Isaac Jogues: Missionary and Martyr - Martin J. Scott

Isaac Jogues

The first man to make known Jesus Christ to the Iroquois was Father Isaac Jogues. He sealed the honor with his blood. And he sealed it willingly. On and off for four years he labored among them as an apostle of the Gospel, living their life, sharing their sufferings and toils, and finally meeting a brutal death at their hands.

Twice he was their captive. First while he was on his way as a missioner to the Hurons, and again as a missioner after having acted as ambassador to the Iroquois previously. He knew he was going to his death when he undertook this final mission, but like a true soldier of Christ he did not hesitate. It is doubtful if ever a man knew the dreadful fate awaiting him as Jogues knew his. He had seen with his own eyes the torture these savages inflicted on captives and consequently knew to a nicety what was before him when he set out on his perilous final undertaking.

Isaac Jogues was born at Orleans, January 10, 1607. His father died soon after little Isaac was baptized, leaving him to the sole care of his mother, a woman worthy of having a son an apostle. Under her pious and prudent guidance Isaac grew up a devout, sensible and cultured child. At ten years of age he entered the primary class of the newly established Jesuit College at Orleans. He pursued his studies there with extraordinary success, attaining notable distinction in the various branches which formed the curriculum.

It was while studying there that he felt a strong call to devote his life to something higher than a worldly career. He was one of those generous souls who do not measure their services by what they must do, but by what they can do. 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. He realized that the Son of God had become man for him, and had sacrificed His life for him on the cross. He wished to show a return of this great love by renouncing everything for the sake of his Saviour. Moreover he often dwelt on the words of the Master who had said: "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the Commandments." This was addressed to all mankind, who would be saved. But to those who were not content with doing what was of obligation, who sought to be distinguished in His service, Christ said: "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and come, and follow Me" Jogues hearkened to this invitation, and decided to renounce everything and follow Christ, the First Apostle, the First Missioner of the Gospel. It did not take him long to choose the manner of his following Christ. The Jesuit Order at this time had missions in various parts of the world, besides its mission of religious education to the youth of Europe. This Order made a strong appeal to the generous nature of the young student, and he accordingly applied for admission into it. He was considered worthy of acceptance and was received as a Jesuit novice October 24, 1624, in his seventeenth year.

The Master of Novices at this time was Father Louis Lalemant, a man conspicuous for virtue and learning. He was not slow to discern the character of the new novice, and observed with great satisfaction the progress which the young man made in the spiritual life. Jogues on a certain occasion was expressing his desire for the missions, having in mind Ethiopia or the Indies, not, thinking of the then little known missions in North America. To his astonishment, Father Lalemant said: "Brother, you will not die anywhere but in Canada." At the time this did not make an impression on Jogues, but later it was recalled most vividly when he lived in hourly expectation of death from the club or tomahawk of the savage Mohawks.

His novitiate completed, Jogues went to the college of La Fleche for his three years course of philosophy. La Fleche was then a celebrated college with some three hundred resident students and two thousand day-scholars. The Jesuit students formed a community by themselves, pursuing their studies with the others, but having their own religious duties and devotions in a separate establishment. While at La Fleche Jogues heard read the account of the Canadian missions by Father Masse, a returned missioner. In all parts of the world the Jesuits were engaged at that period in most perilous missionary work. Everywhere among distant and pagan people they were preaching the Gospel and shedding their blood. Jogues was particularly impressed by the narration of the heroic deeds of his missionary brethren. Especially was he affected by the martyrdom of Blessed Charles Spinola, who in the year, 1622, was burned to death in Japan for preaching the Faith. This martyrdom had the effect on Jogues of inspiring him with a strong desire to shed his blood as a missioner of Jesus Christ. He carried about with him a picture of Spinola's martyrdom, representing him tied to a stake and chanting a psalm while the flames were enveloping him. Jogues prayed constantly and earnestly that he might one day merit a similar fate. Little did he realize how much he was to resemble this blessed martyr, although in a far different land.

Meanwhile duty called him to less glorious fields of labor. Part of his Jesuit training was to teach several years, during the period between the completion of his philosophic studies and the beginning of his course in theology. This brought him to the college of Rouen in 1629.

It happened that at this particular time there were stationed at the college three missioners recently returned from Canada, Father Brebeuf, Father Charles Lalemant and Father Masse. Brebeuf was afterwards most dreadfully tortured and martyred by the Iroquois. These ardent apostles of the Gospel were awaiting the opportunity of returning to the scene of their sufferings and labors among the savages of the New World. From their lips Jogues heard of the privations, hardships, treacheries and tortures which ordinarily awaited: the missioner who ventured among these cruel dwellers of the forest. Far from discouraging him, the recital of the horrible conditions confronting the missioner in these distant lands only served to increase his desire to devote himself to labor there for the conversion and welfare of the natives.

Knowing that a vocation to such a sublime career must come from God, who alone could give the strength to fulfill it, he endeavored to win the grace of this apostolate by earnest prayer and the most faithful discharge of his duties. He was now twenty-five years old, and a very successful teacher. Besides he showed unusual talent in composition, as A is indicated by the fact that he was assigned to deliver the annual address at the close of the collegiate year, choosing as his theme a discourse on the Blessed Virgin, to whom he had the most filial piety.

Having finished his period of teaching his nest step towards the priesthood was the study of theology. For this, the final stage of his studies, he went to Clermont College, Paris. It was here that he met another Canadian missioner, Father Buteux, who later furnished many of the details which form the groundwork of Jogues' biography. Speaking of him during this period of his career Buteux says:

"It was at this moment that I first saw him, and I sought to know him. I also discerned in him rare prudence and a punctual observance of the Rule. This was all the more noticeable in the college where he lived, because amid such surroundings observance is apt to become less strict. I had an equal admiration and respect for his humility. He displayed it especially then, by his earnest entreaties to his Superiors to be allowed to withdraw from the study of theology, under the pretext of want of ability, and to be sent to America as a lay-brother."

In a letter to his mother informing her of his removal to Paris, Jogues says: "After having been a master, here I am a scholar again. This position is all the more agreeable to me, because it confines me to the study of a holy and sacred science, which is to render me better fitted than ever to work for God's glory, by disposing me to be promoted to Holy Orders in a few years. This is the grace to which I aspire. May it be granted to me, and then give greater efficacy to the prayers which I offer the Almighty for our whole household."

A year later, 1636, he was ordained to the priesthood. To his great joy he was assigned to Orleans to say his first Mass, at which his mother and family assisted, and at which he imparted his first priestly blessing to his mother, and also gave to her the first Holy Communion that he administered. It was a foretaste of heaven both for his mother and himself.

For his mother it was also a preparation for one of the greatest sacrifices that a mother can make. For shortly after his ordination, Jogues received what was for him the grateful news that his prayer of years was granted, and that he was selected as one of the missioners who were to go to far-off Canada. His own joy at this prospect of martyrdom was tempered by his tender regard for the feelings of his mother, to whom he knew the news of separation would cause the keenest anguish. He broke the news to her with gentleness and tact, but it was nevertheless a sword-thrust not only for the mother but for the son. But she showed that she was the heroic mother of a heroic son by resigning herself to God's holy will, and begging His blessing on her son's mission. After giving his mother every comfort and consolation in his power, Jogues retired to the novitiate at Rouen, there to prepare himself by prayer and other pious exercises for the apostolic career upon which he was about to embark.

Before leaving this house of prayer to go to Dieppe, whence he was to sail for the distant New World, he wrote as follows to his mother:

"Most Honored Mother: It would be in violation of the first point of duty of a good son towards a good mother if, when ready to embark at sea, I did not bid you a last farewell. I wrote to you last month from Rouen, by Mr. Tanzeau, that I sailed from Dieppe, from which we expected to clear about Holy Week; but contrary winds, and the weather, which has been unfavorable, have detained us until now, without permitting us to sail. I hope that God will give us a good and happy voyage, both because a number of vessels are going together, and because especially a great many persons most pleasing to God are praying for us. Endeavor also, if you please, to contribute something by your prayers to the safety of our voyage, and chiefly by a generous resignation of your will to that of God, conforming your desires to those of the Divine Goodness, which can be only most holy and honorable to us, since they spring from the heart of a Father full of love for our welfare.

"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 one son only, 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?

"Good by, dear Mother. I thank you for all the affection which you have ever 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!

"Present my most humble recommendations to my brothers and sisters, to whose prayers, as to yours, I commend myself in heart and love.

"Your most humble son and obedient servant in Our Lord,


"Dieppe, April 6, 1636.

"P.S. We sail tomorrow, please God—that is to say, the second Sunday after Easter, or Monday morning at latest. Our vessels are already out in the harbor. My affectionate excuses if I do not write to Mr. Houdelin."

The autograph of this letter is still preserved in the family of Jogues, where it is treasured as a relic of the blessed martyr.