Home » Additional Writings » Eight Canadian Martyrs


Eight Canadian Martyrs


Eight Canadian Martyrs


Protestants who are quick to defend the Sixteenth-Century Reformation leaders — Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, Bullinger, Beza — are equally ready to explain why these theological giants seemed completely unconcerned with mission. The usual explanation is that they were preoccupied with forging doctrine, doctrine that demanded to be re-written in view of some Roman Catholic teaching, at least, that appeared to obscure the gospel.

Everyone today admits that the Church urgently needed reforming. The extent to which doctrinal re-articulation had to match institutional cleansing, however, is a matter of opinion. Beyond dispute is the fact that other “families” within the Church at this time, such as the Anabaptists (whose descendants are Mennonites, Hutterites and Amish people), as well as Roman Catholics whose Counter-Reformation found them as concerned with doctrine as the most zealous Reformer; these groups never allowed controversy to eclipse their conviction concerning their Lord’s mandate. Always aware of Christ’s claim upon them and his command to “Go and make disciples of all the nations”, and newly aided by improvements in navigation, Anabaptist and Catholic went obediently to bear witness to their Lord.

It appears, then, that mainline Protestants can only admit and lament the puzzling blind spot that their Reformation foreparents alone possessed amidst all the parties who staggered through the Reformation’s upheavals. The Mennonites sent missioners into Central and South America. The Roman Catholics sent them everywhere, westward to the Americas and eastward to India, even farther to Japan. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order (“Society of Jesus”), had prepared his men to be the leading edge of the Church’s mission to areas that were always difficult, frequently dangerous, and occasionally lethal.

Just as visions had been crucial in the spiritual formation and vocation of Loyola one hundred years earlier, vision would be no less crucial in the spiritual life of missioner and people, for Jean de Brebeuf was privileged to “see”, one night amidst his comfortable life in France, a flaming cross suspended above the Huron encampment in the New World. Thereafter he never doubted what he was to do or why.

Modern anthropologists think it likely that the Hurons were originally an Iroquois tribe, albeit isolated from the five tribes comprising the Iroquois confederacy: Cayugas, Oneidas, Onanadagas, Senecas and Mohawks. Eventually the Iroquois and Hurons were at war.

When Etienne Brule, the eighteen-year-old who was the first Caucasian to visit the Hurons, came upon them in 1613, they were 30,000-strong. Slaughter at the hands of the Iroquois and devastation through European disease had reduced their number to 12,000 in 1639, the year the Jesuit missions commenced.

Unordained missioners (donnes) who devoted themselves to assisting the Jesuits erected Ste. Marie, the compound consisting of a chapel, a storeroom and a hospital. Soon the gospel radiated from Ste. Marie to four other mission outposts, the farthest, St. Jean de Baptiste, adjacent to Orillia. The work was exacting; the black flies and other pests oppressive; the summers hot and the Georgian Bay winters biting; and of course the threat from the Iroquois relentless. On account of the latter, the trip to Quebec City, the capital of New France, saw paddlers labouring upstream, north to French River, east to the Ottawa, then down the Ottawa and St. Lawrence. A one-way trip took 22 days.

Rene Goupil was the first of the eight Christian martyrs. Trained in medicine and surgery, Goupil withdrew from the Jesuit training program in France on account of his deafness. Offering himself as a lay missionary, he found himself assigned to Huronia. While returning from Quebec City he and his party were overrun at Trois Rivieres. Most of the men perished on the spot. The Iroquois took the remaining few to upstate New York and tortured them for days. A tomahawk ended his life in September, 1642.

The best-known missionary martyrs are Jean de Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant. Born in Normandy in 1593, Brebeuf began studying for the priesthood in Rouen, France. By 1626 he was ministering to aboriginal people in a village on Penetanguishene Bay (Ontario.) On account of treaty disputes between the French and the English he had to return to France, only to find himself, five years later, among the Huron people once again. Blamed for crop failures and Iroquois victories, Brebeuf was beaten repeatedly by the people to whom he had given himself. In March 1649, twelve hundred Iroquois capture the mission station at St. Louis (ten kilometres from Ste. Marie.)

Lalemant, born to the scholarly world of Seventeenth Century Paris, entered the Jesuit novitiate as a teenager and was ordained nine years later in Bourgues. His intellectual brilliance gained him a position as Professor of Philosophy at Moulins. Not content with academic life, however, the slightly built man begged his superiors to send him overseas to join his two uncles, Fathers Jerome and Charles, who were in charge at that time of all Roman Catholic missions in New France. An uncle posted him to Quebec City, eventually succumbing to Lalemant’s importuning and moving him to Huronia. Lalemant had been working alongside Brebeuf for only one month when he too was captured by the same raiding party. Both men were tortured repeatedly, one torment being a “baptism” in boiling water. In March 1649 the two men found release in death. As soon as the Iroquois returned home, French traders gathered up their remains and buried them at Ste. Marie.

None of what has been written above suggests in any way uncommon cruelty among the First Nations People. None of it denies the manner in which Europeans subsequently victimized the native people. It does confirm, nonetheless, a truth that Scripture announces on every page: all humans are alike creatures of the Fall. All are possessed of murderous hearts — as history attests time and again. The martyred missionaries knew something more: all without exception are beneficiaries the One whose outstretched arms embraced eight brave men, and through them embraced without reservation Huron, Iroquois, French, English; all who may now call, “Lord, remember me.”

Victor Shepherd