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Catholic Heroes… St. Isaac Jogues

October 25, 2018 saints No Comments


In the 1600s, the Jesuits sent many missionaries to the New World to convert the indigenous people. Those brave souls dedicated to bringing the love of God to North America came mainly from France; hence many of the cities around the Great Lakes possess names of French origin such as Detroit, Marquette, Charlevoix, and Grand Marais. Eight of the missionaries were martyred. They were canonized by Pope Pius XI on June 29, 1930 in Rome. Some were laymen, but most were priests such as St. Isaac Jogues.
Jogues was born in Orleans, France to Laurent Jogues and Francoise de Sainte-Mesmin on January 10, 1607. A wealthy family with nine children — Isaac was the fifth — they educated their children in the home. Isaac began going to Jesuit schools when he was ten. First he attended the school in Rouen and then studied at the royal college of La Fleche, founded by King Henry IV.
Jogues probably first heard about the missionary work in New France — as Canada was known then — from Fr. Louis Lallemant, who had relatives serving the Church there. He learned more from St. Jean de Brébeuf and Énemond Massé when they returned from their journey to Quebec.
Meanwhile, Isaac Jogues stayed at the College of Clermont at the University of Paris where he demonstrated a special gift for writing and teaching. He was finally ordained and approved for missionary work in 1636.
On April 8, 1636 he left for the New World with Charles Garnier among others. In June they arrived at Baie des Chaleurs. Sketches of Jogues at this time portrayed a refined man with gentle features — a deceptive impression which hid his tenacity and strong ability to endure pain and suffering.
Jogues continued his journey, arriving in Quebec on July 2. He wrote to his mother of his boundless joy:
“I do not know [what] it is to enter Heaven, but this I know — that it would be difficult to experience in this world a joy more excessive and more overflowing than I felt in setting foot in the New World and celebrating my first Mass on the day of the Visitation.”
On September 11 Jogues, after a most arduous journey through the untamed wilderness, arrived at the Jesuit Mission on Lake Huron, reporting to his superior, Jean de Brébeuf. Upon his arrival Jogues immediately fell ill with a raging fever. This then spread to the other Jesuits and then to the villagers.
As a result of this unfortunate turn of events, the Hurons believed that the “Black Robes” brought evil to their land to kill them. Fr. de Brébeuf eventually brought peace again and convinced them that the Jesuits were neither traders nor trappers, but men seeking to spread peace.
For six years Jogues lived in this village which came to be known as St. Joseph, studying the language and the culture of the Hurons. They came to respect Fr. Jogues, until the Dutch and English — envious of the respect accorded the Jesuits — told the Hurons that the Jesuits had been kicked out of Europe because they caused nothing but trouble.
These rumors spread rapidly. When Fr. Jogues and Fr. Garnier sailed to southern Ontario the villagers there were so unwelcoming that they accomplished nothing. The same reception awaited them village after village, filling them with discouragement about their mission.
The grueling hours of work, the toleration of bitter weather, harsh conditions of little food and crude shelters did not deter them. Slowly God blessed their faithful efforts and their new Jesuit superior sent them to build a fort at Sainte-Marie in the upper peninsula of Michigan. Thus in 1641 Fr. Jogues and Fr. Charles Raymbaut went to the land of the Ojibwe.
Arriving thirty years before Fr. Marquette, these two men were most likely the first white men to see Lake Superior — a lake so wide and deep that some call it a fresh-water ocean. Fr. Jogues paved the way by his gentleness and patience for the success Marquette would later achieve.
After a while, Fr. Jogues returned to the Huron village near the Wye River where a church, residence, cemetery, and hospital had been built. Slowly the place resembled a settlement that was part monastic and part patriarchal. As the Jesuits taught them how to farm and to store grain, they won the respect of the native people.
However, in 1642 a bad harvest — always a risk with such short growing seasons — resulted in many natives falling sick. A party was sent to Quebec for provisions, but they were attacked by the Mohawks with Fr. Jogues and René Goupil and others being captured.
The prisoners were taken to Ossernenon where they were beaten and tortured. When the Mohawks found the Dutch were willing to pay ransom, they decided not to kill Fr. Jogues. However, Goupil was killed for making the Sign of the Cross on a girl. Fr. Jogues held him, giving him the Last Rites before he died.
The Mohawks tortured Fr. Jogues for a year. He escaped once during that time, was recaptured, and then had his thumb and forefinger cut off so that he couldn’t celebrate Mass.
The Dutch finally arranged his escape and he sailed to Cornwall on November 5, 1643. He then arrived in Brittany, France on Christmas Day. He went to the rector’s house who eagerly welcomed this stranger who had just arrived from the New World. The rector asked the traveler if he had news of Isaac Jogues as the story of his capture had reached France. “I am he!” he responded.
Fr. Jogues avoided meeting people, including his mother, to spare her feelings. But when Pope Urban VIII allowed him to celebrate Mass, despite his deformity prohibiting him from properly holding the Host, he assented to celebrate Mass for the queen.
All of his fame he deplored, seeking only to return to Quebec to save souls. Finally, he arrived in June 1644. He helped build a fort in Montreal and participated in negotiations to normalize relations with the natives. The release of captives was obtained and the Mohawks were deeply moved by the gentleness of the man they had treated so cruelly. Peace obtained, the party returned to Montreal, but famine hit the Mohawks who again blamed the priests.
When Jogues and John Lalande returned to confirm the peace, they were captured and martyred. Once again the Dutch came to help and secure the personal effects and bodies of the martyrs.
The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church, so three years after their deaths — the Mohawks honored the brave, gentle black robe — many converted and the missionaries were welcomed.
Jogues died on October 18, 1646 and his feast is celebrated with the other North American martyrs on October 19.
Dear St. Isaac, let us follow your example of zeal for souls and willingness to endure all hardships for their salvation. Even if we seem unsuccessful, may our prayers, sufferings, and sacrifices pave the way for others to complete the work of God! Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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