October 19, 2020 — Today, the Society of Jesus in the United States celebrates the Feast of the North American Martyrs, sometimes known as the Feast of St. Isaac Jogues and Companions. The Jesuits in Canada celebrated the feast day on September 26.
The French Jesuit priests St. Isaac Jogues (1607-1646) and St. John de Brebeuf (1593-1649) and their companions St. John de Lalande, St. René Goupil, St. Anthony Daniel, St. Charles Garnier, St. Gabriel Lalemant, and St. Noel Chabanel were among the first missionaries to the North American Indians, and were the first martyrs of North America. They served missions in remote areas of eastern Canada and New York state between 1625-1649.
Although each of these missionaries had heard about the severe environment of the area called New France, none could fathom what the situation was actually like: disease, severe weather, lack of food, unsanitary living conditions, impassable forests, solitude and a hostile population. Travel was by canoe on treacherous waterways or walking for miles through dense insect-filled and uncharted forests.
Despite the anticipated hardships, the Jesuits sought out and even begged for missionary duties in North America. The Native Americans they sought to evangelize were primarily the Huron Nation made up of between 20,000 to 30,000 people. The Hurons lived mostly in the interior of Canada, some more than 1,000 miles from the primary Jesuit mission center at Québec.
The Jesuits were mostly accepted by the Hurons, but that was not the case with the Iroquois, who hated both the Hurons and the French. The French were trade partners with the Hurons and, as such, sided with them against their longtime enemies, the Iroquois. Aggravating the situation was the fact that in 1613 the early French explorers had used muskets against the Iroquois’ bow and arrows, slaughtering many Native people.
In 1930, Pope Pius XI canonized the whole group of missionaries, known as the eight North American Martyrs, whose feast the church now celebrates every October 19.
TheNational Shrine of the North American Martyrs is located in Auriesville, New York, the site of the martyrdom of St. Rene Goupil, St. Isaac Jogues and St. John de Lalande and also the birthplace of St. Kateri Tekakwitha. The Martyrs’ Shrine is located in Midland, Ontario, Canada. Saints John de Brebeuf, Gabriel Lalemant, Noel Chabanel, Charles Garnier, and Anthony Daniel died near this shrine.