Were it not a Sunday, tomorrow, October 19, Masses would be celebrated to commemorate the Feast Day of the North American Martyrs: the eight Jesuit priests and brothers martyred in Canada and New York, the result of their work with native peoples in "New France." They are sometimes known as the "Canadian martyrs." That particular company of saints includes Jean de Brebeuf, Noel Chabanel, Antoine Daniel, Charles Garnier, Rene Goupil, Isaac Jogues, Jean de Lalande, and Gabriel Lalemant.
One of the hidden treasures of the Catholic church in this country is "Martyrs’ Shrine" in Auriesville, New York. For me, the most moving spot in that large complex of churches, chapels and places of prayer (the New York Jesuit cemetery is also there) is "The Ravine," where Rene Goupil, S.J., was killed.
In 1642, Isaac Jogues and Rene Goupil were captured and tortured. Expecting an imminent death, Rene, a layman, pronounced his vows as a Jesuit before Father Isaac Jogues. Shortly afterwards, Rene was tomahawked to death for teaching a child to make the sign of the cross. Despite the obvious dangers involved, Isaac searched (in vain) alongside a small creek and in a secluded valley where he believed his friend’s body had been deposited. That creek and the small ravine, carpeted with thick green grass and sentried by tall trees, is still there. Today excerpts from the letters of Isaac Jogues describing his ordeal, excerpted on wooden signs beside the creek, make a sort of modern-day way of the cross for pilgrims. Here is an excerpt from one of his letters:
"At length, after I had found nothing, a woman known to me passed by and saw me in distress. When I asked her if she knew what they had done with the body, she told me they had dragged it to a river unknown to me about a mile distant...How many tears did I shed, tears which fell into that rushing water, and I sang, as best I could, the psalms which the Church chants for the dead...The woman’s story proved untrue. The young people pulled the body out of the water and had dragged it into a little wood nearby. All that autumn and winter it had become food for dog, crow and fox. In the spring, when I learned that they had dragged it there, I went to the wood several times without finding the body. On the fourth trip I discovered some half-eaten bones which I buried...I kissed these remains reverently several times since they were the bones of a martyr of Jesus Christ."
A Blessed Feast of the North American Martyrs
James Martin, SJ