The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs: February-March Selection

Part I of the Discussion (Pages 1-164)

Read part II here.

What is martyrdom? What is the difference between martyrdom and recklessness motivated by a desire to gain heaven? Does Tertullian’s claim, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” inspire violence and the rash absorption of violence? Is evangelization, particularly the evangelization of a cultural minority, essentially a violent enterprise? Do the notions of martyrdom and sainthood sometimes succumb to racial and gender bias? That is, why are these individuals deemed martyrs and not those?

These are serious questions that lie at the heart of a controversial history of the deaths and subsequent cult of the North American martyrs. In her book The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martrys, Emma Anderson questions the “logic,” the “alchemy” and the “rhetoric” of martyrdom. In her argument, the term “martyrdom” implies innocence and sanctity (9). The term itself carries power, yet it is often used unreflectively. Anderson understands “martyrdom” as a concept that “always” represents the interpretation of a “given set of facts rather than being ‘a fact’ in and of itself” (8). The alchemy or the inverting logic of martyrdom turns defeat into victory—the blood of six Jesuit priests and two lay assistants anchored Christian France in its harsh new territory and sanctified the new continent’s soil. Anderson sees this logic applied once again to the French Canadian situation in the mid-nineteenth century. The French-Canadian nationalist movement reinterpreted their defeat in 1759 at the hands of the British as a victory, in that, Quebec was delivered from the violence and forced secularization of the French Revolution and its aftermath. Again, following the “master motif of Christian martyrdom,” French Canadians reinterpreted defeat by appropriating the “curious alchemy” of martyrdom.

Rene Goupil, a Jesuit donne, was killed in September 1642. Isaac Jogues and Jean de Lalande were killed in October of 1646. Jogues had been captured and tortured but escaped and spent four years in France before returning to Iroquois lands. Anderson depicts his death in vivid narrative (eventually, Jogues’s killer sought baptism and took Isaac Jogues’s name, fusing the native notion of incarnating the spirit of a dead warrior with the Christian notion of sacrament as death and rebirth in Christ). In July 1648, Antoine Daniel was shot through with arrows while administering the sacraments to dying members of his Wendat village (Saint-Joseph) in the midst of the Iroquois march through Huronia. As the Iroquois continued to advance, they captured Jean de Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant on the morning of March 16, 1649. Both were forced to run the gaunlet. While their captors discussed their fate, Brebeuf continued to pray aloud. Eventually, a Wendat-former Catholic (the Iroquois adopted some of the warriors that they captured) became enraged at Brebeuf’s ramblings and began to pour boiling water on Brebeuf’s head in the shape of a cross. The apostate’s actions initiated hours of torture. Brebeuf was finally killed, and Lallemant tortured and killed the next day. Charles Garnier was, much like Antoine Daniel, killed by a musket shot as he tended to his flock during an Iroquois raid in December 1649. A day later Noel Chabanel was killed by a Wendat apostate in a murder-robbery.

After the death of Brebeuf and the sacking of the Wendat villages in Huronia, the Jesuit mission and its superior, Paul Ragueneau, retreated eastward to Quebec. There, he became the spiritual director of a fierce Augustinian, Hospitaliere nun named Catherine de Saint-Augustin. Anderson’s depiction of Catherine and her mystical relationship with Brebeuf and Christ are fascinating. Catherine is the first person to advance the cult of Brebeuf and the others in a concrete way—using the relics that Ragueneau brought in his retreat from the mission villages on her patients. She even grated a piece of Brebeuf’s bone into the soups that she served the infirm in her hospital. In her prayer, she encounters a suffering and despairing Brebeuf. Likewise, she has vivid interactions with the suffering Christ. Christ and Brebeuf despair over the lukewarm faith of New France and threaten the territory with divine destruction. Anderson offers interesting insights as to how a female religious might relate to Christ. Essentially, Catherine is moved to pity for Christ. Such pity inspires her work and rigorous spiritual discipline. Furthermore, because she is a cloistered nun, she cannot encounter the Iroquois in the same way as Brebeuf and companions. Instead, she encounters the devil in a spiritual confrontation. Thus, she internalizes the missionary struggles that Brebeuf and companions lived in Huronia.

Pius XI canonized the eight North American martyrs as a group in 1930. They are the first saints from North America. Their iconography is found throughout the northeastern United States and Canada. The stained glass windows of the Jesuit novitiate in Syracuse depict the murders described above. In Europe, the deaths of Brebeuf and Lalemant inspired Goya’s frightening painting: Cannibals Preparing Their Victims. In Quebec, Joseph Legare’s painting, Souvenirs des Jesuites, marked the triumphant return of the Jesuits to Canada after the restoration of the Society (surprisingly Anderson fails to discuss the suppression and restoration of the Society of Jesus and suggests that the Society in Canada simply petered out with the death of Jean-Joseph Casot).

In the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, U.S. Jesuits led the cause for the canonization of Jogues, Goupil, Lalande and Kateri Tekakwitha (a native Iroquois who was eventually canonized in 2012). In the early 20th century, John Wynne, S.J., the founding editor of America, became the principal promoter of the cause. (In her endnotes, Anderson describes Wynne as spearheading the creation of the Catholic Encyclopedia and the founder of “the still extant Catholic journal America” (414). “Still extant” seems a bit pale. Perhaps, “still thriving” is more appropriate.) He eschewed the notion of Canadian and U.S. martyrs and created the title, North American martyrs, in order to widen devotion to the martyrs. He sought out Protestant intellectuals and Catholic lay organizations to discuss the historical and civic importance of the eight men. He also saw the canonization of these men as opening the door to the canonization of more American saints. Ultimately, he succeeded, but the devotion to the martyrs never spread throughout the United States.

I have chosen this history of the North American martyrs for several reasons. It represents modern scholarship regarding a fascinating set of events that shaped the Catholic Church and Society of Jesus in Canada and the United States. It represents modern questions regarding evangelization and pluralism, historical reconstruction and the cult of saints. To the believing Catholic, it is a work that is often maddening. It is quite cynical in parts: Anderson describes the relationship of Catherine de Saint-Augustin, Ragueneau and the dead Brebeuf as a “peculiar spiritual love triangle” (55); Jogues’s desire to pray as a captive is described as “insatiable lust for privacy” (24); Wynne’s shrewd promotion of the North American martyrs is depicted as “a spiritual ponzee scheme” (153). Nor does Anderson work to try to understand the spirituality of the martyrs. There is no mention of the Spiritual Exercises. There is no reflection on the meditation of Christ the King, the Two Standards or the Third Week—all of which influenced the eight men who were subsequently deemed martyrs by the Church. Furthermore, there is an underlying suspicion of inauthenticity regarding the motivations of the eight men who were killed. Did they seek death selfishly? Did their seeking martyrdom prompt more violence? And, there is a further, necessary question—free of such suspicion—what of the number of native Catholics that suffered and died along with the Jesuits who were killed? Are they martyrs? Did they die for the faith?

This is a controversial work—all the better to initiate conversation. Members of the Book Club have mentioned that they have been unable to finish the book before the month is up. And so, I am splitting up discussion on this book into two months. In February, we will discuss the first half of the book, up to the canonization of the martyrs. We will finish discussion on the book in March. I hope this gives folks time to get access to the book and give it a read. In order to spark discussion, I offer some questions below:

1. What do you know of the North American martyrs? Do you or anyone you know maintain a devotion to them? Are they difficult to relate to—unlike Elizabeth Anne Seton or Catherine Drexel? Have you ever been to either shrine dedicated to the martyrs?

2. Is martyrdom obvious? Must it be interpreted with a careful contemplation of historical circumstances? Controversies over martyrdom remain—was Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) a martyr for the faith? What of Oscar Romero or the Jesuits of El Salvador? What constitutes genuine martyrdom?

3. How does one evangelize most authentically, most effectively?

Kevin Spinale, S.J. will lead part one of the discussion starting Friday Feb. 28.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Sara Damewood
3 years 7 months ago
Thanks! I requested through interlibrary loan, but they said it may take awhile!
chris welch
3 years 7 months ago
is the book available other than from the Harverd press for 39.00?
Tracy Dowling
3 years 7 months ago
A formative book for me during my teen-age years was Dark Was The Wilderness, published sometime in the 1940s, which was an account of the interactions of these holy Jesuits. It spared no details about the intense sufferings of these men, while at the same time providing empathy and understanding of the Indian culture they encountered. To accuse these men, even indirectly, of egotism and self-aggrandizement in their martyrdom is something I find very offensive. We have grown accustomed to imagining the American Indian culture as one of benevolence--but these were people subject to the same Original Sin that all of us suffer from, and while many of their practices were commendable, many were barbaric. (The executioners of Jean de Brebeuf drank his blood in the hopes that his bravery would be theirs.) It also bears observing that while the secular forces came to conquer, the religious men came to preach the gospel. The story of the North American martyrs has always fed my faith, and it is a story that deserves more attention that it has received in our American Catholic Church.
Andrew Di Liddo
3 years 7 months ago
Chris Welch, the Book is available elsewhere (Amazon, etc.) for just over $31.00 or from libraries. "Dark Was the Wilderness" referenced in a comment below by Tracy published in 1945 can be seen here: http://tinyurl.com/m2nm2qb
Sara Damewood
3 years 6 months ago
Thanks! These are great questions! I read the first two chapters and will read the third this weekend. Will comment then. Have a great weekend!
Sara Damewood
3 years 6 months ago
Living in South Carolina, I haven't visited the shrines dedicated the martyrs and probably never will get the opportunity. However, I did just take a virtual tour on the website of the Shrine of Our Lady Of Martyrs. I was actually looking to see if they had an on-line bookstore (currently disabled) and what kind of books or exhibits they might have to help visitors understand the complexity of this history. More about that later. Before starting to read Dr. Anderson's book, I knew the basic details about what happened to the martyrs. I relate most easily to Saint Kateri Tekakwitha as a patroness of ecology and the environment. However, I have great respect for Saint Jogues, Saint Jean de Brebeuf and anyone (including the settlers) that faced death bravely and with their faith intact and great sympathy for anyone who was tortured to death. As for martyrdom, I have mixed feelings. I'm not sure where the anticlerical Benjamin Sulte's belief that "a Christian martyr must neither seek nor evade martyrdom" originated, but that makes perfect sense to me. There ought to be a good reason for martyrdom that has to do with serving God and God's people. Now, Francois-Xavier Garneau please pray for me, because I'm about to criticize some Jesuits! I was at first intrigued, reading about the culture of the Iroquois... their circular connection with loved ones... the deceased resuming their prior identities in the bodies of war captives. Then, I felt so sad when I realized that the Jesuits and the Iroquois really did not understand each other enough to prevent the horrible "death by torture" of the martyrs & also innocent settlers. There are many psychosocial explanations for sadistic behavior, including addictive sadistic pleasure, desire for power and control, etc., but it seems even more frightening when it is ritualized within a culture as in the Iroquois customs and as in the Inquisition. The North-American Jesuits made it hard on themselves and others by not recognizing that. I wouldn't be doing the sign of the cross over native children's heads without their parents' permission! ...especially since the natives had beliefs about how Jesuit "magic" could affect their health, their crops and so on. As for evangelizing most authentically and effectively, I think the Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything is a great example of offering a path to God without threatening people into religious submission. Fr. Jim had the benefit of modern psychology to realize he needed to understand and validate his readers before offering Ignatian wisdom. In colonial times, the Jesuits probably didn't have the mindset to wait patiently and try to understand their Iroquois neighbors before evangelizing. That's pretty sad, because they got hurt pretty bad. Not to discount Dr. Anderson's wonderful research and writing, but I hope that the bookstore at the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs includes at least one affordable book in plain English that explains the complexity (anthropologically, psychologically, spiritually, historically) of the death and afterlife of these martyrs. Maybe that will help pilgrims to tolerate the ambiguity that's needed to prevent such horrible acts of power and control in the future.
Andrew Di Liddo
3 years 6 months ago
My book just came in today through inter-library loan. I am sprinting to catch up though. I will respond to the first discussion question: What do I know of the North American martyrs?.... I know not that much other than what I learned by "osmosis" living in the Northeast USA. While living in Vermont for a time, I experienced some of the French church from Canada. One priest I met in Vermont still says Mass in some places in Vermont in French. I joined the parish he belonged to as a boy. Ten years prior to me joining the parish, a merger occurred between a French Parish and the Irish parish in town. Ten years after the fact, being a newcomer to the parish, I listened to many stories about this merger and there was still pain being healed and worked through. Sometimes, listening is the most loving thing we can do. Through parish life in Vermont, occasionally a "day trip" to the Auriesville NY shrine was brought up but never realized. French-Americans seemed the most interested. A few years later, we moved to Schenectady New York across the Vermont border and were closer to Auriesville. In Albany/Schenectady during 2011 -2012, there was a lot of attention to the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha. My parish in New York went through a merger and the newly formed parish became "Saint Kateri Tekakwitha". In the newspapers in the area, some non-Catholics wrote columns that were strongly anti-Kateri. But, since those columnists were always anti-Catholic Church, I sort of took that with a grain of salt.Other coverage of celebrations and events surrounding her canonization were more neutral or positive depending on the source. Thus, I never really thought about the "afterlife" or "martydom" from such a deep, philosophical academic perspective as Emma Anderson is approaching the topic. I guess I am like most Catholics? If the church designates people martyrs I merely have just accepted that at face value? I have thought about martyrdom now and then during my spiritual journey but mostly conclude during those muses that I do not believe I am up to that task. Other than that, I have never dug deep into martyrdom as this book does.This book will be like a "Spiritual Exercise of St. Ignatius of Loyal" on martyrdom for me; forcing me to think about martyrdom more deeply. During that two year period in New York, I learned a little bit more about the North American Martyrs Regrettably, I never have visited Auriesville due to having to move again out of the area because "here we have no permanent city, we seek the one to come".....Hebrews 13:14
Sara Damewood
3 years 6 months ago
Andrew, like you I accept martyrs (and saints) of the Church at face value. However, I also have my own spiritual mentors, living and dead. Seems like sacrifice and piety come in many different forms!
Andrew Di Liddo
3 years 6 months ago
Absolutely Sara! Reading and studying the lives of the saints helps me tremendously in forming and strengthening my faith. As far as living mentors, I have had one spiritual director, an itinerant Franciscan monk, a Franciscan of the Primitive Observance under direction of Sean O'Malley in Massachusetts. I picked up a group of itinerant monks along the side of the highway and gave them a ride, that is how we met. but, our paths have separated after they had come together for a time when i was in Vermont. That was incredibly important for me. I have no "in person" spiritual director at this time as he was, so, I rely heavily on the Jesuits here and as much reading as I can get in. :-)
Andrew Di Liddo
3 years 6 months ago
Statue of Saint Isaac Jogues, S.J., teaching two Mohawk children. From the Shrine at Auriesville, New York. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:St_Isaac_Jogues_Martyrs_Shrine.jpg
Andrew Di Liddo
3 years 6 months ago
Saint Isaac Jogues, S.J., Lake George, New York Statue. Saint Jogues, discoverer of Lake George http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4101/4879831623_2835fd7c2c_z.jpg
Andrew Di Liddo
3 years 6 months ago
Besides statues of the North American Martyrs, there are also statues in this region of NY honoring Native Americans: Mohawk Indian Statue from the Schenectady, NY historic Stockade District: http://giacalonephotos.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/lawrencebanner1.jpg
Andrew Di Liddo
3 years 6 months ago
Wendat Long House picture in Canada. Wendat became Wyandot through diaspora as they moved west from Huronia Quebec into Detroit Cleveland area of today and into Oklahoma. . http://antiquatedcanada.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/IMG_42451.jpg

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Rohingya refugees wait to receive aid Sept. 21 at a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. (CNS photo/Cathal McNaughton, Reuters)
This year the Grand Bargain on refugees seems increasingly fragile.
Kevin ClarkeSeptember 22, 2017
Residents mourn on Sept. 20 for the 11 victims killed in a church in Atzala, Mexico, during the Sept. 19 earthquake. A Catholic bishop in Mexico said the situation was extremely serious, and much aid would be needed. (CNS photo/Imelda Medina, Reuters)
The earthquake feels like yet another crisis tearing at our transnational families. The earthquake was a natural disaster, but the many ways American society fails to value the lives of foreigners, of immigrants, of its own citizens, because of their skin color or their Latino heritage is a
Antonio De Loera-BrustSeptember 22, 2017
“It is good to rediscover our history and welcome the diversity of the people in the United States.”
J.D. Long-GarcíaSeptember 22, 2017
These photos were taken August 16, 1920, at St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the Insane. Salmon had been on a hunger strike for 34 days. (National Archives and Records Administration via the website BenSalmon.org)
The courageous witness of 'unarmed prophet' Ben Salmon—precisely one century ago—anticipated a major development in Catholic doctrine on war and peace,.
Barry HudockSeptember 22, 2017