 in Ossernon, Canada, New France
Beatified: June 21, 1925 in Rome, Italy by Pope Pius XI
Canonized: June 29, 1930 in Vatican City by Pope Pius XI
Feast Day: September 26 (Canada), October 19 (U.S.A.)
Patronage: Canada, the Americas
“You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.” Matthew 10:22
Martyrdom. The very thought of it strikes fear into the hearts of souls grown accustomed to lives of ease and comfort. It evokes uncomfortably vivid images of saints devoured by lions, roasted on spits, boiled or burned alive, tortured, or brutally crucified. Among Christian martyrs, Jesus is the first and greatest example. But what was it that gave the saints who would follow in His footsteps the strength to willingly undergo such torments? Were they somehow different from the rest of us, blessed with stronger wills or a higher threshold of pain? Or did they receive some special gift or grace that allowed them to endure their sufferings so courageously? It is only as we ponder their lives that we can hope to gain some insight into this profound mystery.
St. Isaac Jogues is one of eight Canadian Martyrs (also known as the North American Martyrs) who gave their lives for the sake of the Catholic faith.1 Born in Orléans, France on January 10th, 1607, Isaac was the fifth of nine children. The Jogues were a prominent and affluent bourgeois family, and Isaac’s early education began at home (under tutors); later, at the age of ten, he continued his studies in Jesuit schools. When Isaac was seventeen years old (in 1624), he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Rouen to prepare for the priesthood. He professed his simple vows2 in 1626 and then went on to study philosophy at the Royal College in La Flèche. Beginning in 1629, he taught humanities to young boys in Rouen, and four years later, he was sent to study Theology at the Collège de Clermont in Paris.
The Jesuits had a reputation as zealous missionaries eager to defend and spread the Catholic Faith. In 1604, France had begun to establish colonies in New France, and by 1625, the Jesuit community had embarked on their first mission. Fr. Jean de Brébeuf (who would later be martyred and canonized), Fr. Charles Lalement, and Fr. Enémond Massé were among the first Jesuit missionaries to be sent to the New World. They returned to France with stories of adventure, hardship, treachery, and torture, yet despite the many challenges they had endured, the missions were flourishing. Their stories inspired Isaac, who increasingly desired to “devote himself to labor there for the conversion and welfare of the natives.”3 Ships were waiting in French ports to return to the new land, and in response to the great need, four seminarians were ordained in January, 1636 – a year and a half early – so that they could take up their work as missionaries in New France.4 Among those chosen was Isaac Jogues.
Life in the New World
Fr. Jogues spent his first six years in New France living among the Huron natives, learning their language and customs under the guidance of St. Jean de Brébeuf.5 The Jesuits lived in constant danger, for the natives blamed the ‘Blackrobes’ for all the misfortunes that befell them.6 For example, after Fr. Jogues fell ill with a fever and almost died, the illness spread to the other missionaries and became epidemic among the natives. In response, the Hurons threatened to kill them all.
But God continued to bless their work. At great risk, Fr. Isaac and Fr. Charles Raymbault travelled as far west as ‘Saults de Ste.-Marie’ (present day Sault Ste. Marie) where they established a mission; they were possibly the first white men to venture that far west on Lake Superior.7 Not long afterwards, Jogues asked Our Lord to bless him with the “favour and grace of suffering for his glory.”8 In the depth of his soul, he heard Our Lord’s answer: “Thy prayer is heard; what thou hast asked of me is granted thee. Be courageous and steadfast.”9
According to the Jesuit Relations, in June 1642, “the Reverend Father Hierosme Lalemant, at that time Superior of the Mission among the Hurons, knowing nothing of what had occurred, sent for Fr. Jogues, and proposed to him the journey to Kebec [present-day Québec City], – a frightful one, on account of the difficulty of the roads, and very dangerous because of the ambuscades of the Hiroquois, who massacred, every year, a considerable number of the Savages allied to the French.”10 Despite the danger, the pressing needs of the community outweighed the risks. Fr. Raymbault was in dire need of medical attention, and the community desperately needed fresh supplies.
Fr. Jogues didn’t have a reputation for being particularly courageous or daring, and he knew he was free to refuse the proposal; but at the same time, he was a man of rare humility. “He not only recognized his own lowliness, but he desired to be treated according to his nothingness.”11 Jogues would later write, “Authority having made me a simple proposition, and not a command, to go down to Kebec, I offered myself with all my heart, – and that the more willingly, because the necessity of undertaking this, might have cast someone else of our Fathers, much better than I, into the peril and hazards that we all anticipate. So there we [were] on the way and in the dangers all at once. We were obliged to disembark forty times, and forty times to carry our boats and all our baggage amid the currents and waterfalls that one encounters on this journey of about three hundred leagues [around 1667 kilometers]. And although the Savages who were guiding us were very adroit, we nevertheless incurred some disasters, to the great peril of our lives, and with some loss of our small baggage. At last, thirty-five days after our departure from the Hurons, we arrived, much fatigued, at Three Rivers; thence we went down to Kebec.”12
Ambush! (Warning: Graphic details)
After arriving in Kebec, Jogues and his companions loaded their canoes with all the necessary supplies and prepared for the return journey. The three Frenchmen (Fr. Jogues, René Goupil, and Guillaume Couture) and 40 Hurons departed on the morning of August 2, 1642.13 But within hours, they were sighted by a Mohawk scouting party and ambushed the very next day.
Badly outnumbered, some of the Hurons were able to escape into the forest. Jogues managed to hide himself in some thickets among the very tall, dense reeds, but when he saw that René Goupil had been surrounded and captured along with some of the Hurons, he felt compelled to give himself up. “Could I, indeed,” he wrote, “abandon our French and leave those good Neophytes and those poor Catechumens, without giving them the help which the Church of my God has entrusted to me? Flight seemed horrible to me.”14 Guillaume Couture also initially escaped, but when he realized that Fr. Jogues had been captured (and not wanting to abandon him), he, too, turned back and surrendered.
The suffering the 22 captives would endure was horrific. The Mohawks violently tore out Fr. Isaac’s fingernails, biting the ends of his two forefingers and “grinding and crushing them as if between two stones, even to the extent of causing splinters or little bones to protrude.”15 But the suffering had only just begun. The journey by water and over land to Iroquois Territory was torturous. Jogues wrote, “It is true that, during thirteen days that we spent on that journey, I suffered in the body torments almost unendurable, and, in the soul, mortal anguish; hunger, the fiercely burning heat, the threats and hatred of those Leopards, the pain of our wounds, – which, for not being dressed, became putrid even to the extent of breeding Worms, – caused us, in truth, much distress.”16 But what caused him even greater inward sorrow was the death of his Huron companions – those early, ardent Christians – who he had hoped might be the means of bringing the Good News of Salvation to many more people.
As they passed through the Iroquois villages, the prisoners were forced to walk naked between a gauntlet of warriors who beat them savagely. Jogues, as ‘captain’, was singled out for special treatment. One of his fingers was burned, another was crushed with their teeth, and when his strength failed, they applied fire to his arm and thighs. Continuing the journey inland, Jogues and René Goupil became so weak that they fell far behind and could easily have made their escape, but Jogues refused to abandon his flock. “I would rather have suffered all sorts of torments than abandon to death those whom I could somewhat console, and upon whom I could confer the blood for my Savior through the Sacraments of his Church.” When René saw Jogues’ resolve, he refused to leave him. “I will die with you,” he said. “I cannot forsake you.”17
A scaffold had been prepared for the arrival of the captives, and after mounting it, Jogues related, “An old man takes my left hand and commands a captive Algonquin woman to cut one of my fingers; she turns away three or four times, unable to resolve upon this cruelty; finally, she has to obey, and cuts the thumb from my left hand; the same caresses are extended to the other prisoners. This poor woman having thrown my thumb on the stage, I picked it up and offered it to you, O my God! Remembering the sacrifices that I had presented to you for seven years past, upon the Altars of your Church, I accepted this torture as a loving vengeance for the want of love and respect that I had shown, concerning your Holy Body; you heard the cries of my soul. One of my two French companions, having perceived me, told me that, if those Barbarians saw me keep my thumb, they would make me eat it and swallow it all raw; and that, therefore, I should throw it away somewhere. I obey him instantly.”18 St. Isaac lost not only his thumb, but also the forefinger of his left hand. While the thought of losing one’s thumb and forefinger in such a way is horrifying, to say the very least, the loss of these fingers was particularly devastating for St. Isaac. Under Church law at that time, the Blessed Sacrament couldn’t be touched with any fingers but the thumb and forefinger. This meant that St. Isaac would no longer be able to celebrate the Mass.
The torture continued as the men were forced to lie down for three days on stakes in the shape of St. Andrew’s cross while children “threw coals and burning cinders on our stomachs, – taking pleasure in seeing us broil and roast. Oh, my God, what nights!,” St. Isaac said. “To remain always in an extremely constrained position; to be unable to stir or to turn, under the attack of countless vermin which assailed us on all sides; to be burdened with wounds, some recent and others all putrid; not to have sustenance for the half of one’s life: in truth, these torments are great, but God is infinite.”19 Through it all, St. Isaac continued to minister to the captives. When a new group of captive Hurons arrived, he consoled, instructed, and baptized them. In response, the Mohawks sentenced him to die with them the following night.
Sustained by prayer
God, however, had other plans. Some of the natives thought it would be better to use St. Isaac as a bargaining chip with the French. When they couldn’t agree on how to accomplish that, he was given as a slave to some families to serve them in their hunts. As winter approached, St. Isaac travelled 167 kilometers with them, dressed in nothing more than a shirt, a pair of underpants, and thin shoes that didn’t have any soles. His one consolation was prayer. “He would go to the woods as soon as it was morning, bringing back even more wood [a task regarded as humiliating by the Iroquois, as this work was normally reserved for women] than was needed to keep up the fire which burns day and night in their cabins. His task done, he withdrew alone upon a hill covered with spruce trees; and there he spent eight or ten hours in prayer, without other conversation than that with God, – remaining most of the time upon his knees on the snow, before a Cross which he had himself set up. He continued these exercises during forty days, without house, without fire, without other shelter than the Sky and the woods, and a miserable scrap of I know not what, almost as transparent as the air.”20 Because the Mohawk hunters believed he was preparing spells to make the men die, they made sport of him and refused to let him touch anything in the cabin, not even something he might have used to cover himself from the cold.
In the midst of this inconceivable suffering, a party of Dutch traders heard of St. Isaac’s plight, and toward the end of April, 1643, they were able to ransom him. Once they had engineered his escape from the Mohawks, they gave St. Isaac enough money for passage to New Amsterdam (now New York), and from there he returned to France.
Return to France
Jogues arrived unrecognized at the door of the College at Rennes on the morning of January 5, 1644. The Father Rector was about to celebrate Mass, but when he heard that there was a poor man from Canada waiting at the door, he laid aside his vestments and went out to meet him. Fr. Jogues offered him letters signed by the Governor of the Dutch, but didn’t tell him who he was.
After asking him several questions, the Father Rector asked, “Are you acquainted with Fr. Isaac Jogues?”
“I know him very well,” Fr. Jogues answered.
“We have had word that he was taken by the Iroquois. Is he dead? Is he still captive? Have not those Barbarians slain him?”
“He is at liberty, and it is he, my Reverend Father, who speaks to you,” said Fr. Jogues as he fell to his knees to receive the Father Rector’s blessing.21
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
Despite all he had endured, after only a year and a half in France, Fr. Jogues longed to return to the people of New France. Pope Urban VIII, who regarded Fr. Jogues as a living martyr, had given him a special dispensation so he could celebrate Mass once again, and this would allow him to resume his ministry among the Native peoples. In the spring of 1644, he returned to New France and after he arrived, he was sent to Montréal. For the next two years, St. Isaac ministered there, doing all he could to bring about an end to the war between the Hurons and the Iroquois.
Peace seemed within reach, and St. Isaac was sent back to Ossernon22 in May 1646 to negotiate with the Mohawks. Although the talks were productive, it was an uneasy truce, and by September, the Iroquois had resumed their river blockades and raids on the French and Huron settlements. When St. Isaac was asked to return for a second peace mission, he didn’t hesitate, even though he knew his life was at risk. In what would be his final letter, Jogues wrote: “My hope is in God, who has no need of us for the execution of his designs. It is for us to try to be faithful to him, and not to spoil his work by our own baseness. I hope that you will obtain for me this favor from our Lord; and that, after having led so slothful a life hitherto, I shall begin to serve him better. My heart tells me that, if I have the blessing of being employed in this Mission, Ibo et non redibo [I shall go but I shall not return]; but I would be happy if our Lord were willing to finish the Sacrifice where he has begun it, and 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. … Adieu, my dear Father; entreat him that he unite me inseparably to himself.”23
St. Isaac departed by canoe on September 24th, accompanied by a young French donné, Jean de la Lande, and some Hurons.24 They arrived at Ossernon on October 17th. Later, in a letter to Sir Bourdon, a Dutchman wrote, “they were stripped all naked, without shirts, save that they gave them each a breech-clout [loincloth] to hide their wretched plight. The very day of their coming, they began to threaten them, – and that immediately, with heavy blows of fists and clubs, saying: ‘You will die to-morrow; be not astonished. But we will not burn you; have courage; we will strike you with the hatchet and will set your heads on the palings’ (that is to say, on the fence about their village), ‘so that when we shall capture your brothers they may still see you’. … On the 18th [of October], in the evening, when they came to call Isaac to supper, he got up and went away with that Barbarian to the lodge of the bear. There was a traitor with his hatchet behind the door, who, on entering, split open his head; then immediately he cut it off, and set it on the palings. The next day, very early, he did the same to the other man, and their bodies were thrown into the river.”25
How was it possible for St. Isaac, a man who by all accounts was not particularly courageous, to not only undertake the perilous journey to Kebec, but to also later return to the people who had so viciously tortured and mutilated him? The answer can only be found in the all-encompassing love that St. Isaac had for God and for souls, in his great faith, trust, and humility, and in the compassion that was the fruit of his prayer. Because St. Isaac Jogues persevered in his faith and humbly allowed our Lord to sanctify his sufferings, God give him all the graces he needed of final perseverance.
- Sharon van der Sloot
NOVENA TO THE NORTH AMERICAN MARTYRS26
Holy Martyrs and patrons,
protect this land which you have blessed
by the shedding of your blood.
Renew in these days our Catholic faith
which you helped to establish in this new land.
Bring all our fellow citizens
to a knowledge and love of the truth.
Make us zealous in the profession of our faith
so that we may continue and perfect the work
which you have begun with so much labour and suffering.
Pray for our homes, our schools,
our missions, for vocations,
for the conversion of sinners,
the return of those who have wandered from the fold,
and the perseverance of all the faithful.
And foster a deeper and increasing unity among all Christians. Amen.
O God, who by the preaching and the blood of your blessed Martyrs, Jean and Isaac and their companions, consecrated the first fruits of the faith in the vast regions of North America, graciously grant that by their intercession the flourishing harvest of Christians may be everywhere and always increased. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
PRAYER OF PETITION
O God, who inflamed the hearts of your blessed Martyrs with an admirable zeal for the salvation of souls, grant me, I beseech you, my petitions and all the requests recommended here today, so that the favours obtained through their intercession may make manifest before men the power and the glory of your name. Amen.
St. Jean de Brébeuf, pray for us.
St. Isaac Jogues, pray for us.
St. Gabriel Lalemant, pray for us.
St. Anthony Daniel, pray for us.
St. Charles Garnier, pray for us.
St. Noël Chabanel, pray for us.
St. René Goupil, pray for us.
St. Jean de la Lande, pray for us.
Holy Mary, Queen of Martyrs, pray for us.
1 The Canadian martyrs include St. René Goupil (1642), St. Isaac Jogues (1646), St. Jean de la Lande (1646), St. Antoine Daniel (1648), St. Jean de Brébeuf (1649), St. Noël Chabanel (1649), St. Charles Garnier (1649), and St. Gabriel Lalemant (1649). All of them were Jesuit missionaries from Sainte-Marie among the Hurons who were ritually tortured and killed during the mid-seventeenth century war between the Iroquois (particularly the Mohawk nation) and the Huron peoples.
2 Jesuit formation to become a priest normally takes between 8 and 17 years. The first, simple vows taken by novices are of poverty, chastity, and obedience, as well as a vow to persevere to final profession and ordination.
3 Martin J. Scott, Isaac Jogues: Missioner and Martyr (New York, 1928), 45.
4 The four seminarians ordained in January, 1636 were Isaac Jogues, Charles Gamier, Pierre Chastellain, and Paul Ragueneau.
5 St. Jean de Brébeuf (1593-1649) was among the first Jesuit missionaries to arrive in New France in 1625. He lived among the Huron people and was the first missionary to learn their language. He and St. Gabriel Lalemant were captured and tortured to death in 1649 by Iroquois warriors after the Huron village where they were living was attacked. St. Jean de Brébeuf’s feast day is celebrated on October 19th; he is the patron saint of Canada.
6 In The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France 1610-1791, vol. XXXI, chapter VIII, we read, “The Algonquins and Hurons—and next the Hiroquois, at the solicitation of their captives—have had, and some have still,  a hatred and an extreme horror of our doctrine. They say that it causes them to die, and that it contains spells and charms which effect the destruction of their corn, and engender the contagious and general diseases wherewith the Hiroquois Now begin to be afflicted. It is on this account that we have expected to be murdered, in all the places where we have been; and even now we are not without hope of one day possessing this happiness.”
7 The two men had hoped to not only establish a mission but to also discover the passage to the Western Sea. Fr. Raymbault was so exhausted by their voyage that he was brought back to Québec where he soon died. He was the first Jesuit to die in Canada.
8 The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France 1610-1791, vol. XXXI, chapter IV, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites, computerized transcription Thom Mentrak (Cleveland: The Burrows Brothers, 1898), available from http://moses.creighton.edu/kripke/jesuitrelations/relations_31.html; Internet; accessed 28 June 2017.
11 Cf. Ibid, chapter VIII. Later, as the Jesuits reflected back on his life, they would write, “He was of a rather timorous temperament, which highly exalts his courage, and shows that his constancy came from above. He saw in a moment all the difficulties which might occur in a matter, and he felt the hurt naturally caused by these; this counter-poise kept him in a profound humility, and made him say that he was only a coward; and yet the Superiors who knew him depended on him as firmly as on a Rock.” Jogues, like all of us, was a ‘saint-in-the-making’, yet “Although he was of a hasty and quick temper, he nevertheless knew so well how to submit when Christian humility and charity required it, and to assume superiority when he saw the glory of his God involved, that those Barbarians sometimes said to him, laughing: “Ondesson, it would have been ill done to put thee to death; for thous actest the master well, when thou choosest, and the child when anything is commanded thee.” (Quoted from Ibid., chapter VIII)
12 Ibid., chapter IV.
13 St. Isaac Jogues was accompanied on this journey by two donnés (assistants): René Goupil and Guillaume Couture. Donnés were laymen who vowed devotion to the Society of Jesus for six months at a time, and most of them were exemplary Christians. Goupil was 34 – only a year younger than Jogues – at the time of the ambush. He had been received into the Jesuit novitiate as a youth but had been forced to leave the Order because of illness. Goupil studied medicine instead and had a reputation as a good nurse and a skillful surgeon. Once he regained his health, he had volunteered as a donné and had been serving in the mission in Québec for two years. Couture trained as a carpenter before being recruited as a donné for the missions. He was skilled in languages and worked for the Jesuits as a translator. Couture was 24 years old at the time of the ambush. Couture was singled out for torture because he shot and killed one of the Mohawk warriors. He was later given to an Iroquois family as a slave, and the natives were so impressed by how he conducted himself over his three years as prisoner that they invited him to sit on their councils. The Iroquois released him in 1645 after the end of the war, and he went on to become a diplomat and Captain of the Militia of Pointe-Lévy. He died at the age of 83.
14 The Jesuit Relations, vol. XXXI, chapter IV.
20 The Jesuit Relations, vol. XXXI, chapter VI.
21 Ibid., chapter VII.
22 Ossernon was located at the site of what is known today as Auriesville, New York, 9 miles west of the junction of the Schoharie and Mohawk Rivers. St. Kateri Tekakwitha was born in Ossernon in 1656, just 10 years after the martyrdom of St. Issac Jogues. However, her father was in his teens at the time of St. Isaac’s capture in 1642 and most likely participated in his torture. The Turtle Clan, of which her father became chief, was exonerated of all responsibility in the martyrdom of Sts. Issac Jogues and Jean de la Lande; it was the Bear Clan who claimed responsibility for their murders.
23 The Jesuit Relations, vol. XXXI, chapter VIII.
24 Jean de la Lande, the young Frenchman who was slain with Fr. Isaac Jogues, was from Dieppe, France. In the Jesuit Relations we read, “That good youth … seeing the dangers in which he was involving himself in so perilous a journey, protested at his departure that the desire of serving God was leading him into a country where he surely expected to meet death. This frame of mind has enabled him to pass into a life which no longer fears either the rage of those Barbarians, or the fury of the Demons, or the pangs of death.” (Jesuit Relations, vol. XXXI, chapter VIII)
25 The Jesuit Relations, vol. XXXI, chapter VIII.
26 Available from http://www.tradbooks.com/novenas/North_American_Martyrs.htm; Internet; accessed 13 July 2017.
* CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47097810.
** Angus MacDougall, “Isaac Jogues/1607-1646,” Wyandot Nation of Kansas [website]; available from http://www.wyandot.org/jogues.htm, 1; Internet; accessed 25 July 2017.
***Available from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMartyrdom_of_Father_Isaac_Jogues_S.J._Engraving_by_A._Malaer_Wellcome_V0032209.jpg; Internet; accessed 28 June 2017.