Isaac Jogues: Missionary and Martyr - Martin J. Scott

The Huron Country

New France, as Canada was then called, first came to the notice of Europeans about one hundred years previous to the departure of Jogues for that land.

Under Francis I, Verrazano, a Florentine navigator, set sail for the New World January, 1524, on a voyage of discovery. He returned to France, arriving at Dieppe six months later, announcing the discovery of the far northern portion of the New World, and giving an accurate description of the coast-line from what is now New York to the present Canada. It was the first published account of New York Bay and the Hudson River, and formed the basis of a map of the North Atlantic Coast, which is preserved to this day in the Museum of the Propaganda, Rome. This discovery of Verrazano was called New France, a name which it retained for nearly a century and a half. Nothing resulted from this expedition except France's claim to the newly discovered territory.

Some ten years later Jacques Cartier made the first of his three voyages to New France, discovering Gaspe Peninsula, where he had Mass celebrated July 6, 1534. His second voyage was made the year after, during which he sailed up the great river which he named the St. Lawrence, reached Quebec and thence proceeded to what is now Montreal. He took possession of this land in the name of France, but made no settlement there, neither at that time nor five years later when he made his third and last voyage. From Cartier to Champlain is a long span of years, yet it was not until more than half a century after Cartier's last voyage that the French, under Champlain, 'again turned their attention to their possessions in the New World.

In 1608, Champlain laid the foundation of Quebec, and established a colony there, but it was short lived as the English destroyed it in 1629.

It was during this period that the first Jesuit missionaries came to New France, having been requested by the Recollects to come to their assistance in the new field of missionary activity. In response to this appeal **several Jesuits, including Brebeuf and Charles Lalemant, came to the new country, the advance guard of as noble and heroic a band of apostles as ever carried the Gospel into new lands. It was these missioners, who were sent back to Europe when the colony was disbanded, who inspired Jogues with the resolution to carry the Gospel of Christ to the natives of Canada. In France he had heard the recital of their labors, sufferings and dangers, and had determined to share them if given the opportunity.

By the treaty of Saint-Germain, 1632, Canada was restored to France, and Champlain was soon sent out as Governor with orders to rebuild Quebec. This he did with remarkable skill and foresight, with the result that it became the center of French influence in early Canadian history. Champlain died some three years later, Christmas Day, 1635. His successor, Montmagny, departed for his difficult post the following year. It was in company with the new Governor that Jogues and five other Jesuits, four of them priests, set sail from Dieppe, April 8, 1636. The fleet numbered eight vessels, and after a voyage of nearly three months, arrived at Quebec, July 2nd. Quebec then consisted of a few houses on the heights, and a fort. There was also a chapel, Notre Dame de Recouvrance, and a residence for the missioners.

Shortly after his arrival Jogues wrote to his mother: "I do not know what it is to enter Paradise; but this I know, that it is difficult to experience in this world a joy more excessive and more overflowing than that I felt on my setting foot in New France, and celebrating my first Mass here on the day of the Visitation. I assure you it was indeed a day of the visitation of the goodness of God and Our Lady. I felt as if it were a Christmas Day for me, and that I was to be born again to a new life, and a life is God."

A few weeks later as he was about to start on his journey to the Huron Country he sent the following letter to his mother:

"Dear Mother: At last it has pleased Our Lord to allow me to alight on the shores of New France, the goal of my long aspirations. We sailed from Dieppe, April 8th, eight vessels together, and arrived here eight weeks after our departure. I landed at an island called Miscou, where two of our Fathers serve the French, who have begun a settlement there, and attempt the conversion of the Indians found there. After spending a fortnight, I embarked in another vessel that conveyed me to Tadoussac, where large vessels lie to, while barks and lighter vessels run up the St. Lawrence as far as Quebec, a French settlement which is growing every day. I landed on the 2nd of July, the feast of the Visitation of Our Lady. My health has been so good, thank God, at sea and on land, that it has been a matter of wonder to all, it being very unusual for anyone to make such a long voyage without suffering a little from seasickness or nausea.

"The vestments and chapel service have been a great comfort to me, as I have offered the Holy Sacrifice of Mass every day the weather was favorable—a happiness I should have been deprived of, had not our family provided me with them. It was a great consolation to me and one which our Fathers did not enjoy the preceding years. Officers and crew have profited by it; as but for that the eighty persons on board could not have been present at the Holy Sacrifice for two months, whilst, owing to the faculties I enjoyed, they all confessed and received Communion at Whitsunday, Ascension, and Corpus Christi. God will reward you and Madam Houdelin for the good you have enabled me to do.

"You shall have letters of mine every year, and I shall expect yours. It will be ever a consolation for me to hear from you and from our family, as I have no hope of seeing you in our lifetime. May God in His goodness unite us both in His holy abode to praise Him for all eternity! For this we must work in all earnestness as long as we live. Let us so husband the time granted unto us that we may do is life what we will wish to have done at our death. And oh! what a comfort on that day for a soul that departs in the satisfaction afforded by conscience, that we have served God with as little imperfection as we could, and that we have endeavored in all things and all places to do what was most agreeable to His Divine Majesty. I believe that such were the thoughts and the motives which have urged us to beg with so much importunity to be sent to these countries, where, there being so much to suffer, we can also give such sincere proof of our love of God.

"Were I able to give you good advice, or were you to need it, I would advise you to place yourself in the hands of some holy director, to whom you should intrust the guidance of your soul, and who would engage you in a more assiduous practice of the sacraments. Devotion, which gives you pleasure, should more than ever engross your utmost attention. Your advanced age and the rest you now enjoy will render you the more adapted for it. I write this to you at a distance of more than a thousand leagues, and perhaps I shall be sent this year to a nation called the Hurons, who live at a distance of more than three hundred leagues. They give tokens of great dispositions for embracing the Faith. It matters not where we are, provided we rest in the arms of Providence and in His holy favor. This is the prayer offered every day for you and our family by him, who is, etc.

"Three Rivers, August 20, 1636.

"P.S. I have just received orders to get ready to start for the mission among the Hurons in two or three days."

At the time that Jogues set out on his mission to the Hurons there were in Canada twenty-four Jesuits, eighteen priests and six lay-brothers, covering a territory extending over a thousand miles, from Cape Breton to Lake Huron. For this immense field there were six stations or missionary centers. Five of these stations were among the colonists, and one in the heart of the Huron country.

The Hurons were a tribe of some thirty-five thousand Indians, occupying twenty villages on the eastern shore of Lake Huron, which was named after them. They were distant from Quebec about one thousand miles. The ordinary route from Quebec to the Huron country was by canoe on the St. Lawrence as far as Montreal, and thence on the Ottawa River to the borders of Lake Huron. 'While Jogues was at Three Rivers, one of the missionary stations, waiting for an opportunity to start on his long journey to the Indians, there arrived a convoy from the Hurons sent by Brebeuf to Quebec. This convoy was an expedition carrying some Indian youths to the missionary center, in order to have them instructed in religion and in the customs of the French. It was hoped that on their return to their Indian home they would be able to instruct and influence their people.

This convoy, on its return voyage, furnished an opportunity for the missioner's journey to his distant field of labors. His superiors having directed him to accompany the Indian convoy, he set out on his perilous voyage, the only white man of the party. He knew well the ordeal he was facing, which was so graphically described by Brebeuf in a letter to his brethren in Europe: "However smooth the passage may appear, there is enough to appall a heart not thoroughly mortified. The skill of the Indians does not shorten the journey, smooth the rocks or avert the dangers, No matter with whom you may be, you must make up your mind to be at least three or four weeks on the way, with no companions but men whom you have never seen before, in a bark came, in a most inconvenient position, forbidden to move right or left, to be fifty times a day in danger of capsizing or dashing against the rocks.

"You are scorched by the sun in the day-time, and the mosquitoes devour you by night. Sometimes you have to ascend five or six falls in one day, and at night all your refreshment is a little corn simply boiled in water, and your bed the ground or a rough and bristling rock; generally the sky is your canopy, with an unbroken stillness for your lullaby."

In a letter to his mother Jogues describes some of the hardships which he experienced in the long and painful journey:

"Dear Mother: As only one opportunity is afforded every year of writing to you, I cannot let it pass without acquitting myself of my duty towards so good a mother. I feel sure that you will be happy to acknowledge the special providence with which Divine Goodness has led me, since He has accorded me the grace of landing in this Huron country. I wrote to you last year in the month of August, when on the point of starting on my journey. I left Three Rivers the 24th Day of August—St. Bartholomew's day. I was put in a birch canoe that could carry five or six persons at the utmost. It would not be easy to give you in detail all the discomforts of this mode of travel; but the love of God who calls us to these missions, and our desire to do something towards the conversion of these poor barbarians, render it all so sweet, that we would not exchange our hardships for all the pleasures of earth. The traveler's food is a little Indian corn, crushed between two stones and boiled in water innocent of all seasoning.

"We lay ourselves to sleep on the ground, or on the sharp rocks bordering this great river, by the light of the moon. You must sit in the canoe in a very uncomfortable position. You cannot stretch out your legs, for the place is narrow and crowded. You dare not move lest you capsize. I was forced to observe a strict silence, for I could not understand our Indians nor could they understand me. Another surplus of pain and labor. We meet in this journey some sixty to eighty water-falls which descend so furiously and so far that canoes going too near are carried over and perish. As we were paddling against the stream we were not exposed to this danger; but then we had often to land and march over rocks and through tangled woods about one league to make a detour, carrying on our backs all the luggage and even the canoes. For my own part I carried not only my own little baggage, but I also aided and relieved our Indians as much as I could; and in the journeys caused by the falls I have mentioned I was compelled to carry on my shoulders a child ten or eleven years old, who belonged to our caravan and who had fallen sick.

"But by great exertion, instead of the twenty-five or thirty days ordinarily required for this voyage, it took me hilt nineteen days to reach the spot where five of our Fathers resided, some of whom have been in this country five or six years. The two last-comers, Fathers Charles Garner and Peter Chastellain, had arrived only one month before me. Thus has Providence vouchsafed to keep me full of strength and health to this day. He grants me grace to be far more contented amid the privations inseparable from our position than if I were enjoying all the comforts of the world. God makes Himself felt with far greater sweetness. He guards us among the savages with so much love, He gives such abundant consolations in the little trials we have to endure, that we do not even think of regretting what we have renounced for His sake.

"Nothing can equal the satisfaction enjoyed in our hearts while we impart the knowledge of the true God to these heathens. About two hundred and forty have received baptism this year; among whom I have baptized some who surely are now in heaven, as they were children one or two years old. Can we think the life of man better employed than in this good work? What do I say? Would not all the labors of a thousand men be well rewarded in the conversion of a single soul gained to Jesus Christ? I have always felt a great love for this kind of life, and for a profession so excellent, and so akin to that of the Apostles. Had I to work for this happiness alone, I would exert myself to my utmost to obtain a favor, for which I would fain give a thousand lives.

"Should you receive these lines, I entreat you, by the bonds of the love of Jesus Christ, to give thanks to the Lord for this extraordinary favor He has bestowed upon me—a favor so earnestly wished and craved by many servants of God endowed with qualities far above what I possess."

It was the 11th of September, 1636, that Jogues reached his destination, the little village of St. Joseph, where the missioners had their headquarters. As soon as his missionary brethren caught sight of him in his canoe, they hastened to the bank of the river to greet him. He then realized in his own person what Brebeuf had written regarding the welcome which the missioners of New France would extend to their brethren, on their arrival in the Indian country. "When you arrive among the Hurons," he wrote, "you shall indeed meet with hearts overflowing with charity. We will receive you with open arms, as an angel from heaven. We shall all have every inclination to render you services, but it will be almost beyond all possibility to do so. We shall receive you in a cabin so poor that I despair of finding one in France wretched enough for me to say, 'See how you will be lodged!' Fatigued and harassed as you may be, we can offer you only a poor mat, and at utmost some skins for your bedding; and moreover, you will arrive in a season when annoying little creatures, called touhac  here—in good French, puces  (fleas)—will, night after night, prevent your closing an eye, for in these regions they are far more importunate than in France.

"The five or six winter months are besieged with uninterrupted vexations, excessive cold, smoke, and the importunity of the Indians. Our cabin is built merely of bark, but so knit together that we have need to go out to know the state of the weather. The smoke is often so dense, so pungent, and so perverse, that for five or six days at a time, unless you are well inured to it, it is all you can do to make out a few words in the breviary."

Jogues' reception was that described in the Relations  of 1637, by Father Ragueneau: "I made all the preparations for his reception; but oh, what a feast!—a handful of little dried fish, with a sprinkling of flour. I sent for a few ears of corn, which we roasted for him after the fashion of the country. But it is true that at heart, and to hear him, he never enjoyed better cheer. The happiness felt at these meetings seems to reflect in some sort the joy of the blessed on their entrance into heaven, so full of sweetness is it!"

The journey to the Huron country, so full of sufferings, was but the beginning of Jogues' hardships. Scarcely a week had passed before he was laid low by a fever which brought him to the point of death. With no bed but a rough mat, and no remedies but a decoction of roots, the burning fever would have carried him off, had it not been for his courage and cheerfulness, together with the wonderful charity of his brethren. What made his situation all the worse was the fact that two of the five other missioners were attacked by the same disease, thus virtually converting the residence into a hospital without the equipment of a hospital. However, Jogues' youth and strong constitution, together with the excellent care he received, brought him safely through his all but fatal illness. The other victims of the malady also recovered after a slow convalescence.

The Relations of 1636 give the following account of these days of suspense and suffering. It was written by Father Le Mercier, one of the missioners who nursed Jogues and his companions back to health.

"We then were almost without domestics. Francis Petit-Pre, the only one in health, was away day and night hunting. This was, under God, our only resource for food.

"On the first days as we had no game, we had scarcely anything for our patients but a tea of wild purslane and sour grapes. These were our first broths. True, we had a hen, but she did not lay an egg every day; and what was one egg among so many sick persons? It was amusing to see us who remained well watch for the laying of that egg; then a consultation was to decide on the patient to whom it should be given, as most in need of it, and our patients debated who should refuse it. On the 24th of September Jogues grew so much worse that we all thought he must be bled. We had not been able to stay a bleeding at the nose so copious that he could not take any food except with great difficulty. But where find a surgeon? We were all so skilled in this art that the sick man did not know who would perform the operation, and every man of us only awaited the blessing of the Superior to take up the lancet and strike the blow. However he resolved to do it himself, as he had once before bled an Indian successfully. It pleased God that this second operation should also prove successful, and that what was deficient in art should be abundantly supplied by charity.

"God lavished His benedictions on us during this little domestic affliction. Sick and well, none ever were in better spirits. The sick were as willing to live as to die, and their patience, piety, and devotion lightened the care we paid them day and night. As for the Fathers, they enjoyed a blessing scarcely ever granted in France—they received every morning the Holy Sacrament of the Altar. From this treasure they drew so much holy resolution and so many good sentiments, that they loved their position dearly, and preferred their poverty to all the ease they might enjoy in France."

In more than one respect the illness of Jogues and his companions proved to be providential. For afterwards, when the disease invaded the homes of the Indians, the missioners knew from experience how to deal with it, enabling them to render most effective service to the stricken. Moreover, had the disease first appeared among the Indians, they, in their superstition, would undoubtedly have attributed it to some spell or magic of the strangers, with disastrous consequence to the missioners. Having passed through this initial ordeal, Jogues now found himself ready for active work among the Hurons. Before we follow him in his heroic efforts for the spiritual and material welfare of this people, it is advisable to say a few words about the Hurons and their relation to the Iroquois, by whom they were eventually exterminated.

Formerly and at a remote period, the Iroquois and Hurons were the same nation. The Hurons were the original stock. In their own language the word which designated their tribe was Ouendat, or in English, Wendot or Wyandot. The name Huron came from the French, and was due to the way in which these Indians dressed their hair, which made it resemble the bristles of a boar's head, in French hare. Father Chaumonot, who was skilled in Indian languages, stated that the Huron language was the basis of many others: "As this language (the Huron) is so to speak the mother of many others, particularly of the five spoken by the Iroquois, when I was sent among the latter, though at the time I could not understand their language, it took me but a month to master it."

For some reason not known there had been a split in the original Hurons, resulting in two factions, the original Hurons and the Iroquois. The Iroquois withdrew into what is now the Mohawk valley and the land to the west through the center of New York State. Deadly strife existed between these two tribes at the time when Jogues came to Canada. Formerly the Hurons occupied the St. Lawrence region from the Gulf to Lake Huron, but in Jogues' time they dwelt almost entirely along the eastern shore of their lake. The Algonquins, a friendly tribe, stretched along the Lower St. Lawrence, occupied the land abandoned by the Hurons. The enmity of the Iroquois towards the Hurons had for some reason extended to the Algonquins, and later to the French.

Almost from the beginning, Champlain had espoused the cause of the Hurons against the Iroquois. This he did for two reasons, to cement friendship with the Hurons, with whom the trade in pelts was most profitable, and to repel the attacks of the Iroquois against the French and Huron trading, parties ascending and descending the St. Lawrence and Ottawa. Champlain had made several expeditions against the Iroquois, inflicting severe loss on them, one of his campaigns having taken him into the very heart of their stronghold on Oneida Lake, near the present Perryville in New York State.

The history of the Hurons from the arrival of Champlain to the middle of the seventeenth century was one long and fierce struggle with the Iroquois. Every time a Huron canoe ascended or descended the river to Quebec it was in danger from the Iroquois who lay in ambush along the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa. If in their expeditions the Hurons happened to be superior in numbers the Iroquois would not attack, but instead would follow stealthily along the route, cut off stragglers, and if they caught the enemy, reduced in numbers, off guard, massacre or capture them. The French were not able to give much protection to their allies as eventually they had all they could do to protect themselves from the Iroquois, who became bolder and bolder as the Hurons grew constantly weaker from the repeated assaults on them.

This was the state of affairs when Jogues began his mission among the Hurons, a mission which was filled with deeds of heroism and devotion whose recital evokes the admiration even of those who do not sympathize with the cause which inspired them.