One of the eight Frenchmen known as the North American Martyrs, Isaac Jogues' first task when he arrived in Quebec in 1636, was to learn the Huron language. His teacher was Father Jean le Brebeuf, another Jesuit. Brebeuf earlier had written Instruction, a collection of data based on his years of living among the Hurons since 1625. His practical advice included tips for conduct: eating with the Indians, sharing their camps, caring for the ill in view of "medicine men's" feelings. It was "helpful for many situations," its introduction stated, "both the predictable and the unexpected."
His humility led him to request that he have his studies in theology discontinued and be sent to America as a lay-brother, because, he said, he "wanted in ability." This, even though he was noted for his talent in composition and oratory. In 1636, after being ordained, giving his good mother his first priestly blessing and holy communion, his wish was granted; he was assigned as a missionary to the Indians in New France (Canada).
In his farewell letter to his mother, he wrote consoling her. "I hope as I said on another occasion, that if you take this little affliction in a proper spirit, it will be most pleasing to God, for whose sake it would become you to give not only one son, but all the others, nay, life itself, if it were necessary. Men for a little gain cross the seas, enduring at least as much as we, and shall we not, for God's love do what men do for earthly interests?" He asked her prayers for a safe trip and added: "Goodbye, dear Mother, I thank you for all the affection which you have shown me, and above all at our last meeting. May God unite us in His Holy Paradise if we do not see each other again on earth!"
We know little of Pere Jogues' motives for becoming a priest, Jesuit or missionary except for his pious home life and zealous spirit. However, the following excerpt from one of his few letters to his superiors reveals his wholesome regard for mankind in general, and souls in particular. During his imprisonment while the Dutch tried to ransom him, he wrote: "Let not regard for us prevent you from doing that which is to the glory of God. The design of the Iroquois as far as I can see, is to take, if they can, all the Hurons; and having put to death the most considerable ones and a good part of the others, to make one nation of these poor people, several of whom are Christians, the others Catechumens and ready for baptism; when shall a remedy be applied to these misfortunes? I become more and more resolved to dwell here as long as it shall please Our Lord, and not to go away even though an opportunity should present itself. My presence consoles the French, the Hurons and the Algonquins. I have baptized more than sixty persons, several of whom have arrived in Heaven. That is my single consolation, . . . "
His total concern is for all those within reach of his love and compassion: the governor, whom he asks not to extend himself, for the two young Frenchmen who accompanied him, for the souls of his catechumens; none whatsoever for himself. He was noted for his long hours of quiet prayer on his journeys and for saying the rosary with his companions. This prayer life must have given him the vision to, as we say, "put his priorities in the right place!" He understood by the grace of the Holy Spirit, that each and every soul is of incalculable value before God. God's grace had taken care of his soul; it was now his duty to take care of the souls of others!
Early in 1644 Fr. Jogues sailed to Montreal and ministered again to the Hurons while waiting for a chance to return to the Mohawks. Two years later he was sent to Ossernenon, the principal Mohawk village, to negotiate a peace agreement between the Iroquois Nation -of which the Mohawks were a part-and the French. After meeting for a week, Jogues left for Quebec with news of success and a plan to return again to Ossernenon.
Unfortunately, the Mohawks had poor crops that year, and an epidemic broke out. They believed that the box containing vestments and religious articles which Jogues had left behind caused these disasters. As he was returning to the village from Quebec with John de LaLande and some Hurons, some members of the Mohawks' Bear Clan invited Jogues to a dinner. As he stooped to enter their longhouse on Oct. 19, 1646, he was tomahawked to death. The next day they killed LaLande. Perhaps this was the "unexpected" le Brebeuf could not prepare him for.
Four years before his death, Pere Jogues had journeyed back to France to recuperate from torture at the hands of the Mohawks. There his own brother did not recognize him, and when hearing that this man had been in New France, asked if he had met his brother, Isaac! At that time, due to his illness and disability, (his hands were badly mutilated-so much so that he could not say Mass), his Jesuit superiors asked him to stay and teach in a college, but left him free to make his own decision. Naturally, he returned to "save the Mohawks." His trust of his torturers accompanied him to the end.
His eight years in America included six years during which he lived with, and converted many Hurons. Certainly none of these or their ancestors would say it had been for naught. As for Pere Jogues himself, his desire was to be a martyr for Indian souls. Knowing this, his confreres, upon hearing of his death, celebrated a Mass of thanksgiving instead of the usual Requiem.
The North American martyrs were beatified on June 21, 1925 and were canonized on June 29, 1930; their feast day is October 19th. Two shrines commemorate them. One is at Auriesville, NY, the Ossernenon of old. The other at Midland, Ontario, near the site of Old Fort Ste. Marie of the Hurons.
Isaac Jogues was born at Orleans in 1607. His father died soon after his birth, leaving him to the sole care of his mother, a woman worthy of having a son an apostle. Under her guidance, Isaac grew up a devout, "sensitive" and cultured child. He was not satisfied with doing for God what he was obliged to do, but desired to give generous proof of his love by doing what was most acceptable to the Divine Majesty. As a Jesuit novice he was enthralled with their many missionaries, most of whom were in Ethiopia and the Indies. After reading in Jesuit Relations of the martyrdom by fire of Fr. Spinola in Japan, he carried his picture always.
Copyright © 1996 Catholic Information Network (CIN) - October 27, 1996