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St. Isaac Jogues: A man of faith and courage

St. Isaac Jogues statue and shrine

Jon Bilous | dugdax | Shutterstock | Collage by Aleteia

Alice Alech - published on 05/20/24

Fr. Jogues eagerly set out for North America to join his fellow Jesuits. Tortured and martyred in 1646, his courage and passion for the Gospel were exemplary.

The early Catholic Jesuit explorers went to New France to teach, preach, and administer the sacraments. Committed to loving and serving others, the French followers of St Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Catholic Jesuit order, lived among the natives, learned their language, and gained their confidence.

Through the chronicles known as The Jesuit Relations, written by the missionaries, we learn of their mission, successes, failures, and most importantly, the brutality that they faced between 1632 and 1672.

Father Isaac Jogues, one of the eight Jesuits, left France with enthusiasm, happy that the mission was beginning to progress. He was eventually made a prisoner, tortured, and killed. This is his story.

The young Jesuit

Isaac Jogues began studying with the Jesuits at age 10 and, at 17, decided to become a Jesuit priest. He pursued his theological studies, was ordained in 1636, and soon set off for Canada.

Ocean trips were long in those days. Their ship left Dieppe, France, on April 8 and arrived eight weeks later, where Father Jogues embarked on his first missionary journey in New France — a canoe trip into the Huronia region, the province of Ontario, together with five Hurons, North American Indians living along the St Lawrence River.

This first expedition on foreign soil, embarking in a crowded canoe with natives he could not converse with, must have been particularly grueling for the young priest. The powerful rapids that stretched along 900 miles intrigued Father Jogues. He observed that the falls descended great heights with such force that they crushed canoes that went too close.

Learning and preaching

Learning the native language in his new settlement was a priority. Father Isaac began in earnest under the guidance of missionary brother Fr. Jean de Brébeuf, the first “black robe” to reach the Hurons. Fr. de Brébeuf was a gifted linguist and teacher who had arrived 10 years earlier.

His first six years at the Huronia settlement were mostly routine: perfecting his new linguistic skill, adapting to the social structures, and preaching the gospel mostly in cabins beside the fire. Isaac Jogues got to know and appreciate the new social structure, a rural community, a far cry from his bourgeois background in France.

To the Hurons, he was known as “Ondessonk” or “Bird of Prey.” Fr. Jogues’s routine ended when he was chosen to accompany a critically ill Jesuit, Father Raymbaut, on a long canoe journey to Quebec. It would prove to be a fateful journey. The trip to the Quebec Jesuit residence was long, and Raymbaut died in Quebec.

Ambush and adversity

Father Jogues and his party fell into an Iroquois ambush on the way back. The attackers charged the unprepared group with muskets, beating and slashing the party of French and Hurons. They tore off Father Jogues’ fingernails and ripped and gnawed his two index fingers.

The Iroquois then took the prisoners to the other side of the river and set out southwards to their territory. The persecution continued throughout their journey; when they arrived at the first settlement, Fr. Jogues and his companions were even handed over to the children as playthings. Watching co-worker St. René Goupil killed without a proper burial added to Father Jogue’s misery. He lamented his loss:

René Goupil was a 35-year-old man, most admirable for his simplicity, the innocence of his life, and his patience in adversity.

Perceived as the leader, Father Isaac was singled out for even more torture. The Jesuit superior Father Barthémy, in his report on Father Jogue’s capture, concluded:

I pray that our good God who has preserved him hitherto will continue his mercies and will employ this Father’s virtue for the salvation of these peoples and for some good result known to his divine Providence.

The Chapel of Isaac Jogues, on Lake George in Bolton, New York
The Chapel of Isaac Jogues, on Lake George in Bolton, New York.

A period of quiet

The fury toward the prisoner decreased with time, and Father Jogues’ health improved. But with Fr. Goupil no longer by his side, he spent much time alone in the woods.

Grounded in Catholic spirituality with a fervent desire to spread the word of God, Fr. Jogues began to study the Iroquoian language earnestly, preaching to those who would listen. It was not easy; their superstitious practices held most of them back, also, winter had set in, and he had only a well-worn short coat.

With more freedom of movement, Fr. Jogues became involved with some of the Iroquois, those who fished and traded near a Dutch settlement. When the Dutch commander offered him a chance to escape, he hesitated, worried about how his captives might react if he failed. The plan was carried out; Father Jogues sailed out of Canada on a Dutch vessel and eventually landed in Brittany, France.

Encounter at Rennes

Fr. Jogues was penniless upon his arrival. Robbers had stolen his few belongings when his ship stopped in England. With help, he made it to the nearest Jesuit residence in Rennes. The astonished rector quickly spread the word his fellow Jesuit was alive and back in France.

On meeting his French Jesuit superiors, one thing was clear – the Jesuit priest longed to return to New France and the Hurons, the first people he had met there.

Back to New France

Isaac Jogues left La Rochelle, France, for Quebec in the spring of 1644. He did not, however, return to the Huron as he had desired. Instead, the governor at the time, Charles Montmagny, held a peace council that intended to reconcile the French and the different groups of natives.

Father Isaac Jogues, also present at the meeting, seemed the obvious choice as a peace ambassador. He knew the Huron and the Iroquois cultures, and even better, he spoke their languages.

His mission proved successful, and Jogues returned to Quebec.

Yet another move for peace was called for, and once again, Joques was asked to attend. Accompanied by a few Huron and a missionary named Jean de Lalande, he left from Three Rivers. Soon after their departure, the two Frenchmen were seized and told that they would die. 

On October 18, 1646, Father Issac was summoned to supper. As he entered the dining area, a native snuck up behind him and struck him on the head with a tomahawk.

Martyrdom

Letters announcing his murder to Montmagny described a box belonging to the Jesuit. It contained vestments, but the natives believed it to be an evil box. They associated it with the sickness and other misfortunes they had been going through. 

In a tribute in the Relation for 1647, Jérome Lalemant, leader of the Jesuit mission in New France, described Jogues as a true martyr.

“It is the thought of several learned men that he is truly a martyr before God, who bears witness to heaven and earth that he values the faith and the publication of the Gospel more highly than his own life.”    

The Jesuit priest Isaac Jogues was canonized by Pope Pius X1 on June 29, 1930. Along with seven other martyrs, he was proclaimed a patron saint of Canada in 1940 by Pope Pius XII.

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