Isaac Jogues: Missionary and Martyr - Martin J. Scott


On his return from the embassy, Jogues was assigned temporarily to duties in Montreal. While he was there Father Lalemant discussed with his counsellors the advisability of undertaking the Mohawk mission, to which Jogues had been previously assigned. The recent treacheries of these savages made it very doubtful if this was a propitious time to inaugurate the mission among them. However it was eventually decided to make the attempt. Jogues was accordingly notified to prepare for this perilous apostolate.

Just before his departure on this charge, Jogues wrote as follows to a fellow Jesuit in France:

"Alas, my dear Father, when shall I begin to love and serve Him whose love for us had no beginning? When shall I begin to give myself entirely to Him who has given Himself unreservedly to me? Although I am very miserable, and have so misused the graces Our Lord has given me in this country, I do not despair, as He takes care to render me better by giving me new occasions to die to self, and to unite myself inseparably to Him. The Iroquois have come to make some presents to our Governor to ransom some prisoners he held, and to treat of peace with him in the name of the whole country. It has been concluded, to the great joy of the French. It will last as long as pleases the Almighty.

"To maintain it, and see what can be done for the instruction of these tribes, it is here deemed expedient to send some Father. I have reason to think I shall be sent, having some knowledge of the language and country. You see what need I have of the powerful aid of prayers, being amidst these savages. I will have to remain among them—almost without liberty to pray; without Mass; without Sacraments —and be responsible for every accident among the Iroquois, French, Algonquins and others. But what do I say? My hope is in God, who needs not us to accomplish His designs. We must endeavor to be faithful to Him, and not spoil His work by our shortcomings. I trust you will obtain for me this favor of Our Lord, that, having led so wretched a life till now, I may at last begin to serve Him better.

"My heart tells me that if I have the happiness of being employed in this mission, I shall go never to return; but I shall be happy if Our Lord will complete the sacrifice where He has begun it, and make the little blood I have shed in that land the pledge of what I would give from every vein of my body and my heart. In a word, this people is 'a bloody spouse to me'—'in my blood have I espoused it to me.' May our good Master, who has purchased them in His blood, open to them the door of His Gospel, as well as to the four allied nations near them. Adieu, dear Father; pray to Him to unite me inseparably to Him.


He left Montreal for Quebec in August, and spent about a month there in preparation, embarking for the Mohawk country September 27th. John de Lalande, a young Frenchman, a donne, accompanied him; besides some Hurons who were in charge of the canoes and baggage. They had not gone far when the Hurons, except one, deserted. Nothing daunted, Jogues pushed on amidst tremendous difficulties and dangers.

Meanwhile a great change had come over the Iroquois. Since Jogues' departure from them dreadful scourges had afflicted the Mohawk country. First came a contagious disease which claimed many victims. Following that was a plague of worms which destroyed nearly all the crops. In their superstitious fears they attributed these scourges to witch-craft due to the presence among them of Jogues' box of mission goods. Their medicine-men—envious of the power exercised over their nation by Jogues, and wishing to destroy his influence, and to prevent his promised ministry among them—fanned these suspicions into a flame. In consequence, the savages threw the chest with its contents into the river, and, believing Jogues to be the author of their misfortunes, were so much embittered against him that his life would have been taken if he had been among them. For a month previous to the coming of Jogues the feeling against him was so strong that the chief feared that it could not be controlled if he came at this juncture.

In this crisis two factions sprung up; one wishing to stand by the treaty, the other determined on war. The war party prevailed. They declared that the French, Hurons and Algonquins had plotted the ruin of their nation and that consequently they must be destroyed. Immediately a band of savages started on the war-path, Montreal being their objective. Another aimed at Fort Richelieu, and on the way thither this band met Jogues two days' march from Ossernenon. Falling upon the missioner and his companions they stripped them of their clothes, grossly insulted them and led them captive to the town where Jogues had already spent so many long months in suffering and slavery.

They arrived at Ossernenon October 17, 1646. Immediately they were insulted in every possible way. Threats of death rang in their ears. Blows from fists and clubs rained upon them. One enraged savage sliced pieces of flesh from Jogues' back and arms, and devoured them before his eyes, saying: "Let us see if this white meat is the flesh of a spirit!" To which Jogues replied: "No, I am only a man like you all, but I fear neither death nor torments. Why do you put me to death? I have come to your country to cement peace, make the earth solid, and teach you the way to heaven, and you treat me like a wild beast! Fear the chastisement of the Master of life." But the threats continued: "You shall die tomorrow: do not fear, you shall not be burned; your heads shall fall beneath our tomahawks, and we will set them upon the palisades around our village to show them for many a day to your brethren whom we capture."

A division meanwhile arose among the savages regarding the fate of Jogues. One of the factions, the Wolf and Tortoise families, was for saving the prisoner, and made every effort to do so. "Kill us," they pleaded with their opponents, "rather than butcher in this way men who have done us no harm, and who came to us by faith in a treaty." But the Bear family was insistent on death, and eventually prevailed. However as there was question of the sacredness of a treaty, final action was deferred until a great council of the sachems of the nation should pronounce on the matter.

Accordingly the sachems and chiefs assembled at Tionnontoguen, the largest Mohawk town, to deliberate on the fate of the missioner and his companions. As a result of this deliberation the peace party prevailed, and it was decided that life and liberty should be granted to the prisoners. But some of the Bear family, suspecting that the council would declare in favor of the captives, decided to take matters in their own hands before the decision of the council was announced. Accordingly in the evening of October 18th the conspirators sought out Jogues, and invited him to their cabin to partake of some food. Although the missioner had his misgivings regarding the invitation he humbly followed them. On the way he offered his life in sacrifice for the conversion of the savages, if it should please God to accept it. He was desirous of fertilizing with his blood the Faith which he proclaimed by word and deed.

Always prepared for a treacherous blow from the savages, he was particularly so now, as he observed their sullen attitude towards him as they walked before and behind him, exchanging glances full of sinister meaning. He was more willing to die than they were to inflict death. Not that he did not dread torture. He was thoroughly human and most sensitive to pain. But as Christ gave as proof of His love for us the laying down of His life by the pain and shame of crucifixion, so was he desirous of giving the supreme proof of love in return. Jogues' sensitive nature made the least torture assume dreadful proportions. His delicate constitution made him shudder at the very thought of Indian cruelty. But notwithstanding his aversion to pain and death he cheerfully advanced to meet them, because he was a hero of the cross, a patriot of God's Kingdom on earth, a valiant knight of Christ.

Jogues was about to fall on the field of battle for Christ and His cause! The blow came suddenly but not unexpectedly. As he was entering the cabin the savage behind him struck him a blow with a tomahawk, which split his skull and caused him to fall dead in his tracks. His head was cut off immediately and placed on one of the palisades, the face turned in the direction of the road by which he had come. Treachery had done its work. The blow of the tomahawk had indeed ended the mortal life of the servant of God, but had opened to him the door of everlasting life.

The next day early in the morning, the young Frenchman John de Lalande followed Jogues to heaven by the same path. He and the Huron who had acted as guide were tomahawked and their bodies thrown into the river. Lalande, from religious motives only, had asked as a favor to be allowed to accompany Jogues on this expedition, knowing full well that martyrdom was most likely to be his portion. He, with Goupil, are evidences of the sublime virtue which characterized these lay-associates of the early missioners.

News of the death of Jogues and his companions was slow to reach the French. However, when the Mohawk bands began again their ambuscades, in the forests and along the rivers, the worst was feared concerning the missioner and his associates. While the colony was in hopes and fears regarding the fate of Jogues, their apprehensions were definitely confirmed by the tragic news of their frightful death. The Governor of New Netherland in a letter to the Governor of Canada gave the barest details of the 'Jesuit's death. Although the letter was written a few weeks after the martyrdom, it did not reach the French colony until some seven months later. It read as follows:

"Monsieur, Monsieur:

"I wrote a reply to that which you were pleased to honor me with by Father Jogues, dated May 15th, and I sent it to Fort Orange to deliver it to said F. de Jogues; but he not having returned as expected, it was not immediately sent. This will serve, then, to thank your Excellency for your remembrance of me, which I shall endeavor to return, if it please God to give me an opportunity. I send this through the Northern quarters, either by means of the English or Monsieur d'Aulnay, in order to advise you of the massacre of F. Isaac de Jogues and his companion, perpetrated by the barbarous and inhuman Maquaas, or Iroquois; as also of their design to surprise you, under color of a visit, as you will see by the enclosed letter, which, though badly written and spelled, will, to our great regret, give you all the particulars. I am sorry that the subject of this is not more agreeable; but the importance of the affair has not permitted me to be silent. Our minister above carefully inquired of the chiefs of this canaille their reasons for the wretched act, but he could get no answer from them but this, that the said Father had left, among some articles that he had left in their keeping, a devil, who had caused all their corn or maize to be eaten up by worms. This is all I can at present write to your Lordship. Praying God to vouchsafe to guard you and yours from this treacherous nation, and assuring you that I am,

"Your most humble and obedient servant,


"Fort Amsterdam, in New Netherland, November 14,1646."

Inclosed in this letter, was one addressed to La Montagne, a Huguenot doctor at Manhattan, by Labatie, the Dutch interpreter at Fort Orange. Although it is a repetition of much that we have already learned we present it for its quaint narrative of the events and of the warning it gave the colonists.

"Monsieur, Monsieur La Montague:

"I have not wished to lose this occasion of letting you know my state of health. I am in good health, thank God, and pray God that it may be so with you and your children. I have not much more to tell you, but how the French arrived the seventeenth of this present month at the Maquaas fort. This is to let you know how these ungrateful barbarians did not wait till they were fairly arrived at their cabins, where they stripped all naked, without shirt, only they gave each a breech-cloth.

"The very day of their coming they began to threaten them, and immediately with fists and clubs, saying: 'You shall die tomorrow! Do not be astonished, we shall not burn you; take courage; we shall strike you with an axe, and put your heads on the palisade, that your brothers may see you yet, when we take them.' You must know that it was only the Bear nation that killed them. Know that the Wolf and Tortoise tribes have done all that they could to save their lives, and said against the Bear, 'Kill us first'; but, alas, they are no longer alive. Know then that the eighteenth, in the evening, they came to call Isaac to supper. He got up and went away with the savage to the Bear's lodge; as entering the lodge, there was a traitor with his hatchet behind the door. On entering, he split open his head, and at the same time cut off his head and put it on the palisade.

"The next morning early he did the same thing with the others, and threw their bodies into the river. Monsieur, I have not been able to know or hear from any savage why they killed them. Besides this, according to their envy and enterprise, they are going with three or four hundred men to try and surprise the French, to do the same as they did to the others; but God grant they don't accomplish their design. It would be desirable that Monsieur should be warned, but there is no way to do it from here. Monsieur, I have no more to write, but I remain

"Your very humble and affectionate servant and friend,


"Monsieur, I beg you to present my compliments to the Governor.

"Written at Fort Orange, Oct. 30, 1646."

The death of Jogues was roundly condemned by the majority of the Mohawks, who regarded it as a violation of their pledged word of peace. The principal sachem declared: "That blow of the tomahawk can bring us only misfortune." Kiotsaeton so strongly condemned the crime as to draw down upon himself the hatred of the Bear clan. One of the Mohawks who was near by at the time of the butchery, tried in vain to prevent it, and in his attempt to ward off the blow received a wound in the arm. This man acted out of gratitude to the French, who had saved his life when he was a prisoner of the Algonquins.

It may have been in consequence of a sense of guilt and also with the hope of obtaining reward that the Mohawks, after the slaying of Jogues, carried some of his effects to the Dutch settlement. It was in this way that the missal, ritual, cassock and other clothings of the martyr came into the possession of his brethren.

The slayer of Jogues had not long to wait for the punishment of his cowardly crime. The very next year he was captured by the Algonquins and condemned to torture and death. While he was awaiting the execution of the sentence the missioners did their best to prepare him for his fate. Some days before his death he described the killing of Jogues so graphically that the Fathers suspected him of being a party to it. Indeed he as much as admitted it, for when confronted by the charge he hung his head in shame and did not deny it.

Meanwhile a Huron who had escaped from the Mohawks and knew the details of Jogues' slaying, on seeing this Mohawk exclaimed: "That is the man who tomahawked the Father!" The culprit admitted it, and, to his credit, bitterly lamented his dastardly act. He showed such a spirit of repentance and such a desire to embrace the religion of his victim that he was baptized, taking the name of Isaac. He went to his frightful death with fortitude and Christian resignation, the result no doubt of the prayers of the saintly martyr whose crown he was instrumental in conferring.

Throughout the colony Jogues was looked upon as a martyr. Perhaps this sentiment regarding the servant of God is nowhere better expressed than in the Relation of 1647, in which the Superior of the mission, Father Jerome Lalemant wrote as follows: "We have regarded this death as the death of a martyr. Although we were separated from one another when we learned it, several Fathers, without any previous consultation, found that they could not bring themselves to offer a Requiem Mass for him, but they offered the adorable sacrifice in thanksgiving for the benefits which God had bestowed upon him. Seculars who knew him best, and religious houses also, respected this death, and were all inclined to invoke him rather than pray for his soul.

"In fact, it is the thought of several learned men —(and this thought is more than reasonable)—that he is really a martyr in the eyes of God, who bears testimony before heaven and earth, and who esteems the Faith and the preaching of the Gospel more than his own life, losing it in the perils into which he plunges for Christ's sake, protesting before His face that he wishes to die in order to make His name known. This is a martyr's death in the sight of the angels. And it was with this view that Father Jogues gave his life to Jesus Christ and for Jesus Christ.

"I say even more: he not only took the means to proclaim the Gospel, which caused his death; but we can also aver that he was killed out of hatred for the doctrine of Christ. In fact, the Algonquins, persuaded by their captives, have had, and some of them still have, an extreme hatred and horror of our doctrine, saying that it causes their death, and contains charms and spells, which cause the destruction of their grain, and produce contagious and epidemic diseases, such as now begin to ravage the Iroquois.'

"It is on this ground that we have been on the point of being massacred in every place where we have been, and even at present we are not without the hope of enjoying that happiness some day. Now, just as formerly in the primitive Church, the children of Jesus Christ were reproached with causing misfortunes everywhere, and some were put to death on that pretext; so are we persecuted because by our doctrine, which is only that of Jesus Christ, we depopulate their countries, as they assert, and i~ was on this pretext that they put Father Jogues to death. We may therefore regard him as a martyr before God."

What the devout head of the mission then wrote, Holy Church has since confirmed by raising these martyrs of the Mohawks to the honors of her Altar, and conferring on them the title of Blessed.