Jean de Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant – North American Jesuit Martyrs
March 16 is the anniversary of the martyrdom in 1649 of Saint Jean de Brébeuf and the next day is the anniversary for Saint Gabriel Lalemant. They are two of the North American Jesuit Martyrs. It is impossible for us to examine Canadian history without considering those martyrs. Let’s take a look at these two men.
Saint Jean de Brébeuf was born in Normandy, France on 25 March 1593 and entered the Jesuits at the age of 24. In 1625, a few years after being ordained to the priesthood, he sailed for Québec. It is ironic that his formation was shortened due to poor health, since the giant of the Huron missions would be recognized as the most robust of the blackrobes in the region of Huronia.
Brébeuf’s first missionary activity in New France was with the Algonquians. This helped orient him to indigenous ways. After that experience, he lived with the Huron (the Ouendat) and learned their customs and language, becoming expert enough to write a dictionary of the Huron language.
He also wrote the Huron Carol, a Christmas carol, a modified form of which is still sung today. Success at evangelization took tremendous patience. Brébeuf saw gradual results from his efforts at conversion and baptism. It was only toward the end of his life that he could use the word success, if we measure his impact in numbers.
Jean de Brébeuf possessed qualities that we associate with heroic personalities. He was charismatic in his influence on others – the Hurons and the Jesuits with whom he worked. For a while, he was the superior of the Huron mission. In him the other Jesuits found a mentor and from him they learned the ways of the Huron people, instruction in practical skills and the Huron language.
He was recognized for excellent judgement and for a discriminating observation of the people and land. Influence also came from his physical strength and gentle disposition. He paddled all day on long canoe voyages. Several times, he made the treacherous 800 mile canoe trek from Québec to the Huron territory, becoming one of the principal chroniclers of this route to the West.
He willingly carried the heaviest loads on the many portages. I was at times so weary that my body could do no more. But my soul was filled with great happiness as I realized that I was suffering this for God. The Huron name for Father Brébeuf was Échon, a word that means either healing tree or he who bears the heavy load, both meanings evoking qualities that Brébeuf shared with the Huron people.
The Apostle of the Hurons had entered the culture, manners, and customs of the people in a way that no white person before him had.
And then there was Gabriel Lalemant. He was born on October 31, 1610 in Paris, the third of six children of a gifted French lawyer. Religious commitment ran deep in the family. Five of the children entered religious life. After his mother was left a widow, she brought up her children with a strong sense of dedication.
She herself, after her children had grown and after Gabriel died a martyr’s death in New France, joined a religious community and devoted her last years to prayer and seclusion.
Gabriel became a Jesuit at the age of 19. He was the third of his family to join the Society of Jesus. His uncle Charles had travelled to New France with Jean de Brébeuf in 1625. Another uncle, Jérôme Lalemant, replaced Brébeuf as the superior and was instrumental in building Sainte-Marie, the ambitious central mission residence, and in introducing donnés to New France. Donnés, such as Saints René Goupil and Jean de la Lande, were committed laymen who assisted the Jesuit priests by performing a variety of services.
We know that hearing accounts of his uncles’ missionary activities had instilled a similar desire in Gabriel. After his ordination to the priesthood, he lived a successful academic life in France, but had a deep desire for the missions. At first, it was passed over by his superiors, partly because of Gabriel’s frail nature.
Eventually, they agreed with Lalemant and missioned him to New France. No doubt they were motivated by his obvious goodness, generosity and insistence.
Father Lalemant arrived in Québec in 1646 and helped with priestly ministry in and around Québec for two years. His uncle Jérôme sent him with a large party of Frenchmen and Hurons to Huronia two years later. He accomplished a great deal in the short seven months he spent in that region.
He was just beginning to gain proficiency in the difficult native language when he went to assist Jean de Brébeuf in February 1649. Neither could have known that they would have less than a month to labour side by side in their priestly ministry among the villages just east of Sainte-Marie.
By the 1640s, the Iroquois were at war with the Hurons. In March 1649, 1200 well-armed Iroquois captured two villages and took as prisoners Brébeuf and Lalement. They were taken to the village of St. Ignace, fastened to stakes, and tortured to death in a brutal manner,
Brébeuf being martyred on March 16 and his companion the next day. The former was nearly 56 years old and the latter just 39. Lalemant’s martyrdom came after just a few months with the Hurons. His martyrdom has given him the place of honour among the three Lalemants who served in 17th century New France.
It was his uncle Jérôme who broke the news of Gabriel’s death to his family in France. The martyrs were canonized in 1930 along with the other Jesuit Martyrs of North America. They are celebrated on September 26.
Even in death, Brébeuf had a charismatic influence on people: the Iroquois torturers cut out his heart and ate it in the hope of gaining the courage of this powerful man. The Huron mission died with Brébeuf, he who had begun it. This missionary was an apostle, a brave adventurer, a skilled writer, a careful ethnologist, a man of vision, and, finally, a martyr.
It is a basic human need to have heroes, people who inspire and are bigger than life. St. Jean de Brébeuf is one of those figures. He is a witness to gentleness and strength, humility and courage, a love of the cross of Christ and the effects of His resurrection. He was a quiet and effective leader.
We find many schools, summer camps, and parishes named for him. May he and his companion continue to be a role model for young people and for the Canadian Jesuits!