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Pere Isaac Jogues came to the New World in 1636. He came to Quebec, by ship across the Atlantic, then by boat down the St. Lawrence to the small trading village, but his mission was to the Huron Indians far to the west, in what is today known as Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. He was a Jesuit priest who asked Jesus to make him a man after His own heart, and Jesus answered his prayer abundantly.
The Huron people were people of the longhouse. The women grew maize in their villages in the fertile land they controlled, and the men hunted and trapped. They traded furs with the French, and when a group of them arrived at Quebec for that purpose, they agreed to take Pere Isaac back with them to their villages. Travel to the land of the Huron was not easy for the Frenchman. He was unused to crouching in a birchbark canoe for hours and had no skill with the paddle. He found it difficult to make himself useful when they camped each night, but he was able to cut wood for the fire with his hatchet.
The Huron people wished to remain friends with the French. French policy was to trade for guns only with Indians who were Christian, so they had an incentive to listen to the Jesuits, especially as their mortal enemies, the Iroquois, could easily obtain guns from the Dutch and the English. Pere Isaac arrived in a village that already had an established mission headed by Pere Jean de Brebeuf. Life in the mission was difficult, but it was a life Pere Isaac embraced. He and the other “Blackrobes,” as the Jesuits were called, sought to minister to people’s bodies as well as their souls, but because of many contagious diseases afflicting the Huron at that time, mostly from their contact with European germs but also because of their smoke-filled and oppressive longhouse life, distrust grew among the people. Rumors were spread from Indians who had contact with the Dutch or English that the Blackrobes were wicked and that they ate human flesh. After an initial success with conversions, the Blackrobes found themselves facing hostility and even threats for their lives.
Pere Isaac determined to go on a further mission to a group of people associated with the Huron called the Tobacco People, who were even poorer than the Huron people. They had also heard the rumors about the Blackrobes and determined to have nothing to do with them. In spite of opposition, the Blackrobes persevered and established a mission near what is today Midland, Ontario, in 1639, and Pere Isaac was placed in charge of it. Thousands of Hurons were baptized at the mission over the next several years.
In 1642, Pere Isaac was traveling back to the mission with thirty or so Christian Indians who were coming with him to serve as lay missionaries among their people when the group was attacked by a war band of fierce Mohawks, members of the Iroquois nation. The Mohawks quickly overcame the Hurons. Some Hurons escaped, Pere Isaac with them, but the others were captives. Pere Isaac, hiding safely among reeds, knew he had escaped detection, but the realization that his friends and brothers would be captives and slaves of their enemies drove him to stand up and join his friends.
As the Mohawk returned to their village with their captives, they passed through other villages. In each one, the captives were forced to run the gauntlet, which means that each prisoner had to run through double lines of Mohawks who spat, kick, jeered, hurled stones, and tortured them in creative ways. When they reached their own village, they decided not to kill Pere Isaac, but they nearly starved him to death. He had little clothing and shelter to face the long winter, and his friend Rene Goupil, a lay brother, had been cruelly killed after teaching little children the Sign of the Cross, which was seen as possible sorcery, and left for dogs to gnaw. Pere Isaac crawled through the ravine where Rene’s body had been tossed, looking for the remains in order to bury them.
After years of this torture, during which Pere Isaac’s hands were mangled by having some of his fingers chewed to the bone and some of his fingers burned off, he attracted the attention of a Mohawk matriarch, who became his “auntie,” and protector. She allowed a Dutch minister, a dominie, from the settlement in what is today Albany, to offer to help Pere Isaac escape, but he refused to leave his fellow captives. A year or so later, however, after Pere Isaac was able to get a letter to the French to warn them of the treachery of the Mohawks, and most of the Huron captives had already escaped, Pere Isaac realized it was time to go.
With his auntie’s and the dominie’s help, he got to a Dutch ship at anchor in the Hudson that took him to New Amsterdam, where he was given charity and cared for with honor until a vessel arrived that was heading back to Europe. After getting to England, he took a coal vessel to France, where he made his way, unannounced, to the Jesuit college at Rennes. The amazement of his brothers, who did not know if he was alive or dead, was great. It grew even greater when they realized he wished to go back to Canada as a missionary.
Because of Pere Isaac’s mangled hands, he could not follow the rubrics, or correct actions, of the Mass, that have to do with how the priest holds the Eucharist, so Pope Urban VII gave him a special dispensation as a living martyr to alter the rubrics and hold the Blessed Sacrament in his remaining fingers.
The war between the Huron and the Iroquois had continued to rage during Pere Isaac’s captivity, but after a peace treaty was negotiated in 1645, he returned in 1646 with a group of missionaries to the Mohawk village where he had been a captive on the banks of the Mohawk river 4o miles from Albany. However, the Mohawk people had turned away from peace, and in spite of his auntie’s continued attempts to protect him, Pere Isaac was killed on October 18, 1646. His fellow priest Pere Jean Lalande was martyred the next day when he attempted to retrieve his friend’s body.
At the end of the summer of 1647, a group of French and Algonquins met a war party of Mohawks. One Mohawk warrior was captured, and it came out that he was the man who had killed Pere Isaac. On September 17, 1647, he sought baptism and took the name Isaac Jogues as his baptismal name.
Today you can visit the site of the Mohawk village where Rene Goupil, Isaac Jogues, and Jean Lalande were martyred, the Shrine of the North American Martyrs at Auriesville. St. Kateri Tekakwitha was born in this same village several years after their deaths. This day, October 19, is the Feast of the North American Martyrs, including St. Rene Goupil, St. Jean Lalande, and St. Isaac Jogues. May they pray for us!