St. Isaac Jogues

The labors of the Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries in the New World form an important chapter in the history of the Church and of the Western Hemisphere. These missionaries were for the most part men of culture and learning, carefully chosen and rigorously trained. Many of them gave up important careers in the Church to endure the dangers and privations of the wilderness. In New France, as Canada was then called, where Isaac Jogues spent his missionary years, their lot was hardship, disease, solitude, and, not infrequently, torture or violent death. The perils of forest and trail, the intense cold, the wretched food and verminous huts of the Indians, changed them, after a few years, into haggard old men; yet their spirits remained undaunted, strengthened as they were by an indomitable faith. What the American historian, Francis Parkman, in <The Jesuits of North America>, wrote of Father Brebeuf, Jesuit leader in Canada, applies almost equally to the other members of this noble band: "His was the ancient faith uncurtailed, redeemed from the decay of centuries, kindled with new life, and stimulated to a preternatural growth and fruitfulness."

The pioneer French explorers, Cartier and Champlain, were men of piety, eager to have the aid of the religious orders in opening up the new continent, and both Jesuits and Franciscans were encouraged to establish Catholicism in Canada. Jesuits led the way here, while Franciscans and Dominicans became active in the southwest of the United States and in South America. Early in the seventeenth century the Jesuits began to arrive in Quebec; they would quickly push on into the interior, to be engulfed by the forest or to be taken prisoner by the Indians and treated as slaves or objects of barter; yet at times they met with a heartening response. Among the more notable of these men were Brebeuf, Daniel, Masse, Lalemant, Chabanel, Ragueneau, Garnier, Jogues, and Le Jeune. It was Le Jeune, a Huguenot in early life, who conceived the plan for keeping his superiors of the Society of Jesus, as well as the European laity, informed of the great undertaking, by the careful compilation of missionaries' letters, which described in detail their experiences and impressions. Every summer, for a period of forty years, these reports were despatched back to Paris, where they were published serially under the title of <Jesuit Relations>. They form an historical chronicle of the highest value, and it is to them that we are mainly indebted for our knowledge of Father Jogues.

Called the "Apostle of the Mohawks," and known to the Mohawks themselves as Ondessonk, "the indomitable one," Isaac Jogues has been selected to represent this group of North American saints. He was born on January 10, 1607, at Orleans, France, into a good bourgeois family; at the age of seventeen he entered the Jesuit novitiate school at Rouen. Later he studied at the royal college of La Fleche, which Henry IV had founded a short time before. From one of the teachers there, Louis Lalemant, who had two brothers and a nephew serving as missionaries in Canada, the young man heard stories that may well have turned his thoughts towards the New World. He also had meetings with the pioneers, Brebeuf and Masse, on their return from Canada in 1629, when Quebec was captured by the English. Three years later the province was again in French hands, and Richelieu had formed the Company of One Hundred Associates, which was to control New France for the next thirty odd years. Isaac Jogues continued his education at the College of Clermont, University of Paris, and in due time was ordained and accepted for missionary service. He was already recognized as an able scholar, with talents for writing and teaching. In the summer of 1636, at the age of twenty-nine, he embarked for Canada with several of his fellows, among them Charles Garnier. Drawings of Jogues made at about this time reveal features of unusual refinement; this air of delicacy was, however, deceptive, for beneath it lay heroic powers of physical endurance.

Sailing on the same ship with the young missionaries was Sieur Huault de Montmagny, the new French governor sent out to replace Champlain, who had died a few months before. After a stormy voyage, they sailed up the St. Lawrence to the lofty citadel of Quebec. On arrival Jogues wrote as follows to his mother: "I do not know what it is to enter Heaven, but this I know—that it would be difficult to experience in this world a joy more excessive and more overflowing than I felt in setting foot in the New World, and celebrating my first Mass on the day of the Visitation." His later letters show the same exaltation of spirit.

Father Jogues' companions were at once sent on westward to join Father Brebeuf, who in 1626 had established an outpost on the peninsula of Lake Huron, to minister to the Huron Indians, one of the less warlike tribes. Jogues went with them as far as the settlement of Trois Rivieres, and there, some weeks later, he saw a flotilla of canoes descending the St. Lawrence. In the first, wielding a paddle, was Father Anthony Daniel, one of Brebeuf's coworkers, exhausted and emaciated, his cassock in tatters. He was bound for Quebec for a period of recuperation, and Jogues was to replace him. The young missionary lost no time in organizing the expedition. The post was nine hundred miles away, up the river, through forests, across portages. On long trips such as these the missionaries and their guides had to carry provisions, and sometimes stored corn in <caches> by the way.

Arriving at last at the Lake Huron post, Father Jogues collapsed in Brebeuf's arms. Almost at once he fell ill of a fever, which in turn struck down others. At this time the fathers were living in crude huts, and their food was poor and scanty. When the missionaries had recovered, a similar epidemic broke out among the Indians, who, blaming it on the Black Coats, as they called the Jesuits, threatened to kill them all. Brebeuf conciliated them and by the following year relations had so improved that he was able to write in one of his reports: "We are gladly heard, and there is scarcely a village that has not invited us to go to it.... And at last it is understood from our whole conduct that we have not come to buy skins or to carry on any traffic, but solely to teach them, and to procure for them their souls' health." Indian good will, however, was fickle, and before long the medicine men had fomented so much hostility that in a tribal council the Indians decided that the Jesuit priests must die. Once more the Indians were pacified.

For six years Father Jogues labored here. He learned the language and ways of the Hurons, developed into a skilled woodsman with great stamina, and often went on missions. He and Garnier were chosen to go south to the Petun Indians, called the Tobacco Nation, with the Gospel, and he and Raymbault were sent to make the acquaintance of the Indians further north. On this latter trip, traversing uncharted lands and waterways, they may have been the first white men to stand on the shore of Lake Superior, at the site of the present city of Sault Ste. Marie. About 2,000 Ojibways were gathered there to celebrate their Feast of the Dead, and Jogues addressed them. He erected a cross facing west towards the country of the Sioux, who were settled around the headwaters of the Mississippi. This was thirty years before Pere Marquette set out to explore the great river. With the good will of the Indians in these parts gained, the way was prepared for Marquette and others, who were able to carry on their work without suffering martyrdom.

Back on the Huron peninsula, near the mouth of the Wye River, the Jesuits established their main settlement, calling it Ste. Marie. A church, living quarters, a cemetery, a hospital, and a fort were eventually built, and a way of life that was half monastic, half patriarchal grew up in this remote spot. The surrounding lands were cleared and cultivated, food was stored against famine, and here the Indians came in times of sickness and trouble, as well as on Sundays and feast days. Although no tangible evidence of the Jesuits' enterprise survives today save a part of the foundation of the fort, archeologists are of the opinion that the buildings were well-designed and impressive; the achievement is noteworthy in view of the scarcity of materials and the primitive nature of the available tools. Here in the lonely north woods the missionaries tried to create order and organization and to demonstrate in their manner of life the teachings of their religion.

The year 1642 brought a very poor harvest and much sickness among the Indians. Also Father Raymbault was ill and needed medical treatment. Father Jogues was appointed to lead an expedition to Quebec for supplies and reinforcements. The journey was safely made, but unfortunately they had been sighted on the way down by a Mohawk scouting party. The Mohawks were members of the confederation of Five Nations into which the great Iroquois people had banded themselves, and were the sworn enemies of the Hurons. More Mohawk warriors were recruited by the scouting party and they lay in wait for the Black Robes and their detested Huron converts as the flotilla traveled back upstream.

Father Jogues was in command of the twelve canoes, carrying in all some forty persons; there were but three white men-William Couture, Rene Goupil, and himself. Goupil was a young Frenchman who had failed of admission to the Society of Jesus because of poor health, but he had nevertheless taken up the study of medicine and had come to Canada to offer his services to the missionaries. Couture was another layman of great courage and integrity. Among the company was a noted Huron chief, a Huron medicine man and his young niece Therese, who had been trained by the Ursulines in Quebec and was returning to teach her people. The canoes were loaded with vestments, altar vessels, bread and wine for the Eucharist, writing materials, tools, and food. About a day's journey beyond Trois Rivieres, the main body of warriors fell upon them, killing or maiming some and taking many prisoners, including the girl Therese. The more agile of the Hurons escaped to the woods. Father Jogues could also have escaped, but gave himself up when he saw that Goupil had been taken. Couture was singled out for severe torture later because in the fray he had slain a Mohawk leader.

The white men and the Huron prisoners were led south to the home ground of the Mohawks in east central New York. At the southern end of Lake Champlain is a small island, now called Jogues Island, which is believed to have been the scene of barbarous cruelties inflicted on the prisoners. Jogues wrote: "We were made to go up from the shore between two lines of Indians who were armed with clubs, sticks, and knives. I was the last and blows were showered on me. I fell on the ground and thought my end had come, but they lifted me up all streaming with blood and carried me more dead than alive to the platform." Worse tortures followed. The Iroquois were especially cruel to the Huron converts. At this time and during subsequent torturings Father Jogues suffered the loss of two fingers.

The horrible journey south continued. Their destination was Ossernenon, a village on the banks of the Mohawk River, a little above where the Schoharie flows into the larger stream. Known as the Lower Castle, it was in fact a very strong fortress which served to protect the Mohawks against their enemies as well as from the rigors of winter. It consisted of a double palisade, with a trench between, and, inside the enclosure, a number of communal dwellings called Long Houses, each of which was large enough to accommodate several families or clans. The captives were exposed to mistreatment there and in the other Mohawk villages of Teonontogen and Andaragon. Couture was left in one of them, while Jogues and Goupil were brought back to Ossernenon, where the Indians apparently intended to burn them alive. The news of their capture soon reached the Protestant Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam at the mouth of the Hudson, and Commandant Van Corlear came up in person to ransom them. His overtures were rejected, but the Indians decided not to kill such valuable captives—perhaps in the hope of getting an even higher ransom from the French.

Before long, however, Goupil was tomahawked from behind by an Indian who had observed him making the sign of the cross on the head of an Indian girl, a gesture which, according to the Indian medicine men, brought bad luck. Jogues, who happened to be nearby, took the dying man in his arms, and gave him the last absolution before he died. The Indians snatched the body away from the grieving priest and concealed it in a stream. Guided by a friendly Indian, Jogues went in search of the corpse, and on finding it, hid it deeper in the stream, hoping to return and give it proper burial before he too was killed. The Indians thwarted him by destroying the body. Father Jogues wrote of the young doctor's death: "Thus on the 28th of September this angel of innocence and martyr of Jesus Christ was immolated in his thirty-fifth year, for Him who had given His life for his ransom. He had consecrated his heart and soul to God and his life and labor to the welfare of the poor Indians."

Jogues' slavery lasted for more than a year. His record of it, written for his Superior, has been studied by scholars who are amazed at his endurance. "He would sometimes escape," Parkman wrote, ". . . and wander in the forest, telling his beads and repeating passages of Scripture. In a remote and lonely spot he cut the bark in the form of a cross from the trunk of a great tree; and here he made his prayers. This living martyr, half clad in shaggy furs, kneeling in the snow among the icicled rocks and beneath the gloomy pines, bowing in adoration before the emblem of his faith in which was his only consolation and his only hope, is alike a theme for the pen and a subject for the pencil." Later Jogues was to report to his spiritual guide, "The only sin I can remember during my captivity is that I sometimes looked on the approach of death with complacency." The Indians were not without respect for their strange captive, naming him "the indomitable one." He had at least one good friend among the Mohawks, an old woman whom he called "aunt." She tried to heal his wounds and to warn and protect him when danger threatened. His days were passed in menial work, learning the language, and comforting Huron prisoners who were sometimes brought in. He was taken on fishing and hunting expeditions, when he suffered much from hunger and exposure. As opportunity offered, he baptized children he found dying. During the year he baptized some seventy persons, New York State's first Catholic baptismal record.

The Dutch hoped to rescue him, though they did not wish to jeopardize their own fairly peaceful relations with the Mohawks. Their efforts finally freed Jogues. His captors were lured into bringing him to Fort Orange, at Rensselaerwyck, now Albany. The Dutch told him on arrival that it would be possible to escape that night to a boat lying offshore in the Hudson which was ready to sail for Bordeaux. He and his Indian guards were to sleep in a Dutch farmer's big barn. Before dawn, guided by a farm hand, he picked his way over the sleeping Indians around him, and got to the river. Rowing out to the anchored vessel, he was taken on board and concealed. The enraged Mohawks were soon on his trail, threatening reprisals against the Dutch for their part in the affair. Learning of this, Jogues insisted on going back on shore. "If this trouble has been caused by me," he said, "I am ready to appease it at the loss of my life. I have never wished to escape if it meant injury to the least man in the colony." But the Indians were now persuaded to relinquish all claim to his person for the sum of 300 livres, which the Dutch paid. Yet Jogues' life continued in jeopardy, and for the next six weeks, while awaiting another boat, he was kept in close, uncomfortable confinement, befriended by the Dutch pastor, Dominie Megalolensis.

At last, Jogues got passage down the river to New Amsterdam, on the island of "Manhatte." His descriptions of the fort and the town, now New York City, have been incorporated in the official records of the state. He was the first Catholic priest to visit the settlement, and to the two Catholics living there at the time he offered the comforts and rites of the Church. "No religion is publicly exercised here but the Calvinist," he noted, "and orders are to admit none but Calvinists; but this is not observed. There are in the colony Catholics, Puritans, Lutherans, Anabaptists, etc."

On November 5, 1643, Jogues sailed, and towards the end of December reached the coast of Cornwall. He was able to get aboard a collier bound for France and on Christmas Day was put ashore in Brittany. Kindly people helped him reach the town of Rennes. At the rector's house, he sent word by a servant that he was the bearer of news from New France. Unknown to Jogues, his own fate was a matter of widespread concern in France, for the latest volume of <Jesuit Relations> had contained the details of his capture. When the rector came to the door, after an exchange of courtesies, he asked the shabbily-dressed man if he had known Father Jogues. "Very well indeed," was the answer. "Have they murdered him?" "No, Father, he is alive and free—and I am he!"

The astonishing news spread quickly. Jogues reported to his superiors, and such was his fame that ladies, courtiers, and even the Queen Regent desired to meet him and do him honor. Jogues was received by Anne of Austria, and told his story. At its conclusion, the Queen arose and stooped to kiss the mutilated hands, which the priest habitually kept covered by the folds of his cassock. But public acclaim was the last thing the modest priest desired; he even refrained from going to see his mother, wishing to spare her the pain of another parting and the sight of his maimed hands. He feared that their condition would debar him from saying Mass, but Pope Urban VIII abrogated in his case the canonical ruling.

Father Jogues' only desire was to get back to Canada, and in June, 1644, he was again in Quebec. From there he was sent to Montreal, to spend his time helping to build up that new outpost, until the cessation of warfare would permit him to return to the Hurons. Two years later an embassy of Iroquois came to Trois Rivieres to discuss terms of truce and the ransom of prisoners. Many fine speeches were made and gifts were exchanged. The Jesuit priest participated in these conclaves. After the deliberations were concluded, the French thought it prudent to send a conciliatory deputation to meet with other Iroquois chieftains at Ossernenon. This embassy was led by Father Jogues and Sieur Jean Bourdon, an engineer, who represented the government of New France. "Oh, how I should regret to lose so glorious an occasion," wrote the priest to his superior before starting, "when it may depend only on me that some souls be saved! I hope that His goodness, which has not abandoned me in the hour of trial, will aid me still."

The party traveled south, stopping first at Fort Orange, where the priest saw again his Dutch friends and reimbursed them for his ransom of the year before. The Dutch were astonished to learn that he was going back to the scene of his painful captivity Ondessonk indeed deserved his name! The Mohawks, too, when he appeared among them, were impressed by his courage and disarmed by his gentleness, for he showed no trace of ill-will. The old "aunt" greeted with friendly words the man who had been the tribe's despised captive and who now returned as an envoy of peace. "With us you will always have a mat to lie on and a fire to warm yourself," she told him. Gifts were exchanged between Frenchmen and Indians, and belts of wampum offered for the release of the Hurons held captive. Thus the purpose of the visit was achieved, the pact confirmed, and Jogues went back to Quebec. He was to return to spend the winter among the Mohawks, now that friendly relations were established.

In the meanwhile, after Jogues and Bourdon had left Ossernenon, an epidemic broke out, caterpillars ate the crops, and famine threatened. As usual, the Mohawks blamed all their troubles on Black Coat, even though, on his latest trip, he had not worn priestly garb. But had he not left with them a mysterious box? True, he had showed them its contents, which consisted of personal necessaries, but he had locked it up and asked them to keep it. No doubt a devil was concealed in the box, to bring upon them all manner of evils. They threw the box into the river. Totally unaware of the mounting tension and antagonism, Jogues, with John Lalande, a lay missionary, once more started south for Ossernenon. On the trail they were met by a party of Mohawks on the warpath. The three or four Hurons serving Jogues as guides turned back to escape capture, while the two Frenchmen were led on as prisoners. At Ossernenon Jogues' arguments seemed to affect his hearers. "I am a man like yourselves," he replied to their charges. "I do not fear death or torture. I do not know why you wish to kill me. I come here to confirm the peace and show you the way to Heaven, and you treat me like a dog." In the councils the majority were ready to give the brave Ondessonk his freedom, but the minority faction, members of the Bear clan, took matters into their own hands. They invited Jogues to pay them a visit, and as he unsuspectingly entered the cabin of the Bear chief, he was brutally tomahawked. The next day Lalande met the same fate, and both bodies were thrown into a nearby ravine. Their heads were cut off and placed on poles facing the trail by which they had come, as if in warning to other Black Robes. When the news of the martyrdom was carried to Fort Orange, the Dutch pastor hastened to Ossernenon to denounce the Mohawks for their crime. Later on some of the Indians went to the fort with Father Jogues' breviary, missal, and cassock, hoping to make a profitable trade, and the pastor again censured them.

The Iroquois now once more began to attack and plunder the Huron villages, sparing neither Christians nor non-Christians. Garnier, Daniel, Gabriel, Lalemant, and Brebeuf were killed. But in the Mohawk Valley the example of Jogues' heroism was not forgotten, for the gentle priest had possessed in high degree the virtue the Indians most admired, bravery. And when, some years later, there was peace, the three Jesuit priests sent from Canada to establish the Mission of the Martyrs were well received. Before long Mohawk converts were traveling to the seminary in Quebec to be trained as Christian leaders. Today, near the town of Auriesville, New York, which on the best archeological authority is accepted as the site of Ossernenon, there is a famous Catholic shrine and pilgrimage place. It was dedicated in 1885 to the Martyrs of North America and to their Indian converts. Here pilgrims come to honor the memory of the Jesuits of the seventeenth century who faced death in the wilderness. The eight martyrs—Jogues, Lalande, Brebeuf, Lalemant, Garnier, Daniel, Goupil, and Chabanel—were solemnly beatified in 1925 and canonized in 1930.