The Canadian Martyrs
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. Jean
ST. JEAN DE BRÉBEUF (1593 - 1649)
St. Jean was born in Condé-sur-Vire, on March 25th, 1593; and little is known about him until 1617, when he was 24, and entered the Jesuit mission at Rouen. He devoted these two years to prayer and reflection, and worked hard to become humble and holy. He decided to become a lay brother in the Order, but his Superiors told him to accept whatever position he was asked to take in the Jesuit Order.
At the end of his novitiate, Jean taught grammar in the college at Rouen. He taught for two years and after getting tuberculosis, he completed his priestly studies privately. After his ordination in 1623, his health improved rapidly and he was named bursar of the college at Rouen.
The Recollects who had been labouring in New France (Canada) since 1615, invited the Jesuits to help them. So in 1625, three priests, Charles Lalemant, Ennemond Massé and Jean de Brébeuf, were chosen for the missions in New France.
Fr. Brébeuf reached Quebec in the summer of 1625. He wanted to go to the Huron country to study their language. But when news came, that some Hurons had killed a Recollect priest on the route he would have to pass, Fr. Lalemant, his Superior, held Jean back and waited for a more favourable time. Meanwhile, our saint spent the winter of 1625-1626 among a tribe of Montagnais Indians, learning their language and their customs.
Early in 1626, Fr. Brébeuf and two priests set out for the Huron country. They travelled the Ottawa River and after thirty days of painful effort they reached Otouacha, the landing place of the Huron village. Here Jean built a shelter and his first weeks were passed in learning the Huron tongue and writing the language down as it sounded to his ears. In a short time Jean acquired a good knowledge of the Huron tongue, but his two priest companions who were less gifted, returned to Quebec a year later.
Our saint began his lonely life by planting a large cross before his home. He visited the homes of the Hurons and gathered them together to explain to them about God and the truths of the Catholic faith. But the hearts and minds of the Hurons were hardened by centuries of superstition. Fr. Brébeuf struggled on patiently during the winters of 1627-1628 and 1628-1629, but had very little success. He baptized a few infants in danger of death, and some sick adults. And just when he had hopes of forming a church among his little group of converts, Fr. Lalemant summoned him back to Quebec.
When Fr. Brébeuf reached Quebec, he found that the people of the colony were starving. Ships carrying goods had either sunk at sea, or had been taken by English pirates on the St. Lawrence Seaway. In 1629, the English captured Quebec and expelled Champlain and the French missionaries. Back in France, Jean again became bursar at Rouen College. In 1630 he took his final vows as a Jesuit. In 1631, he made this offering to God: "Lord Jesus my Redeemer, Thou hast saved me with Thy Blood and precious Death. In return for this favour, I promise to serve Thee all my life in the Society of Jesus, and never to serve anyone but Thee. I sign this promise with my own blood, ready to sacrifice it all as willingly as I do this drop."
England restored New France to the French in 1632, and in 1634, Fr. Brébeuf, Fr. Daniel, and Fr. Davost journeyed to Huronia. After many days of travel, they reached Ihonatiria. Here Jean began to visit the Hurons, instructing adults and baptizing children. Little gifts given to the children gave them a great desire to learn and they learned quickly. Fr. Brébeuf also visited two other Indian tribes and in 1635, he baptized eighty Indians. Every summer the Hurons brought up a couple of Jesuits, who as soon as they had a little knowledge of the Huron tongue, began to instruct and baptize in many of the hamlets throughout the surrounding areas. The future looked promising but time would tell.
In 1637, a strange illness caused hundreds of Hurons to die. The Huron sorcerers who feared to lose respect among their people, blamed the illness on the "Blackrobes", as the Indians called the missionaries. Some Hurons said that Fr. Brébeuf himself was the most dangerous sorcerer in the country, and he was held responsible for: the deaths of the Indians, crop failure, and poor hunting. More than once, the Indians threatened to split Jean's head with a tomahawk. One day our saint threw a "farewell feast", a custom of the Hurons for those who were to die. Jean preached at the feast and warned the Indians about the crime they were about to commit. Later he said a novena of Masses to St. Joseph, and the Hurons had a change of heart.
Fr. Jerome Lalemant arrived in 1638 to replace Fr. Brébeuf as Superior of the Huron mission, and this gave our saint greater freedom to go from village to village. There were numerous striking conversions, and sorcery and native superstition were losing their hold on the Hurons. The devil was watching and encouraged the Iroquois to hate the Hurons and the missionaries. So in 1639, the converted Hurons and missionaries built Fort St. Marie to protect themselves from the dreaded Iroquois. The work of catechizing the Hurons was progressing when suddenly smallpox swept through a few Huron villages. As usual the Blackrobes were held responsible for the disease and Fr. Brébeuf was again accused of being the chief sorcerer.
In 1641, Fr. Brébeuf broke his shoulder blade and had to return to Quebec for treatment; he did not return to Huron country until 1644. Many changes had occurred in those three years. The Iroquois had attacked often, and everywhere they left a trail of blood. The terrified Hurons protected their villages as best as they could against the Iroquois. Fearing their coming doom, they flocked around the priests to hear the teachings of Jesus.
There were now eighteen Jesuits working among the Hurons, one of these being Fr. Gabriel Lalemant, who arrived in September 1648. He had been sent to live with Fr. Brébeuf at St. Ignace, a village near Fort St. Marie.
On March 16, 1649, 1000 Iroquois secretly approached St. Ignace, throwing themselves without mercy on the surprised Hurons, and murdering or making prisoners of them all. Only three escaped and hurried to nearby St. Louis, to warn Fr. Brébeuf and the other people. But the Iroquois rushed behind them and another massacre took place at that village. Fr. Brébeuf and Fr. Lalemant were seized and bound, and dragged back to St. Ignace where the Iroquois had already made preparations for their torture and death. Some Huron Christians secretly witnessed the terrible event.
The Iroquois stripped the two priests naked and tied each one to a pole. They tied both of their hands together and tore the nails from their fingers; then with sticks they beat the entire bodies of the poor missionaries. During this torture, Fr. Brébeuf did not cease to preach about God, to encourage his fellow captives, crying out: "My children, raise your eyes to Heaven in this affliction; remember that God is watching your sufferings and will soon be your exceeding great reward. Let us die together in the Faith, and hope from His goodness the fulfillment of His promises. I pity you more than I do myself. Keep your courage up in the few remaining torments; these will end with your lives; the glory which follows will have no end! "
While our saint was encouraging his people, a wretched Huron traitor who had remained a captive with the Iroquois, and whom Fr. Brébeuf had formerly instructed and baptized, taunted the poor priest, "…I am about to baptize thee and make thee suffer well, in order that thou mayest go sooner to thy Paradise!" Then the wretch took a huge kettle full of boiling water, which he poured on the priest's head three different times! The Iroquois then heated hatchets, red hot, and applied them to the loins and under the armpits. Then they made a collar of six of these red-hot hatchets and hung it around the neck of the poor priest. After that they put on Fr. Brébeuf a belt of pitch and resin, and set fire to it, thus roasting his whole body. The priest's zeal was so great that he preached constantly to the Iroquois during his torments, to try to convert them. Enraged at hearing our saint constantly speaking about God, the Iroquois cut out his tongue and cut off his lips! Burning torches were applied to Jean's body, his eyes were gouged out, and burning coals were inserted in the empty sockets! After three hours of this torture, seeing that the good priest would soon die, they made him sit down and cut off his scalp. Fr. Jean de Brébeuf was 56 years old.
Later, Fr. Bonin and several Frenchmen went to St. Ignace and gave all the bodies they found, a Christian burial. In 1650, when the Huron missions were abandoned, the bones of Fr. Brébeuf were taken to Quebec and held in great veneration. Brébeuf's gentleness won all hearts and he poured out a generous courage in all his undertakings. He was long suffering and patient, enduring everything he did for the greater glory of God. Let us all try to follow Fr. Brébeuf by bearing our little crosses lovingly and patiently.
St. Jean de Brébeuf Pray for Us!
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