St. René Goupil

Courtesy of Jesuit SourcesA few Catholic saints were physicians. One of the better known is the evangelist Luke, the namesake for many health institutions. Another physician-saint is St. René Goupil, the first of the eight Canadian Martyrs who are celebrated in Canada on September 26.  

René Goupil was a young man of great desire, reminiscent of the rich young man who asked Jesus, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” The man in the Gospel goes away sad because he could not let go of his possessions. René was a man with similar desire. But, he did not go away. He had a firm determination to serve the poor. Regardless of the obstacles, he served Christ to the moment of martyrdom.

René was born in Anjou, France in 1608 and studied medicine. While working in a Paris hospital with the impoverished sick, he felt he could help them better as a Jesuit Brother.

He entered the Jesuit novitiate in Paris in 1639, but because of his poor health and deafness, he was asked to leave after a few months. Those in charge of his formation probably had doubts about his ability to be apostolically effective. Little did they know the strength of René’s desire to serve the poor!

As a novice, René heard accounts of the French Jesuits who were serving as missionaries in the faraway lands of New France. Their efforts relied on donnés (given men).

René Goupil volunteered to share in the work of the Jesuit missionaries, promising to obey the Jesuit superior, working without a salary, and living a celibate life.

In 1640, he travelled to New France to help in the colony of Quebec, a place that in the 1600s was far removed from the comparatively cosmopolitan culture of France.

He helped as a skilled and dedicated doctor at a hospital in Sillery, Quebec, but felt a deeper vocation to follow the Lord.

Fr. Isaac Jogues was in Quebec in the summer of 1642. He asked René Goupil to return with him further into the wilderness, at Sainte Marie near Lake Huron, and bring medical care to the Huron tribe.

Conscious of his desire to exercise a greater service, René agreed to Jogues’ request. They left and on August 2, the Mohawks attacked the canoes carrying Isaac Jogues, René Goupil, and the Hurons. They were captured and beaten up badly before being taken to Mohawk territory in upstate New York.

Despite the cruelty, torture and humiliations he experienced in captivity, René Goupil took care of both sides.

We read in Fr. Jogues’ account that René “… dressed [the wounds] of other persons – the enemies who had received some blow in the fight, as well as the prisoners themselves … and all that with as much charity as if he had done it to persons very friendly.”

It was 34-year old René’s actions in captivity that caused his martyrdom on September 29, 1642. On one occasion, he made the sign of the cross on a child. Assuming this was a curse, the grandfather grabbed the child and said that René should be killed. Not long after, René was attacked and killed as he and Jogues were praying.

Fr. Jogues wrote his superior about the death of René and stressed how he deserved to be called one of the Martyrs of the Church. He described René as a young man “of unusual simplicity and innocence of life” with “the purity of an angel.” He “showed a most uncommon patience and gentleness [and] dedicated his life, his heart, and his hands to the service of the poor.”

A few days before his death, René spoke of his lingering desires to take vows as a Jesuit. Jogues was so impressed by René that he accepted his vows as a Jesuit Brother. He died as the first of the Canadian Martyrs who were canonized in 1930.

St. René Goupil is a patron saint of Canada. He is also a patron of anaesthetists and the deaf.

Because of his background, he was chosen as the namesake for the Jesuit infirmary located near Toronto.

René Goupil House is for Jesuits who need nursing care. Even in illness, they have a ministry to pray for the needs of the Church.

It seems so appropriate that these men who have spent their lives in ministry to God’s people would have as their patron a young man who lived his ministry desires despite his own sufferings in ill health and martyrdom.

Philip Shano, SJ has many years of rich and varied experience working with Ignatian spirituality: teaching, writing and using it in his ministry. He resides in the Jesuit community in Pickering, Ontario.

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