Isaac Jogues: Missionary and Martyr - Martin J. Scott

First Mission

With the destruction of the village of St. Joseph (Ihonatiria) the missioners had lost their headquarters and were obliged to establish themselves elsewhere. For the present they chose as their domicile two villages, to which they had made missionary journeys regularly, and in which they had some good friends. The first of these was Ossossane, but named by the missioners, Conception. Here some of the Fathers took up their abode, which was facilitated by the fact that in the previous year they had built in this place a chapel and also a cabin for the visiting priest.

Evidently Jogues' ministry here was gratifying, for in 1637, he wrote to his brother Samuel: "Our poor Indians treat us as true friends. We have in Ossossane a cabin thirteen fathoms in length. A chapel has been built entirely of boards, which attracts the eyes and the admiration of all the inhabitants. Besides the conversations we hold every day in each cabin, we have a public catechism class every Sunday in our own, where many of the sachems of the nation attend, headed by a family of Christians of seven or eight persons. Thus does God still the tempest and bring peace at His will.'"

The second village which the Fathers chose for residence was Teanaustayae, which was also named St. Joseph. Here Mass was celebrated for the first time in June, 1638, in the cabin of an Indian convert, Stephen Totiri, who was afterwards captured and tortured with Jogues. It was here that Brebeuf settled, and in the space of a year he had baptized forty-eight children and seventy-two adults.

But this division of the small community into two separate groups, living apart, had many drawbacks and seriously interfered with the apostolic work of the missioners. Hence they resolved to establish a single missionary center, where they could consult together on ways and means of carrying on their work, profit by the experience and example of one another, and live, in some fashion, a community life, which would fortify them for their painful and dangerous work.

Accordingly they chose a site at the northeastern part of the Huron peninsula on the banks of the river Wye, near a point where it emptied into the lake, from where as a center they could have easy communication with the whole country. The new headquarters was called the Residence of St. Mary. The French Government so heartily approved of the project as to contribute towards the construction of the establishment and moreover to erect a fort there and garrison it for the protection of the Fathers, a necessary safeguard against the incursions of the Iroquois.

When completed, the establishment was, for the savages, one of the wonders of the world. They came from far and near to see it and to inspect its spacious buildings, the like of which they had never looked upon. What they saw when they arrived at the place was a great square enclosed by palisades, within which were some of the largest buildings they had ever beheld, a chapel, a community house, a hospital intended for sick Indians, and a hospice for traders.

Before long it became a mecca for the Indians, some of whom were attracted by curiosity, but others, especially the Christians, drawn by the grandeur of the religious services. Describing these Father Ragueneau writes: "The beauty of our chapel, which, though poverty itself, is regarded in this country as one of the wonders of the world; the masses, sermons, vespers, processions, and benedictions—all performed with a pomp unknown to the Indians—gives them some idea of the majesty of God, whilst they are made to understand that He is honored all over the world with a worship a thousand times more solemn."

It was to this place that the Indians came for instruction and for devotional exercises. Hither also came or were carried the invalids, to receive comfort or cure in the hospital. Here too were buried those who sought a last resting-place in the consecrated cemetery within the enclosure, for this, too, was part of the establishment. To Jogues was intrusted the superintendence of the construction of the palisades, which put him in charge of the domestics, and some fifteen laborers, all of whom were French, the only French among the Hurons. Some of these men were donnes, that is those who gave or dedicated themselves for life and without pay, to the service of the missioners. They served in the place of lay-brothers whom it was impossible to obtain in sufficient number for the mission.

Jogues was not altogether taken up with the work of construction, but found time and opportunity for no little missionary work besides. He made frequent journeys to neighboring villages; instructed and administered the sacraments to the visiting Indians who came in considerable numbers to view the progress of the work; and attended to the spiritual wants of all those who were engaged in the establishment.

His construction work completed, Jogues was assigned to what was really his first missionary experience. Together with Father Garnier he was sent to a neighboring nation which had recently come to terms of peace with the Hurons and which up to the present had not been visited by missioners. This was called the Tobacco Nation, from its cultivation and commerce in tobacco of which it seemed to have the monopoly.

These Indians dwelt at a distance of about thirty miles. It was winter, and as there were no open paths it was necessary to travel, Indian fashion, on snow-shoes. Guides were furnished the missioners and they set out on their uncertain journey. On the way, the guides for some reason deserted them, leaving them absolutely at the mercy of the elements, and in a country as uncharted as mid-ocean. At the approach of night they made a clearing in the snow, covered the ground with spruce branches for a bed, and committed themselves to Providence.

At sunrise, having survived the exposure of the night, they started on their way again, having only a general and confused idea of where they were or where they were going. At night-fall they came in sight of a cabin and knew that they had reached their destination. Hospitality is an unwritten law with the Indians. No stranger seeking food or shelter is turned away. Accordingly the missioners entered the first cabin they met, and were given shelter for the night. But on the morrow they found to their surprise and consternation that the rumors which had done so much harm to their mission among the Hurons, had reached the Tobacco Nation.

Fearing that the Fathers would bring upon them the calamities which had wrought such destruction upon the Hurons, these Indians now entreated the missioners to leave their village. Their attitude became so threatening that the Fathers saw that it would be impossible to do any missionary work among them. Accordingly they passed to the next hamlet. There they found that the evil rumors had preceded them, and that their cause was just as hopeless as in the former place. However they were not to be discouraged. They passed from one village to another, meeting the same treatment everywhere, until after two months they concluded that for the present this was no field for their labors.

But the good seed had nevertheless been sown. The following year Gamier returned and established a church known as the Mission of Apostles, which became an active center of religion, and which a few years afterwards, 1649, he hallowed by his martyrdom.

Jogues was by now an experienced missioner. It was not surprising therefore that he was assigned to a delicate and difficult undertaking which was to take him two hundred and fifty miles from his base. It came about as follows: The Ottawas, a tribe of Algonquin origin, came from their home on the shores of Lake Superior, to visit the Algonquin tribes alongside the Hurons. The occasion was the great Feast of the Dead which was celebrated with pomp and circumstance every ten or twelve years. The missioners took advantage of this assemblage of tribes to make themselves acquainted with those from distant parts and thus open up the way to future missions. The result of their efforts was an invitation from the Ottawas to visit them in the fall when they would be assembled at Sault Sainte-Marie their annual fishing grounds.

Accordingly in September, 1641, Jogues in company with Father Charles Raymbault, who was proficient in the Algonquin language, set out on a journey of two hundred and fifty miles. In a bark canoe, skirting the shores of Lake Huron, they slowly made their way to Sault Sainte-Marie where they were welcomed by some two thousand Indians. Their stay there was brief, as the Indians returned to their home on Lake Superior when the fishing season was over. But they made a strong plea to the Fathers to stay among them. This, however, they were unable to do on account of the fewness of the missioners and the great work to be done among the Hurons. They promised the Ottawas to return to them at some future day, however, and after planting a large cross as a memorial of their missionary visit, took their departure for their Huron home.

This expedition opened the way for future missionary efforts, as it gave the Fathers a knowledge of the country and of its people. On his return Jogues settled down to the duties of a resident missioner at St. Mary's. It was a short rest before a long and bloody campaign, in which he was to meet with all the savagery of the fiercest of the fierce nations of the Iroquois confederation.