Today is the Feast of the North American Martyrs, 8 Jesuit missionaries (Priests and Oblates) who were killed between the years of 1642 and 1649 in modern day regions of New York and Ontario. They were canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930. Most of the time they're called by the collective term, "The North American Martyrs", though the crowd who attends daily Mass may recognize them as "Sts. Isaac Jogues, John deBrebeuf and their Companions." The way my life works, I'd be one of the companions: just as dead, not remembered.
So since these are our martyrs, with this feast day which is only celebrated here in the United States and Canada, it's good to remember what our brothers endured to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When the Priest wears red vestments to commemorate martyrs, it's meant to get the Mass attendees to ask themselves, "Would I have the same trust and courage as the martyr(s)", not "Is that red more of a maroon or a burgundy?"
So, thanks to Butler's Lives of the Saints (Revised and Updated), let's remember what these martyrs endured:
Rene Goupil was the first to die on September 29, 1642. He was tomahawked to death for making the sign of the cross on the brows of some children, while being a prisoner of the Iroquois with Isaac Jogues (see below). Goupil had entered the Jesuit novitiate, but left because of bad health. He later studied surgery and went to Canada to help the missionaries as an Oblate (a lay brother).
Fr. Isaac Jogues and Jean Lalande were ambushed on the evening of October 18, 1644. While on a visit to villages in Ossernenon (modern day Auriesville, N.Y.), Jogues was ambushed and beheaded, his head placed on a pole facing the route from which he came. The following day Lalande was beheaded and his body thrown into the river. Lalande was a Jesuit oblate. Jogues had been in the missions since 1636, and had already had a close call when he was captured while on a trip with Goupil to Quebec for supplies. They were beaten to the ground, assailed with knotted sticks, had their hair, beards, and nails torn off and their forefingers bitten off. Amazingly he survived and was freed through the efforts of Dutch colonists. He returned to France a bit of a hero and took the first opportunity he could get to return to Canada (in the days when liturgical law was very specific that the Priest had to hold the Host with his thumb and forefingers, it is said that Jogues asked for and received a dispensation so that he could still celebrate Mass without the necessary digits). He became involved in negotiating peace between the Iroquois, the Hurons, and the French, when he and Lalande were attacked.
Fr. Antony Daniel had just finished celebrating Mass for the Christian Hurons on July 4, 1648, when Iroquois attacked their village at Teanaustaye. Fr. Daniel was surrounded on all sides, shot with arrows until dead, stripped and then thrown into the small church which they set on fire.
Fr. Jean de Brebeuf and Fr. Gabriel Lalement were tortured and killed in an attack on March 16, 1649. as Fr. De Brebeuf started preaching to his attackers, they gagged his mouth, cut off his hose, tore off his lips, then mocked baptism by pouring huge amounts of boiling water on their bodies. Think that's enough? No. As Butler's relates: "large pieces of flesh were cut out of the bodies of both the priests and roasted by the Indians, who tore out their hearts before their death by means of an opening above the breast, feasting on them and on their blood, which they drank while it was still warm."
Fr. Charles Garnier was in a mission he helped found called Saint-Jean. In 1649 the mission was attacked. Rather than flee, Fr. Garnier stayed to absolve the dying and baptize those he was instructing to become Christians. While trying to reach a dying man, Fr. Garnier was shot. When he still tried to reach the dying man, he was attacked with a hatchet which pierced his brain.
Fr. Noel Chabnel was in the next mission over from Saint-Jean when they heard the attackers coming. He urged everyone to flee, but was too weak to keep up with them. Years later it was discovered that he was killed by the advancing Iroquois.
So what can we learn? I like to think of these guys when I'm throwing myself a "pity party" or having a genuinely bad day. It's that "You think you have it bad?" moment that shocks me into reality. We Priests have it pretty good, compared to many of our people and even other Priests in mission territory around the world. The first reading for the Mass for these martyrs says, "For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Cor. 4) If they can lose a finger, we can go pray or read or visit the sick or (if you're married) spend time with your spouse and kid(s).
To walk in the footsteps of these saints, you've got two choices: Shrines to these martyrs exist in both Midland, Ontario, and Auriesville, New York. Check out the website for the Canadian Shrine for great photos of the relics of the saints (including the skull of St. Jean de Brebeuf).