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(LifeSiteNews) – As Pope Francis visits Canada to honor the Indigenous people, the Canadian martyrs who shed their blood to serve Canada must not be forgotten. 

Among the many Canadian martyrs, the lives of St. Jean de Brebeuf and his companions stand out as men of courage who gave their youth, health, and lives for the peoples of Canada. 

The Jesuit Relations, letters written by the early missionaries in the 17th century, recount the joys, sufferings, and trials of the Jesuit missionaries who came to the untamed land of Canada.  

Serving and suffering for the Aboriginal peoples  

As new land was discovered in North America, young Jesuit priests eagerly volunteered to go minister to the Aboriginal peoples living in Canada. The Jesuit order sent many young missionaries who left the comforts of civilized life in France to journey to the wildlands of Upper Canada.  

One such young Jesuit, Jean de Brebeuf set out in 1625. He arrived in Quebec and set about establishing villages for the Huron peoples. Brebeuf was welcomed and befriended by the gentle Huron tribes, with whom he spent most of his time.  

Brebeuf gained the respect of the Huron tribes who named him “Echon” which means, “he who bears the heavy load.” He recalled, “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.” 

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Brebeuf studied long hours to learn the Huron language in order to better communicate. Brebeuf also created a written alphabet for the people so that they could write down their history.  

Explaining the need for missionaries to learn the Huron language, he wrote to his superior, “[f]or, if they are not versed in the language, they cannot sow, much less reap.” 

“I have tolerable skill in that language, but the others who are here are very proficient therein,” he continued. “Among the other jewels with which the laborer in this mission ought to shine, gentleness and patience must hold the first rank; and never will this field produce fruit except through mildness and patience; for one should never expect to force it by violent and arbitrary action.” 

Brebeuf, along with his fellow Jesuits, endured countless sufferings in the new world, including swarms of mosquitoes and rampant diseases. However, through all their sufferings, the missionaries never stopped serving the Aboriginal people. They established hospitals and towns to house the people, caring for and baptizing the sick.  

“My God, it grieves me greatly that you are not known, that in this savage wilderness all have not been converted to you, that sin has not been driven from it,” Brebeuf wrote in his spiritual journal. “My God, even if all the brutal tortures which prisoners in this region must endure should fall on me, I offer myself most willingly to them and I alone shall suffer them all.” 

Brutal martyrdom of Brebeuf and companions  

The peaceful Huron tribe was often attacked by the violent Iroquois who burned their cities and tortured their people. On March 16, 1649, an Iroquois tribe invaded the Huron Village of Saint Louis capturing Brebeuf, Gabriel Lalament, and other Huron converts. The prisoners were forced to walk through the falling snow to the city of St. Ignace.  

The prisoners were beaten with clubs as they entered the captured city. Accounts from the escaped Hurons recalled:

The Iroquois came, to the number of twelve hundred men; took our village, and seized Father Brebeuf and his companion; and set fire to all the huts. They proceeded to vent their rage on those two Fathers; for they took them both and stripped them entirely naked and fastened each to a post.

“They tore the nails from their fingers. They beat them with a shower of blows from cudgels, on the shoulders, the loins, the belly, the legs, and the face; there being no part of their body which did not endure this torment,” the convert recounted.  

However, despite his torments, Brebeuf, “did not cease continually to speak of God, and to encourage all the new Christians who were captives like himself to suffer well, that they might die well, in order to go in company with him to Paradise.” 

An apostate Huron poured boiling water on Brebeuf in a mock baptism. Following this, the Iroquois inflicted countless tortures on the missionary.  

“The first was to make hatchets red-hot, and to apply them to the loins and under the armpits,” the account read. “They made a collar of these red-hot hatchets, and put it on the neck of this good Father.” 

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“I have seen no torment which more moved me to compassion than that,” a Huron recalled. “For you see a man, bound naked to a post, who, having this collar on his neck, cannot tell what posture to take. For, if he lean forward, those above his shoulders weigh the more on him; if he lean back, those on his stomach make him suffer the same torment; if he keep erect, without leaning to one side or other, the burning ratchets, applied equally on both sides, give him a double torture.” 

“After that they put on him a belt of bark, full of pitch and resin, and set fire to it, which roasted his whole body. During all these torments, Father de Brebeuf endured like a rock, insensible to fire and flames, which astonished all the bloodthirsty wretches who tormented him,” the account continued.  

“His zeal was so great that he preached continually to these infidels, to try to convert them,” the account added. 

To prevent him from speaking more, they cut off his tongue, and both his upper and lower lips. After that, they set themselves to strip the flesh from his legs, thighs, and arms, to the very bone; and then put it to roast before his eyes, in order to eat it.

Those butchers, seeing that the good Father began to grow weak, made him sit down on the ground; and, one of them, taking a knife, cut off the skin covering his skull. 

Brebeuf’s courage inspired even the respect of one his murderers who, “seeing that the good Father would soon die, made an opening in the upper part of his chest, and tore out his heart, which he roasted and ate.” 

Others came to drink his blood, still warm, which they drank with both hands,—saying that Father de Brebeuf had been very courageous to endure so much pain as they had given him, and that, by drinking his blood, they would become courageous like him.

Brebeuf willingly accepted martyrdom in Canada. Indeed, he desired to be killed for the sake of Canada and Our Lord Jesus Christ.  

Prior to his martyrdom, he wrote: “Whatever conclusion they [the Aboriginal peoples] reach, and whatever treatment they give us, we will try, by the grace of Our Lord, to endure it patiently for His service. It is a singular favor that His Goodness extends to us, to make us endure something for His sake.” 

Indeed, the foremost desire of the Canadian missionaries was to convert souls for God, and if necessary, to die for the people they served. They worked tirelessly to give the Aboriginal peoples a better life; not to strip them of their identity but to further their culture and lives by making them truly Christian.  

The conversion of the Aboriginal peoples and the sufferings of the Jesuit missionaries who gave their lives for Canada and her peoples must not be forgotten or apologized for. Brebeuf is only one of many who died for this country, and his death must not be in vain.  

The Aboriginal peoples especially should remember the service of the missionaries who came to die for their sakes. These men should be honored and remember in Canadian history.