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Of Strong Heart

The story of St. Isaac Jogues’ work among the Huron and Iroquois tribes—and his martyrdom

Of Strong Heart: The story of St. Isaac Jogues’ work among the Huron and Iroquois tribes—and his martyrdom

The young Jesuit lay prostrate before the Blessed Sacrament in the mission chapel in New France. As he begged God for the privilege of suffering for the sake of those he sought to bring to Christ, he heard as clear and resonant as speech the following words: “Your prayer has been heard. Be it done to you as you have asked. Be comforted, be of strong heart.”

Father Isaac Jogues rejoiced. He believed the words were a prophecy, “issued from the lips of him with whom saying and doing are only one and the same thing.” The conviction that God had spoken to him sustained Jogues throughout his ministry, especially during his captivity and torture by the Mohawks. Ultimately, his prayer would be fulfilled with his martyrdom.

Missionary to New France

Isaac Jogues was born into a devout merchant family in Orléans, France, on January 10, 1607. During his boyhood years, Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries were making their first efforts to evangelize the natives in the New World. By the time Isaac entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1624, a Jesuit mission had been established in Huronia (the present province of Ontario). Twelve years of discipline, study, and prayer prepared Isaac well for the life he anticipated as a missionary—though the hardships he would face in the rugged wilderness of New France were far different from his cultured French upbringing. Shortly after his ordination in 1636, the twenty-nine-year-old priest sailed for Quebec with four other Jesuits.

From 1636 until 1642, Father Jogues lived among the natives in Huronia, who named him Ondessonk (bird of prey) because of his keen eye. There, under the tutelage of the veteran missionary Father John de Brébeuf, he learned the language and customs of the Hurons. Together with his fellow missionaries, Jogues suffered from sickness, hunger, and the hardships of the climate. Worse still, Huron sorcerers jealous of the priests’ growing influence blamed them for crop failures, poor hunting, or defeats in battle and frequently threatened to kill them. Yet despite all these challenges, some of the Hurons came to profess their belief in the Christian God and accepted baptism.

Under Death’s Shadow

In the summer of 1642, while returning in heavily loaded canoes from a journey to Quebec, Ondessonk, his lay assistant and surgeon René Goupil, two other Frenchmen, and almost forty Hurons were ambushed by Mohawks. One of the five nations of the Iroquois, the Mohawks were implacable enemies of the Hurons.

The French and eighteen of the Hurons—many of whom were Christians or catechumens—were taken prisoner. The others were killed or escaped into the woods. In the melee, Ondessonk’s canoe capsized, and he lay hidden among the reeds. Rather than flee, he surrendered himself to the Mohawks so that he could accompany his companions and offer whatever help he could in the ordeals sure to follow.

Over the course of the next few weeks, the captives were paraded triumphantly from village to village, made to run the gauntlet, and subjected to hideous torture. The Mohawks pulled out their hair and beards, cut slices of flesh from them—which they roasted and ate—and tore out their fingernails. They also crushed the bones of Ondessonk’s forefingers between their teeth and sawed off his left thumb with an oyster shell. At night, the prisoners were tied spread-eagle to the ground, and the children were encouraged to throw live coals on their bare flesh. Many of the Hurons were killed during these ordeals. Goupil was tomahawked to death because he made the sign of the cross over an Indian child. In spite of his own pain, Father Jogues heard his companions’ confessions, gave absolution and comfort, and baptized the catechumens. None of them wavered in their new faith.

Love’s Labor in Captivity

When the Mohawks’ fury abated, they decided to hold Jogues hostage and make him a slave. They forced the “Blackrobe” to do hard tasks and carry heavy loads. They fed him very little, gave him no warm clothing, and constantly threatened to kill him. However, he was adopted into the Wolf clan, and his new “aunt” gave him some measure of freedom to pray alone and to talk with the villagers.

Rather than hating his captors, Ondessonk prayed unceasingly for them and sought to bring as many as possible to salvation. Learning the Mohawks’ language, he entered the longhouses—just as he had done among the Hurons—in search of the sick, so that he might win them to Christ before they died. He even nursed the brave who had torn out his fingernails. During his captivity, Ondessonk managed to baptize seventy dying Mohawks. He also consoled and baptized Algonquin and Huron prisoners who were brought into the village for torture and execution.

A Brief Respite

After a year as a slave of the Mohawks, Jogues was taken along to a settlement where the Mohawks traded with the Dutch. There he escaped his captors and remained in hiding for weeks until the Dutch could transport him down the Hudson River to Manhattan Island and on to France, where he landed on Christmas Eve 1643.

Jogues was welcomed as a living martyr by his fellow Jesuits. Queen Anne received him as an honored guest and examined his mangled fingers with tears in her eyes. According to canon law, he could not celebrate Mass with his mutilated hands, but Pope Urban VIII granted Jogues a dispensation. “It would be unjust,” he said, “that a martyr for Christ should not drink the blood of Christ.”

A humble man, Jogues was distressed by these honors and longed to be back among the Indians. In the spring of 1644, after only a three-month stay in his own country, Jogues’ superiors allowed him to return to New France.

Mission of Peace

In the year after Jogues’ return, the Iroquois and French began to negotiate a peace treaty. Governor Montmagny asked him to be an ambassador representing the French. As the Jesuit understood the Mohawk language and the Iroquois knew of his high standing among the French, there could be no better peace envoy. Jogues readily agreed, though this meant returning to Ossernenon (near present-day Auriesville, New York), the Mohawk village where he had been tortured and enslaved.

Jogues and his companions reached Ossernenon in June 1646. A great multitude gathered to see the party, and those who had once made life so miserable for him now pretended to have forgotten their past deeds and greeted him cordially. An assembly of the chiefs was held, benevolent speeches were given promising peace, and furs and belts of wampum were exchanged.

The council ended favorably, and Jogues again began to administer the sacraments to Christian captives and to baptize the dying. The mission of diplomacy completed, the peace envoy returned to Quebec, but Jogues left a chest containing Mass supplies and personal effects in Ossernenon, hoping to return the next season. He showed the box and its contents to the villagers, assured them there was nothing harmful in it, and entrusted it to them.

Espoused in Blood

Though eager to establish a Mohawk mission, Isaac and his superiors were cautious. Not long afterward, however, conditions seemed favorable, and it was decided that Ondessonk should winter among the Iroquois. He wrote to a friend in France:

My heart tells me that if I have the happiness of being employed in this mission, Ibo et non redibo [I shall go never to return]; but I shall be happy if our Lord will complete the sacrifice where he has begun it, and make the little blood I have shed in that land the pledge of what I would give from every vein of my body and my heart. In a word, this people is “a bloody spouse to me”—”In my blood have I espoused it to me” [Exodus 4:25]. May our good Master who has purchased them in his blood, open to them the door of his gospel, as well as to the four allied nations near them. Adieu, dear Father; pray to him to unite me inseparably to him.

On September 24, Jogues left Quebec for his third journey to the Five Nations, accompanied by a dedicated lay missionary, John de Lalande, and some Huron companions. As they approached Ossernenon, the group was attacked by a war party from the village and taken captive. Jogues reminded the Mohawks of their invitation for him to return and of the treaty, but to no avail. They angrily accused the Blackrobe of having put a curse on them—they had experienced a scourge of disease and a plague of worms that destroyed their crops—and they blamed the chest he had left among them for their misfortunes. Jogues’ “adoptive” Wolf clan defended him, and the chiefs’ council honored the treaty and let him live. The Bear clan, however, decided to kill Ondessonk on their own.

On the evening of October 18, 1646, Jogues was invited to a feast in one of the Mohawk longhouses. As he stooped to enter through the low door, the brave following behind him split his skull with a tomahawk. The traitors immediately cut off his head and displayed it on the palisades of the village. The next day, they killed John de Lalande and the Hurons. News of the martyrdoms did not reach Quebec until June 1647.

A Harvest of Souls

The Iroquois broke the treaty with the French and, in the following years, mercilessly attacked the Hurons. They destroyed all their villages and the Jesuit mission posts among them. Fathers John de Brébeuf, Gabriel Lalemant, Charles Garnier, Anthony Daniel, and Noel Charbanel were martyred in Huronia between July 4, 1648, and December 8, 1649. Within months after these martyrdoms, fourteen hundred Hurons were converted to Christ. The seed of faith was watered by the blood of these martyrs, and an abundance of souls harvested for heaven.

The brave who tomahawked Jogues and another who had been wounded attempting to deflect the blow from the victim were later converted to Christianity. The murderer took “Isaac” as his baptismal name and died repentant, satisfied that he was going to heaven.

Ten years after Jogues was martyred in Ossernenon, Kateri Tekakwitha was born in the same village. She became a witness to Christ through the undaunted efforts of the Jesuits who followed the first North American martyrs. The first Native American to be beatified, Kateri is among the fruits for whom Isaac Jogues shed his blood in the hopes that his holocaust would hasten the conversion of the Mohawks.

The eight North American martyrs—René Goupil, John de Lalande, and Fathers Isaac Jogues, John de Brébeuf, Gabriel Lalemant, Charles Garnier, Anthony Daniel, and Noel Charbanel—were canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930. The Church in the United States celebrates their memorial on October 19. They are honored as the secondary patrons of the Church in Canada on September 26.