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

Blessed Catherine de Saint Augustin. Source:

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 second of two excerpts from their conversation.

KB: Okay, Emma Anderson, Catherine de Saint-Augustin is someone I met for the first time when reading your book, The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs. Who is she, and what is her role in the Martyr’s story?

EA: I don’t know if we would have had the cult of the Jesuit Martyrs without her. She is a very young woman, a young religious, living in Quebec and who, like everyone else, was oblivious to what was happening elsewhere at the time. I think was can think of her as a kind of team player with Paul Ragueneau, Superior of the Jesuits in Canada from 1650-1653. Although he was clearly very emotionally involved in the death of what, for him, were revered colleagues and friends, he was also a very forensic guy. He was thinking: what happened? Let’s see if we can cross-analyse this native testimony with what we are able to see. Let’s dig up and boil the bodies so we can take the bones with us. He was very focused on the past. Who had these men been? Had they died in the proper way? Could they be proved to have died as martyrs according to canonical requirements?

By contrast, Catherine de Saint-Augustin was more interested in the present and in the future. She had never met Jean de Brébeuf in life, but knew him through her encounters with him after his death. She claimed of being possessed, and then counter-possessed by his spirit, and that she experienced him as a kind of spiritual director after his death. She saw him as a confessor, someone who could offer her a sort of celestial communion.

I think that she was a true believer in the cult of the Martyrs. She carried a relic of Jean de Brébeuf around her neck. She would use this to try to convince others of the Martyrs’ potency and power, particularly Brébeuf’s, by grinding his bones into the soups that they would consume so that they might renounce Protestantism and that she could deliver them from horrible illnesses, and even release them demonic possession. She did not think of the Martyrs as being in the past tense, as if their best work was behind them. They were live spiritual forces who could continue, perhaps even more effectively now, as saintly super-heroes, in the heavenly court, who could work for the good of New France and for the redemption of those who had killed the Jesuits.

KB: You write in your book that in encouraging the beatification of the Martyrs, she paid particular attention to the details in the published Jesuit Relations.

EA: Yes. And these were highly effective documents. They were proto-ethnographic, proto-scientific analyses. They talked about the flora, fauna, the people: the different groups, what they believed, what they did, what their social relationships were like. They included incredibly nuanced descriptions of their social mores, physical appearance, make-up, tattoos, and hairstyles. There is this incredible precision. At the same time, the Relations are passionate and involved, and they ask for money, approval, and political support. They also ask for recruits. There are times when they ask if there are, perhaps, brave women in France who would like to come over, establish a hospital.

They realise early on that they needed women to talk to women and to do things that they could not do.

KB: But what were they really trying to do, these missionaries?

EA: They were trying to change indigenous culture and traditions by direct confrontation. They wanted monogamy, they wanted ‘good citizens’ – good loyal subjects of the French king. And they wanted a very exclusive form of Roman Catholicism.

They kept sharpening the message to reinforce that this was not ‘both and’ – you can’t just ‘plop’ Jesus into an animist stew. You had to choose one over the other. This is why there were certain rituals: you take the crucifix, then destroy the drum. You take the rosary, then destroy the medicine bag. It’s one or the other.

KB: If you were with the Hudson’s Bay Company, you might build a fort over a sacred site.

EA: Yes, except for the coureurs du bois. They didn’t have that at all. Now the Jesuits get a bad rap, but I think one thing that is under-emphasised is how much they used native virtues to upbraid people in France. ‘If the Christians were only half as generous or kind, open-hearted, and communalist as native people, then Roman Catholic Europe would be a much better place’ they would say. They wanted the native people to settle rather than be nomadic, agriculturalist rather than hunters. They wanted them to be completely assimilated Roman Catholics. It’s a completely different vision form the coureurs du bois, which was more ‘Let’s get along in our own way. Maybe these people have a point that animals have souls? Why can’t we learn from them as much as they learn from us?’

KB: What about today? What is the Martyrs’ story today?

EA: That’s different depending on whether you are in Quebec, Ontario, or upstate New York.

KB: How so?

EA: In Ontario the shrine at Midland, represents a kind of Catholic version of Canadian multiculturalism, with Filipinos, Tamils, Irish Catholics, and others. What happens there is a feast, a celebration of these somewhat bungling Jesuits who ended up getting killed. But the emphasis is more on their lives than their deaths. These are people who immersed themselves in other people’s lives, tried to demonstrate Catholic truths in ways that were refreshingly steeped in the idioms of indigenous people. We get the Huron Carol, even though the tune is an old French folk tune, and the wonderful imagery of the rabbit skin to warm the little baby probably came much later. Brébeuf’s original version was probably more about hell and damnation. Even so this is a way of thinking about the various ‘dialects’ in the way that Canadian Catholicism is spoken, and why they all matter. Even though the Martyrs’ deaths kind of get left out of this.

KB: What about that massive circular shrine at Auriesville, in New York State, on US side?

EA: This is much more traditional and much more triumphalist. It much more about holding firm to eternal verities. Many of the pilgrims I met are home-schoolers, with very large families, who reject Vatican II, birth control, and Catholic schools because they are too lukewarm. This is a very traditional, pre-Vatican II, Latin mass-dedicated group with very traditional gender roles.

There are so many ways of thinking about these martyrs and their legacy. The conservative way of thinking about them as triumphalist heroes who held the line in a difficult circumstance against people who wanted them dead and got their wish makes just as much sense as the liberal, Canadian, Ontarian appropriation of the story.

And just when we think we have figured it all out, enter the Quebec Jesuits, many of whom criticize the Jesuit Martyrs for not being ‘real’ martyrs, but people who had the chance to get out and didn’t. Or they were glory-hogs who only cared about getting to heaven themselves and who didn’t much care about the larger mission.

Source: the author

KB: I do know that members of various religious orders certainly squirm about actions of their brothers and sisters, decades if not centuries earlier. But rather than go down that path: It’s said that you can never tell a book by its cover, but this is certainly not the case with your book. Tell me about this cover image.

For Emma Anderson’s answer, click here on this 2:32 minute audio clip. One remarkable photograph with a very thoughtful analysis.


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 remarkable story of an Innu man in the 17th century, Pierre-Anthoine Pastedechouan, who was brought to France for five years before being sent back to Canada as a missionary, where he taught Jesuit superior, Paul Le Jeune, the Montagnais language, but 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, SJ
    Posted at 06:05h, 31 May Reply

    Thank you Kevin!

  • John Montague
    Posted at 08:24h, 01 June Reply

    This brings the Jesuit missionary endeavour of the seventeenth century to life. I especially appreciated the short audio explanation of the photograph in from of Jean de Brebuf’s tomb. Nothing historically is as one dimensional as it looks. We white folk have a lot to learn about our indigenous brothers and sisters. Thankyou for telling us about this research.

  • Robert Czerny
    Posted at 14:59h, 01 June Reply

    A fascinating account. Thank you for introducing me to the many facets and interpretations of the story of these Martyrs.

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