The Canadian Martyrs
In the January issue, we started to cover the story of the Canadian Martyrs. This month, we are pleased to give you a report on the life of St. Gabriel Lalemant.
ST. GABRIEL LALEMANT (1610 – 1649)
Gabriel was the nephew of Charles and Jerome Lalemant, who were brothers, and who worked as Jesuit priests in the wilderness of Quebec and Ontario, when the Jesuits first came to New France. Gabriel was born in Paris, on October 31, 1610. In 1630, at the age of nineteen, he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Paris. Hearing stories from his own Uncle Charles, about the missionary work in New France, filled him with desire to go to convert the savage Indians. And even though his own family did not want him to go to the savage land of New France, Gabriel was not one to allow his family to stand between himself and doing God's holy will. Still, he loved his family very much, and wrote the following note: "I am indebted to my relatives, to my mother and to my brothers, and I must try to draw down on them the mercy of God. Never permit, O God, that any of my family, for whom Thou hast shown so much love, perish in Thy sight, or that there be one amongst them who will blaspheme Thee for all eternity in Hell. Let me be a victim for them!"
Gabriel completed his novitiate and took his vows of Chastity, Poverty, and Obedience, in 1632. Inspired by God, he also added a fourth vow: to consecrate himself to the foreign missions. At the same time God tested his patience, because he had to wait sixteen years before he was given permission to go to New France.
Gabriel Lalemant was sent immediately after his novitiate to teach in the college at Moulins. He worked there for three years before he went to study theology at Bourges. There he was ordained in 1638. The following year Fr. Lalemant was appointed prefect of students in the college of La Fleche, and in 1641, he was sent to teach philosophy at Moulins. He was prefect in the college at Bourges, in 1646, when the news reached him that he had been chosen for the missions in New France—his poor health had been the cause of the long delay.
After three months of crossing the ocean, Gabriel arrived in Quebec, in September 1646, where he was welcomed by his Uncle Jerome Lalemant; the Superior of all the missions of New France. Fr. Lalemant wanted to go at once to some Indian tribe to begin the study of their language. But his uncle was unwilling to send him to Huronia, because he already knew from his own experience, how difficult it was to work in the missions. So for the next two years he had Fr. Lalemant do his ministry in and around Quebec and at Trois-Rivières among the French colonists.
Before coming to New France, Gabriel had consecrated himself to Our Lord for the purpose of receiving from His hand a violent death, either in exposing himself among the plague-stricken in France, or in seeking to save the souls of savages in New France. And he esteemed it a favour if he were allowed to die for God's glory in the flower of his age. The favour that Fr. Lalemant so greatly desired was to be granted to him in all its fullness. On July 24, 1648, he was allowed to leave Quebec City for Trois-Rivières, to join the Hurons on their return homewards.
Carrying their goods was one the hardest tasks that the missionaries had to endure on their tiresome journeys westward, and after one of those tiring spells both Indian and white men rested for a few hours, often for the night. At last in the beginning of September 1648, after the tiring journey up the Ottawa River, across Lake Nipissing and down the French River, Fr. Lalemant reached Fort St. Marie, the headquarters of the Jesuits in Huronia. This was also a place where the Christians found a hospital when sick, a refuge when panic-stricken, and a shelter when they went to visit the priests and Frenchmen.
Fr. Lalemant, who was now thirty-eight years old, studied the difficult Huron language at the village of Ossossané under the direction of Fr. Chaumonot.
By 1649, the Iroquois had grown angrier. The massacre of Fr. Antoine Daniel and his people at Teanaostaye, in July 1648, served as a warning to the recent converts and catechumens of the various Huron villages, to prepare for the worst. It also acted as an encouragement for them to lead better lives, and as a result, a wave of fervour swept over the land. Between July 1648 and March 1649, the missionary priests baptised more than 1400 Hurons. Missionaries as well as Indians believed that they were on the eve of a catastrophe, and no one was penetrated with this feeling more than Fr. Gabriel Lalemant who had long before desired to sacrifice his life. He wrote: "My Jesus and my Love, Thy blood shed for barbarians as well as for us, must be efficaciously applied for their salvation. Aided by Thy grace, I offer myself to co-operate in this work and to sacrifice myself for them."
Early in the morning on March 16, 1649, 1200 Iroquois ran into the poorly protected village of St. Ignace. Five hundred Hurons; mostly older people, women and children, were taken as prisoners and some were even killed. Three Hurons managed to escape to warn the people at the St. Louis settlement that the Iroquois were coming to attack their village. At St. Louis, the women and children, the sick and old people, quickly hurried away to other Huron villages. Only eighty Huron warriors were left to fight off the Iroquois and with them stayed Fr. Brébeuf and Fr. Lalemant. The Christians begged the two priests to flee and save themselves, but these two good priests refused to leave their flock, which was dearer to them than their own lives. While the Iroquois were killing and scalping the Hurons, the two saints stood in the midst of them, baptising, giving them absolution and encouraging them to die for the Catholic Faith.
The Iroquois set fire to St. Louis and hurried back to St. Ignace with the two priests. The priests were stripped naked, had some of their nails torn out and were beaten with clubs until there did not remain a single part of their bodies that was not in pain.
Like Fr. Brébeuf, Fr. Lalemant received the same terrible treatment: his flesh was pierced with sharp awls, red hot hatchets were applied to his loins and under his armpits, and a necklace of red hot hatchets was hung around his neck! Boiling water too, was poured over him until his entire body was bathed in it. The wretches also applied burning torches to Fr. Lalemant’s body, gouged out his eyes and put burning coals in the empty holes! The more the two priests were tortured, the more they begged God to pardon their evil enemies. Fr. Brébeuf died from his tortures about 4:00 p.m. on March 16th.
Fr. Lalemant, who was of a more delicate nature than Fr. Brébeuf, raised his eyes to Heaven and with sighs, begged God to come to his aid. The Iroquois split his jaws, drew his mouth wide open and drove burning brands down his throat. The torturers left Fr. Lalemant's charred body entire so that his sufferings might cause him more pain during the coming night!
In all, our saint had to endure his sufferings for fifteen hours before he died. His soul sped to Heaven on the following morning, March 17th, when the Iroquois smashed his skull with a hatchet and left his brain exposed. Fr. Lalemant also had his heart torn out and eaten by the Iroquois, who hoped to gain some of his courage by doing so.
Fr. Lalemant’s precious remains were carried to Fort St. Marie, and he and Fr. Brébeuf were buried on Sunday March 21st. Barely seven months had passed, and Gabriel Lalemant had received the crown of martyrdom. The baptisms of more than 2,700 savages after his death proved that the blood he shed had helped to convert the pagan Indians.
St. Gabriel Lalemant: pray for us
Note: The picture above marks the actual place of martyrdom at St. Marie. The left post shows St. Gabriel Lalemant’s spot, and the one on the right is for St. Jean de Brébeuf.
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