The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs – A Conversation: Part One


The Canadian Jesuit Martyrs were formally declared saints in June 1930.  They joined the company of Thomas More, John Bosco, and Thérèse of Lisieux, who were also canonized during the pontificate of Pius XI (1922-1939).

During the almost three-hundred year gap between the complex events that led to the deaths of René Goupil, Isaac Jogues, Jean de la Lande, Antoine Daniel, Jean de Brébeuf, Gabriel Lalemant, Charles Garnier, and Noël Chabanel and their canonization, their story has been exploited by many within the Jesuit and broader Catholic world.

In her award-winning book, The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs, historian Emma Anderson explores all the available documentary evidence in gruesome blood-drenched detail. She also illustrates how the story of these Martyrs continues to be reinterpreted in strikingly different ways and for very different reasons.

Kevin Burns met with Emma Anderson in her office at the University of Ottawa, where she is a professor of Classics and Religious Studies. This is the first of two excerpts from their conversation.

KB: Emma Anderson, you are an analytical, critical, document-scouring historian. Your subjects in this book are members of the ‘communion of saints.’ Does writing about the canonized make a difference?

Emma Anderson. Source: the author.

EA: I feel strongly that one of the most important aspects of historical research is intuition, imagination, and empathy, because if you don’t have intense curiosity, bordering on the almost licentious about people in the past, how do you bring their humanity, front and centre?

I think it is inevitable that if you spend years of your life trying to transcribe people’s Latin and French, and their horrible scribbly writing, you definitely get a sense of them as a person. You can call it mystical, you can call it supernatural, but it’s clearly beyond that because this is not only a Catholic thing. I definitely feel as close to all the indigenous people I have investigated as I do to all of my Jesuit protagonists. And yes, sometimes this relationship is strained, if one can say that about a person who has been dead for three-hundred years.

You want to say to Paul Ragueneau, Brébeuf’s Jesuit superior, ‘Don’t do that! You’re just going to make everybody mad!’ Or ‘Oooh! I wouldn’t make that claim. It’s arrogant, and pride is going to come before a fall here!’

As a historian, you already know what’s happening. It’s like when you are watching a movie that you’re really involved in and you start to warn the characters, ‘Don’t go down to the basement, just because you thought you heard something!’”

KB: But you are not writing fiction and these characters are ‘certified’ members of the communion of saints.

EA: I think it’s about trying to put yourself in the place of people in the past or listening to the people of the past without putting yourself in their place. It’s about listening. It’s about reading and sitting with things. This is profoundly out of fashion, today.Source:

We live in a world where people aren’t encouraged any more to become more like cows that ruminate, that have several stomachs, and that chew and think and think and think, and sit and sit and sit. No. We are squirrel people. We tweet and snapchat everything the minute we have even the most unformed thought. We put it all out there, instantly.

I think that sitting with the works of people who lived a long time ago demands time and contemplation, especially when you are dealing with these particular people, because for them, it’s not over. It’s not about the past. They are not dead, especially these Jesuits. It’s about their afterlives because it was not all over with the events of 1649, and with these Jesuits who were later elevated to the altars.

No, it’s all about what happens in that much longer period since they have been dead. Even for Jean de Brébeuf, who was in the Canadian mission field for almost thirty years, he’s been dead a lot longer than he was alive. Yet, as I always remind my students, Catholicism negates death. It’s really much more of a veil than a ‘hard’ stop.

What makes Brébeuf so fascinating, along with the other Martyrs, is that they really are not dead. Their agency is not extinct in Catholic belief. In fact, if anything, they have been getting even more busy since their arrival in heaven than when they were on earth. It’s simply that they have changed their allegiance from Church Militant to Church Triumphant.

Hear an audio clip of Emma Anderson as she says more about “militant” and “triumphant” thinking in the attitudes of Catholics in the 16th Century and Catholics today.

Runs: 1:03

They are always making their agency, their voices, and their wishes known through miracles, through inspiring other religious figures, like Catherine de Saint-Augustine, who is one of coolest early Canadian figures. I don’t know if we would have had the cult of the Jesuit Martyrs without her.

KB: Hang on! We’ll get back to her a little later! This book of yours tells a foundational, Canadian story. It’s a deeply theological story. It involves waring first-nations, colonization, settlement, and submission, and conflict after conflict, and death …

EA: It’s like a big lasagne! You have all these layers for meaty interpretation that you have to deal with. There are also layers of subjectivity, because, if you are a believing Catholic, you will believe that the Martyrs are still up there, and that they still have an agenda. And then, you also have to deal with other more human interpreters.

What I found writing this book is how the Martyrs’ cult continues to be transcribed into the tenor of the times, through different successive eras. In 19th century, in clerical-nationalist Quebec, the story is about the Martyrs’ suffering and, in a way, these Jesuit Martyrs become French Canada: vanquished, bloodied, but ultimately victorious morally. They are put to death, but they triumph in a kind of re-writing in a French-Canadian guise of the story of Christ. One does not “lose” by losing, if one is following that kind of alter-Christus story.

Then, in the Canada of the 1940s, 50s and 60s it is re-written again. It becomes a story about the search for a national identity that anglophones, Catholics, and even Protestants find they can come together to embrace. For them, it’s a story about origins, a story about having a goal bigger than oneself.

And then, in the 1950s, it gets transformed once again. This time, into an anti-Communist, profoundly Cold War story, even to the point of using a term like ‘red’ and turning on it, to say: ‘The Jesuit Martyrs were the victims of the first red menace of the Iroquois, and we are once more victims of another red threat, this time Communism. What’s needed is for us to be inspired by their manliness, their heroism, their unfaltering alliance and faithfulness to eternal truths.’ That was the Canadian Martyrs’ message in the Canada of the 1950s.

This is an under-studied topic, for sure and it’s fun to read some of the elements in the writing from that era. They really eulogize the Jesuit Martyrs and try to employ them as Cold War warrior icons for people living under a Soviet threat, as ephemeral as that turned out to be. But it was a matter of thinking about nuclear annihilation and as you hid under your desk, said your rosary, and tried to think about Our Lady of Fatima, and of course, the Canadian Martyrs.

KB: Maybe we should finally turn to Catherine de Saint-Augustine to find out how she fits into all this. And we will do that in Part 2 of this conversation, when Emma Anderson compares American and Canadian “versions” of the Martyrs’ story, and brings the story forward to today.


Emma Anderson’s book, The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs is published by Harvard University Press. (2013) Her 2007 book, also published by Harvard University Press,  Betrayal of Faith: The Tragic Journey of a Colonial Native Convert, tells the story of an Innu man in the 17th century, Pierre-Anthoine Pastedechouan, who was brought to France for five years and then sent back as a missionary, where he taught Jesuit superior, Paul Le Jeune, the Montagnais language, and also found that he was unable to reconnect with is own people.

Ottawa-based author and editor, Kevin Burns is a frequent contributor to igNation. His latest book, Impressively Free – Henri Nouwen as a Model for a Reformed Priesthood and co-authored with Michael W. Higgins, has just been released by Paulist Press in the United States and by Novalis in Canada.

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 02:28h, 30 May Reply

    Thank you very much Kevin!

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