Isaac Jogues: Missionary and Martyr - Martin J. Scott

Learning the Language

The first essential in Jogues' missionary career among the Hurons was the learning of their language. We have seen how in his long journey from Quebec to St. Joseph he was as one isolated, unable to converse with them. During his convalescence he occupied his time by studying under the direction of Brebeuf, the language of the Indians, a language presenting immense difficulties to a European.

There was nothing in common between the French language and that of the Hurons. On the contrary everything about the Indian language was totally at variance with the French. Two missioners, who in France had excelled in every department of learning, were unable after great application to acquire a sufficient knowledge of Huron to preach in it. Moreover the Indians had no words to express many of the most essential religious ideas. Brebeuf had virtually to create a language to express Christian teaching. As instructor of Jogues he was amazed to find that his pupil advanced so rapidly in this new and difficult tongue. It was not long before Jogues could express himself fairly well in Huron. He was now ready for work as a missioner, but his Superior, fearing that the strength of his new assistant was not yet equal to the arduous labors of missionary journeys, assigned him to duties at headquarters, where he acted as manager of domestic affairs both in the residence and in the fields under cultivation. Both for their own maintenance, and for the instruction of the natives, the Fathers had introduced European gardening at the mission centers. And with gratifying success. From the wheat that was sown they made their own altar-breads, and from their vineyards they were able to produce mass-wine. Meanwhile the Indians were learning a way of obtaining food which would make them independent of the chase to a great extent, and enable them to live permanently in a place, which would facilitate their conversion and civilization.

To show the Indians that they intended to share their life, the missioners, as far as possible, accommodated themselves to the customs and food of the savages. Jogues was so successful in adapting himself to Indian ways that he seemed as much at home in his new surroundings as if he had been born in them.

However with all their adaptation and concession to native ways and means, the Fathers nevertheless lived their own religious life. The spirit of the cloister governed them as truly as it did their brethren in community life in far-off France. They had their regular rounds of spiritual duties, beginning with prayer and meditation at day-break, followed by Mass, the reading of the breviary and other pious exercises. The domestic and religious life of the missioners may be seen from abstracts drawn from their own records. The first is from Father Chaumonot who states in his autobiography: "Our dwellings are built of bark, like the Indians', without any interior partition, except for a chapel. For the want of tables and furniture, we eat on the floor and drink out of cups made out of bark. All our kitchen and refectory ware consists of a large bark platter filled with sagamite, which I can compare to nothing but the paste used for papering walls. We are not much troubled with thirst, for we never use salt, and our food is almost always liquid. Our bed consists of bark, on which we spread a blanket. As for sheets, we have none, even for the sick; but the greatest inconvenience is the smoke, which, for want of a chimney, fills up the whole cabin and ruins all that we wish to preserve. In certain winds it is unendurable, for it makes the eyes ache dreadfully. In winter nights we have no other light than that of our fire, by which we read our breviary, study the language, and do all that is needed. By day, the opening at the top of the cabin serves as a chimney and a window."

Part of the order of the day is thus described by Father Duperron, in a letter of April 27, 1639: "At four o'clock we dismiss the Hurons who are not Christians, and we recite together Matins and Lauds. Then we hold a consultation of three quarters of an hour on the progress or obstacles of the Mission. Then we take up the study of the language until half-past six, when we have supper. At eight o'clock the Litany and Examination of Conscience."

With his return to normal health Jogues began his actual missionary journeys. At first he went in company with one of the other missioners, and to near-by settlements. His work in the beginning was mainly with children, teaching them their prayers and the catechism, and baptizing those in danger of death. In the midst of these labors a plague struck the land affecting at first the village where the Fathers resided, but gradually spreading and threatening the whole nation. With limited means but abundant charity the missioners ministered to the plague-stricken, acting as servants, physicians and priests, wearing themselves out in their efforts to give comfort to the afflicted, and to halt the ravages of the disease. But in spite of their best efforts the plague made dreadful inroads on the natives, literally wiping out some villages, and so decimating the village where the Fathers resided that it was abandoned altogether, its remnant of people being dispersed among the other more fortunate villages.

Writing of the plague to his mother, Jogues says: "Although we were every day and all day near the dying, in order to gain them to Jesus Christ, and in spite of the pestilential air we breathed near them and around them, not one of us fell sick. After this we should prove ourselves truly ungrateful did we not thank the Lord for so visible a protection on His part, and did we not henceforward put all our trust in His paternal goodness."

The scourge was not without its blessing, however, as we learn from an extract of a letter from Jogues to his brother Samuel: "During the epidemic the Fathers baptized more than one thousand two hundred persons. Even in the village where they were the most exposed to the perversity of the people, there were always some anxious to follow the instructions of our Fathers; about one hundred have been regenerated in the waters of baptism, amongst them twenty-two little children."

The plague over, the Fathers were confronted with a plague of another kind which bade fair to wipe out entirely the fruits of their labors, and to bring destruction on themselves. Some Indians who had been among the English and Dutch settlers to the south, on their return spread dreadful reports about the missioners, saying that it was told them that these men brought calamity wherever they went and that they had in consequence been driven out of Europe. In their ignorance and superstition the Indians believed this report. Moreover, some wicked men among them, whose deceptions and evil practices the Fathers had disclosed, fanned these rumors into a flame which eventually threatened to become a conflagration. Everything the Fathers did was misconstrued. Articles of devotion and pious practices were regarded as so many charms, spells or incantations devised to bring on disease and death.

In terror the Indians went to the Fathers and begged them to desist from their destructive designs. From terror they passed to threats, until it seemed that no human power could stay their wrath as the plague persisted. Under these circumstances it is marvelous that the missioners, although defenseless, were not massacred. But amidst the most dreadful threatenings, and although the disease was carrying off the people on all sides, no hand was raised against those who were supposed to be the cause of all the calamity. Jogues was greatly impressed by this, as we may see from what he wrote to his mother: "God was far more powerful to protect those who for his glory had thrown themselves into the arms of His providence, than men were wicked to hurt them."

Meanwhile, turning their backs on the missioners, the Indians sought by their own superstitious practices to stop the ravages of the plague. They had recourse to the interpretation of dreams, to searching for the spell that was the source of the evil, to the arts of the medicine-man, and to grotesque and lascivious dances, performed for the purpose of banishing the evil spirit who was causing the plague. These and other forms of idolatry and demon-worship were a source of intense sorrow to the missioners, who in the present state of affairs were powerless to prevent them.

In fact the missioners were not allowed to enter an Indian village or hut, so great was the repugnance to them and their ministry. Jogues, in a letter to his mother, deplores this ban put upon their entrance to an Indian village: "It had become impossible for us to enter," he wrote, "and we had to endure the harrowing pain of seeing more than a hundred unfortunate people dying before our eyes who in vain entreated for our assistance."

The insults, privations and sufferings of the Fathers at that and subsequent periods constituted a bloodless but real martyrdom. That the missioners themselves so regarded it, is apparent from their own words. It is a well known saying that "The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians." With this in mind Father Jerome Lalemant declared: "I had my doubts at first whether we could hope for the conversion of this people without shedding blood. I must acknowledge that since I am here and witness what occurs every day—I mean the struggles, the general attacks and assaults of every kind, which the evangelical laborers encounter every day; and at the same time their patience, their courage, the unflinching pursuit of their aims—I begin to doubt whether any other martyrdom is requisite for the end for which we labor; and I have not the least doubt that many would be found who would rather feel at once the keen edge of a hatchet on their head, than endure for years a life such as we have to live here every day."

But the true missioner does not quail before axe, fire or maltreatment. He realizes that his Model and Leader, Christ, experienced misunderstanding, calumny and excruciating sufferings, and that the disciples should not look for better treatment than that 74) ?> of the Master. He knows that Christ endured pain and shame for him, and he willingly suffers pain and shame for love of His Lord and Master. When the missioner recounts the hardships of his lot he does not do it to lament or to complain, but rather to manifest the grace of God in him which enables him to render service and sacrifice at no matter what cost.

It was in the midst of the discouraging and painful circumstances of this time that Jogues had a most remarkable dream. It made such an impression on him that in after years he was able to relate it graphically to Father Ragueneau, who thus recorded it in the Relations of 1652:

"On Tuesday, May 4, 1637, the eve of the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ, while, after dinner, I was studying the Huron language with Father Chastellain, I felt overcome by sleep, and I begged him to allow me a moment of rest. He advised me to visit the chapel, and rest a while before the Blessed Sacrament, remarking that he was in the habit of doing so, and always to the benefit of his piety, and that in such sleep he had occasionally enjoyed celestial happiness. I arose, but thinking that I could not without irreverence sleep in the awful and adorable presence of Our Sovereign Lord, I went to the adjoining woods, much confused to know that others, even in their sleep, were more united with God than I in the very act of prayer.

"I had scarcely lain down, when I fell asleep and dreamed I was singing Vespers with the other Fathers and the domestics. On one side stood Father Peter Pijart, close by the door, and I was a little farther on. I do not know who were on the other side, or in what order. Father Pijart began the first verse of the psalm 'Give ear, O Lord! to my words.' As he could not continue it alone, we ended it with him. When the verse was ended, I seemed to be no longer in our cabin, but in a place I knew not, when all at once I heard verses sung (I forget which) which had reference to the happiness of the Saints, and the delights they enjoy in the kingdom of heaven.

"The chanting was so beautiful, and the melody of voices and instruments so harmonious, that I have no recollection of ever having heard the like, and it even seems to me that the most perfect concerts are nothing compared to it. To compare such harmony with that of earth would be insulting. Meanwhile this most admirable concert of the angels excited in my heart a love of God so great, so ardent, so burning, that, unable to bear such an overflowing of sweetness, my poor heart seemed to melt and dilate under this inexplicable wealth of divine love. I experienced this feeling especially as they sang the verse I so well remember, 'We will go into His tabernacle, we will adore in the place where His feet stood.'

"While yet half asleep, I began at once to think that it all was in accord with the words Father Chastellain had spoken to me. I awoke soon after, and all disappeared, but there lingered in my soul so great a consolation that its remembrance filled me with inexpressible delights. The fruit I have derived is, it seems to me, that I feel more drawn, for the love of Our Lord, to pant after the celestial country and eternal joys. Happy moment! Oh, how short! I do not think it lasted longer than it takes to recite a Hail Mary. 'If, O Lord! Thou dealest with us thus in our exile, what wilt Thou give unto us in our home?'" (St. Augustine.)

Jogues regarded this dream as a favor from heaven since its effect was to make him rejoice to suffer for Christ. Indeed he needed strength and courage from above to meet the ordeal which was awaiting him.