St. Isaac Jogues. Wikimedia Commons

A Blackrobe Among the Hurons

Foremost among Jesuit martyrs, St Isaac worked tirelessly among Native Americans for 10 years as teacher, healer, slave, and ambassador for peace, all in the name of Christ. From New France to New Amsterdam, a New World adventure of sanctity and love.

Luca Grillo

In 1622, Pope Gregory XV founded the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, thus giving order and new strength to the missionary impetus arising from the Catholic Reformation. The world was divided into 12 different provinces under the common authority and guidance of Rome. Among the most active and zealous missionaries were the Jesuits, who spread out everywhere, arriving in these years in Africa, Japan, and the Americas.

The missionaries came to the New World along with the colonization from their home countries. North America was divided into three main areas. The South and the West Coast were colonized by Spain and evangelized especially by Franciscans. The English and Dutch colonized the East, sending Protestant missionaries. The North belonged to France, whose influence spread West (to Montana) and South, following the course of the Mississippi, to Louisiana (named after the King of France, Louis XIV). New France was a giant triangle between Quebec, Montana, and New Orleans. No doubt the Jesuits were the most active among the French missionaries.

The starting point for French colonization was a small town called Three Rivers (now in Quebec). It was a crossroads for soldiers, merchants, Jesuit missionaries, and adventurersall risk-takers. Among the many Native Americans living in the surrounding area, the Huron were the most friendly and cooperative with the French and their diplomatic and commercial activities.

New France
Isaac Jogues arrived at Three Rivers in 1636. It took him over two months to cross the ocean. He had been assigned to the most advanced Jesuit settlement, 1,000 miles inland. To reach his destination, he had to follow some Huron scouts with whom he would be living. Isaac spent the few days waiting for the scouts with Fr Paul Le Jeune, the Superior of all the Jesuit missions in New France.

It was Fr Paul who taught Isaac the rudiments of native culture: “The natives call us Blackrobe, because of the way we dress.... Since you do not know their language do not even try to speak with them; they do not like to repeat themselves.... If during the journey they ask you to paddle, refuse it, unless you want to be considered a dupe forever if you accept they will expect you to paddle for hours.... Each day of the journey, when the traveling is over, no matter how tired and sore you are, help them to set the night camp, for they do not admire idleness....”

Along with Isaac there was a 10-year-old boy, named Jean Amyot. The Jesuits had adopted him after both his parents died in the trans-Atlantic crossing. Jean was to be Isaac’s interpreter and would love him as a father.

Fr Paul’s suggestions proved to be precious, and the journey went well. The Native Americans seemed to like Isaac and they soon nicknamed him Ondessonk (bird of prey), because of his piercing, quick-moving eyes. After less than a month, walking and canoeing, they reached a small village, on Lake Huron, where 5 other “Blackrobes” were already living.

Among the Huron
The Superior of this mission was Fr Jean de Brebeuf–a huge fellow, called Echon (chief) by the Hurons, because he was tall and strong. He gave Ondessonk three simple tasks: to learn the Huron language, to be trained in living among the Native Americans, and to be in charge of the broth. He had to heat it and to carry it out to the different tents of the village. He also had the special care of Jean Amyot, because of the friendship they developed during the journey.

By the end of the first year, Isaac was able to understand the Huron language and mindset. The natives struggled with the Christian teachings, often bursting out, “Show us heaven on the map and we will trust you!” There were also problems with some translations: God, not to be confused with the other spirits, was called He Who Made the World, and Jesus He Who Brings Blessings.

The Jesuits spent the morning instructing the children and the rest of the day visiting the sick, preaching to the adults, and teaching them. Generally, they were well respected in the village, especially after a big chief asked to be baptized: he was renamed Peter and being well known for his courage in war and hunting, he paved the way for other Christians. More and more people became interested in Jesus. But along with the converts came enemies. The Medicine Man felt he was losing his power because of the Blackrobes, and he tried to turn everyone against them. The Jesuits in Japan and China were facing the same problems; in a way it is always the same story. Twelve centuries before, Patrick in Ireland met the opposition of the druids, just as Boniface had some years laternot to speak of Jesus and the Pharisees! When a strong form of influenza spread among the villagers, the Medicine Man tried to blame it on the Jesuits.

Bad rumors were spreading among the villagers, and the sorrow for the victims of the pestilence was being transformed into anger toward the priests. The Medicine Man said that his magic power was not working because of their presence, and therefore they were to blamethey had to die. For months the Jesuits kept living in the village, knowing that they could be killed any time, until the Huron gathered in a council to make their final decision and a young warrior volunteered to execute the Jesuits. Fr Jean de Brebeuf came up with a brilliant idea in response to the news: “When Native Americans are condemned, they give a party to show they are not afraid to die; tonight we will give a party ourselves.” That night a magnificent party was given. Everyone in the village was invited and many people came.

The day after, everything was still quiet when the Jesuits woke up and began their visits. For weeks, the tents of the Huron had been closed to them, but that morning Isaac found some tents open. What did it mean? There were two possibilities: either the Huron’s anger had subsided, or there was a warrior inside waiting to tomahawk him. He entered a tent. A squaw with a young baby smiled at him, and Isaac took a deep breath of relief. The Medicine Man left that village and the Jesuits regained the people’s trust. By the Fall of 1639, there were at least one hundred adults who had converted and were giving their children a Christian education. The Jesuits were now ready to go and found new settlements. Some missions proved to be failures, like the one among the Tobacco, and some proved to be successful, like the one in Sault Ste Marie, in Ontario, where more than a thousand people received the Waters of Importance (Baptism).

Because of a supply shortage, Isaac volunteered to go back to Three Rivers in the summer of 1641. On their return from Quebec, they formed a group of 12 canoes, carrying writing materials, wine for celebrating Mass, medicines, little gifts to trade on their way, and–even more precious–30 Christian Hurons, educated in Quebec to work as apostles among their own people. But only half of the canoes were destined to arrive in Huronia, as the party was ambushed by the Mohawks, the fiercest tribe of the Iroquois Nation, and the eternal enemies of the Huron.

Some people were killed during the ambush, others escaped, and others, including Isaac Jogues, were captured and underwent terrible tortures. They had to run the gauntlet in every Iroquois village they went through, and then they were mutilated (Isaac lost his left thumb). Iroquois also used to rip off fingernails and throw burning cindersor pour boiling liquidon the tortured flesh. During torture, Native Americans knew they were supposed to either sing or remain absolutely silent, to show courage in the face of pain and hatred for their enemies. The Jesuits had tried everything to stop these practices among enemy tribes, and now they themselves were victims. Rene Goupil, a Jesuit lay brother, was killed in this way in 1642.

For the rest of his nine months of captivity, Isaac was given as a slave to an old squaw, who actually grew to like him, and little by little she gave him more freedom. One day he was taken to Rensselaerswych, a small Dutch settlement on the Hudson River, today better know as Albany. There he met a Calvinist pastor who helped him to escape. A small boat was prepared on the Hudson, and Isaac, during the night, was finally able to flee.

New Amsterdam and France
Jogues’ first destination was New Amsterdam (New York). He was the first Catholic priest to set foot in the city and he left us one of its earliest descriptions: “In the island of Manhate there are about four or five hundred people, of different races and nations... they speak eighteen different languages... Some live in the Fort, some are outside, and are exposed to the raids of the Indians. While I was there two Dutch got killed and some houses got burnt... There is no religion publicly practiced but the Calvinist. The others are not admitted, but, as a matter of fact, you can find also Catholics, Lutherans, Puritans and Anabaptists... When anyone comes to settle here, they give him horses, cows and some supplies, which he repays as soon as he can... The soil is good and the weather is very mild...”

Soon the news of the Catholic priest spread and an Irish man came from Virginia to go to confession. But Issac’s plan was to take the first ship back to France, where he arrived in January 1644. First, he went to the Jesuit College in Rennes and asked to see the Father Superior. The torture inflicted by the Iroquois wounded him so badly that he was not recognized, and was mistaken for a street person. “I just came from New France,” he said to the Superior. “Really?! Do you know any of the Jesuits on mission up there?” “I know almost all of them.” “Did you ever hear of Fr Isaac Jogues? Do you have news about him?” “Isaac Jogues is he who is speaking to you!” The Father Superior broke into tears, gave Isaac a big hug, and rang the bell to call all the others to greet him.

The news of his torture and escape became the talk of France, so much so that even Queen Anne asked to see him. When she received him at court, next to her was a young boy, five years old, who was to be Louis XIV, the Sun King.

But Isaac’s heart was still in New France, and during a visit with his superiors he expressed the desire to go back among his beloved Huron.

Back to New France
Jogues sailed off that same spring. His brethren in Three Rivers were very surprised to see him back: they never knew he had escaped and they thought he was still prisoner of the Iroquois. The Jesuits were thinking of sending one of their priests to the new settlement of Montreal, among the Iroquois, who were now at peace. Jogues, who learned their language and ways during his captivity, was the perfect candidate. For two years he was engaged in building a difficult and fragile diplomatic relationship, trying to keep the Iroquois and the French at peace. Finally, a treaty was signed and the Iroquois agreed to peaceably receive him and some companions in order to learn their teachings. He left Three Rivers to settle the new mission, but the peace was not to last.

Tension grew among the Mohawk Iroquois, because many of them did not like the treaty, and felt that they had to fight at any cost. Sensing the danger, many French left the expedition, but Jogues kept going, with a young Jesuit called La Lande and a loyal Huron companion. Along the way, a band of rebel Mohawk warriors attacked the small convoy and took them to their capital. Here, Jogues found the old squaw who “adopted” him years before, during his first captivity. She admonished him to be careful, and one day she made him swear that he would not leave her tent in her absence, because it was too dangerous.

That same night a young Iroquois came to the tent to invite Ondessonk to a party. Isaac knew that it was a great offense to refuse such an invitation, but he also knew of the big risk he was running. He decided to go, and as soon as he entered the tent he saw a huge warrior with a long scar on his face and a tomahawk in his hand. It was October 18, 1646. Isaac was killed on the spot and that same night Jean La Lande met the same fate.

Sanguen Martyrum...
The news of the martyrdom spread quickly, and surely among the most sorrowful was Jean Amyot. In September of 1647, Jean, with a group of Algonquins, met and defeated a number of rebellious Iroquois. Eight Iroquois were taken captive, one of whom had a long scar in his face. Big Scar–as he was renamed–was questioned by the French authorities, but having refused to give any answer about Isaac’s martyrdom, he was released for lack of proof. Before going back to the Iroquois, he went to the mission house and asked to see the Jesuits, begging them to receive the Waters of Importance. They knew he was responsible for the death of their brother, but they were moved and they baptized him. He was renamed Isaac. As soon as he got back to his tribe, the other Iroquois considered him a traitor, and he too faced death for Christ.

Two years later, the Superior Jean de Brebeuf was also killed, together with four other French missionaries.

In 1930, the eight New York martyrs were proclaimed saints, under the pontificate of Pius XI. Their feast day is October 19th.