Saint of the Week: St. Jean de Brebeuf

First: Apologies for last week being saintless.

St. Jean de Brebeuf (1593-1649) was a Jesuit missionary and martyr.  I chose him because of St. Juvenaly (saint of Sept 17) and his claim to be “first Martyr of America.”  He is the first Eastern Orthodox martyr, no doubt.  However, the first actual martyr was probably a Jesuit in the Spanish possessions during the 16th century.  And St. Jean de Brebeuf precedes St. Juvenaly by over a century.  Plus, he did his missionary service in Canada.

Brebeuf was born in Normandy and joined the Jesuit order in 1617.  In 1625 he went to the French colony of Quebec and managed to be tolerated by the (unsurprisingly) Jesuit-wary inhabitants (some of whom were Protestant Huguenots, including his ship’s captain).  In Spring, he and another Jesuit set out to establish a mission among the Huron on Georgian Bay.  His companion was recalled and Brebeuf spent two years amongst the native inhabitants of Canada meeting little success.

Eventually, European needs prevailed for a bit and he returned to the struggling colony which was briefly surrendered by Champlain to the English in 1629.  All of the missionaries were deported back to France.  In 1633 he returned to Canada and Lake Huron, but the local people had no desire to hear the Gospel from this Jesuit.  He moved on with Fr. Daniel to his old mission and spent the next sixteen years trying evangelise the native people of Canada in that place.*

In 1642, after much physical hardship and little fruit, he returned to Quebec and began ministering to the people of the Reservation at Sillery.  In 1647, the Iroquois who had been at war with the French made peace with them but not with Huron.  This meant that the French missionaries were living in a war zone.

On March 16, 1649, the Iroquois captured Jean de Brebeuf and Gabriel Lallemant.  The Iroquois transported their captives to St. Ignace, a village they had already captured.  At St. Ignace, they were greeted with hurled stones and blows from clubs.  The two Jesuits were tied to stakes and burned to death.  Apparently, Brebeuf had scalding water poured over his head in a mock-baptism, was adorned by a necklace of red-hot tomahawk heads, and a red-hot iron was shoved down his throat.  When he finally died, apparently the Iroquois tore his heart from his breast and ate it.  Apparently he never uttered a groan throughout the ordeal.

He was canonised in 1930; his feast day was Monday, October 19.

My reflections on Brebeuf must begin with this: We should never make light of the sufferings endured by early settlers and missionaries in Canada.  Canada is very cold, and most of these people were French or English, both of which have milder winters than Canada.  When you consider as well the fact that they would have had much more primitive living conditions in Canada than back in the Old World, they no doubt suffered.  When we consider that Jesuits like Brebeuf and Lallemant were seeking to bring the Gospel to people who did not know it, then we can count these sufferings as suffering for the Gospel.

However, I wonder about the hostility of the indigenous peoples they encountered.  Was this truly hostility to the Gospel of the God of Love Who became man that men might become like God?  Or was this hostility to Europeans trying to enforce their ways of thinking and believing?  Was this hostility to the God of the Bible or to the God of European expansion?

Chief Thomas Fiddler writes the following in Killing the Shamen:

Did you ever see the big Bible, the first part?  I read of Genesis, about what Manitou did to create this world; what He did to make this earth and how he made light.  That’s what it says in the Bible.

The very first thing I said after reading this was: I believe that Manitou made the light.  I also believe that Manitou made every human being, birds, plants, animals and the fish.  I also believe he made the White man and the Indians.

Manitou gave ways of life to these humans, Indians and White men.

The very first time a minister came to see the Indians and all the things the Manitou gave the Indians for their way of life — as soon as the minister saw how the Indians lived, he told them to throw it all away. (pp. 60-61)

Cunningham . . . assaulted Robert Fiddler and the clan folk with the use of Timothy 1-15.  The powerful and insulting suggestion used on Robert Fiddler was that the law existed for the ungodly … for murderers of mothers … for manslayers .. for liars … for whoremongers … for sinners but ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  The effect of these verses was:  ‘Robert amongst others was greatly shaken up, came near a crash but got away.’  (125)

… the cruel words of Christianity directed through this missionary from an alien force somewhere beyond forests. (125)

The first Roman Catholic priest in New France once declared, “First these savages must be civilised, then they will be fit to receive the Gospel.”

I believe that St. Jean de Brebeuf, although his ministry no doubt suffered from a degree of cultural blindness (all ministry does) still died in service of the Gospel.  I do not think he was killed because of the Gospel.  I say this because the story sounds too much like an attempt to show how evil and savage these Indians were and that it would have to have been conveyed by the Huron, enemies of the Iroquois, who no doubt had every reason to vilify their opponents.

Nevertheless, as we try to open our eyes and be cured from cultural blindness, let us remember that we will all suffer for the Gospel in some way or another, and in that suffering we will be sharing in the sufferings of Christ, the apostles, the martyrs, missionaries like Brebeuf, and other Christians all around the world.

*However, if the Catholic Encyclopedia reflects his opinions on these “savages”, it is no surprise that they were repelled by a Gospel that did not celebrate who they were as people made in God’s image and who were beautiful and precious in His sight…