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The Jesuit missionaries who gave their lives to convert Canadian Indians

Posted in Historical articles, History, Missionaries, Religion on Wednesday, 27 November 2013

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This edited article about Canada first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 465 published on 12 December 1970.

Indian attack, picture, image, illustration

At the gates of St. Ignace the Indians formed two rows; the missionaries were driven between them and brutally clubbed

It was Spring, 1649. The monks saw the charred stumps of the pallisade in the distance and behind them, stark against the fresh-fallen snow, the blackened remains of the cabins of St. Ignace. Regnaut, the lay-brother in charge, halted his party. He sent two Hurons ahead as scouts; they re-appeared soon afterwards, as noiselessly as they had left, and reported that the Iroquois had gone. Regnaut led his men forward into the village; they stopped in the open central area. The two bodies lay there, some distance apart and barely recognisable. Regnaut, holding himself tightly in control, ordered them to be buried, then turned to the Huron villagers, women and children most of them, who had come forward gradually from their hiding-places. For two hours he listened to their eye-witness accounts, accounts in which horror was piled on horror. Then he led his party back to the mission headquarters at Ste. Marie, taking with him the bodies of Father Jean de Brebeuf and Father Gabriel Lalement – Jesuits, missionaries, martyrs and, later, saints.

During the 17th century the Roman Catholic Society of Jesus was the target of much criticism. It was said to meddle overmuch in politics and to be greedy for riches. But no-one could deny the courage and sincerity of its missionaries, least of all, the fathers who served among the Indians of North America. One of the most fearsome provinces of their work was Huronia, the land of the Huron Indians around Georgian Bay in the south-west corner of Quebec. Yet there was rivalry amongst the fathers for the honour of serving there. The danger came not merely from the Hurons themselves but from the persistent attacks of the Iroquois, armed with muskets, who robbed the Hurons of the goods which they had obtained from the French.

There were mission stations at four villages in Huronia. Ste. Marie, the mission headquarters, was the most northerly; to the south-east was St. Louis; further in the same direction was St. Ignace; and due south, nearest to Iroquois country, was St. Joseph. With the exception of Ste. Marie, the villages were simple encampments of bark cabins behind wooden pallisades with sometimes a watch-tower for added security. Life in them was squalid. The Jesuits shared the sparse Indian diet of porridge made from Indian corn and sprinkled with powdered dried fish. Living among the Indians in this way the fathers gradually made progress.

The mission station of St. Louis was manned by Brebeuf and Lalement. Jean de Brebeuf came from a noble family in Normandy and had been in Canada since 1625. He had written treatises about the Hurons and a Huron grammar and catechism. He was a big, strong man, the very opposite of his companion. Lalement, the elder of the two, was a scholar, a shy, retiring man and physically very frail. He had only been in Huronia for a short time. By spring 1649, they must both have been aware that their position was threatened. In July of the previous year the Iroquois had attacked and burned St. Joseph killing the missionary there and towards the end of that year it was clear from the fear and despondency of the Hurons that more trouble could be expected.

It broke out in the following March. A war-party of about a thousand Iroquois moved north to the borders of Huronia. Passing the smoke-blackened desolation of St. Joseph they pushed on to St. Ignace. On the night of the 16th March they silently crept up to the pallisade. There was a shout from a guard, the flash of a musket; then the Indians were swarming over the top and down into the village where they slaughtered the helpless population. Ducking and weaving in the glare from the burning bark cabins, three Hurons escaped from the village and ran to St. Louis to give the alarm. The villagers lined the walls but the Iroquois gave them little time to prepare their defences. Daylight had still not come when they made their first assault on the gates.

Brebeuf and Lalement refused to leave the village. They moved quietly and reassuringly among the old people and the women while the battle at the gates raged. There were eighty Hurons against the Iroquois band. Despite their numbers they beat off two Iroquois attacks before they were finally cut to pieces. The assailants swarmed in. They surrounded the priests, stripped them naked, and dragged them, with their other prisoners, back to St. Ignace, leaving St. Louis in flames. At the gates of St. Ignace the Indians formed two rows. The missionaries were driven between them and brutally clubbed. This was just the beginning of their humiliation and torture.

It was now one o’clock. Brebeuf was dragged into the middle of the village and lashed to a stake. Iroquois braves held Lalement fast as he watched in horror the torment of his friend. Three hours later Brebeuf was dead. A reckless blow had killed him, mercifully releasing him from his agony. Frustrated, the Indians turned on the delicate Lalement. It was six o’clock when they began on him; he still hung writhing from the stake at midnight. The Iroquois were careful this time to preserve their captive’s life for as long as possible. It was not until nine o’clock on the following morning that he died.

The most relentless persecutors of the missionaries were renegade Hurons. They laughed at their suffering and poured scalding water over them.

Yet while the renegade Hurons joined the Iroquois in their sport, others from the same tribe, converts or simply friends of the fathers, were already racing over the snow to Ste. Marie. They alerted the mission and the village stood to arms. Two hundred Iroquois charged the gates but were repeatedly driven back in a battle which lasted for two days. At last a hush fell over the woods around the village and scouts reported that the Iroquois had vanished. Ste. Marie was saved. The Iroquois had returned to Ste. Ignace where they razed the few bark cabins that were still standing, loaded their plunder on to the backs of their captives, then left for their own territory. The line of their retreat was clearly marked by the bodies of those prisoners who could not keep up and were burned or tomahawked or simply left to die along the trail.

On 20th March the head of the mission at Ste. Marie sent Brother Regnaut to Ste. Ignace. He returned the next day with the two bodies and the terrible truth. Later the bones of the two martyrs, wrapped in silk and placed in two small chests, were taken to Quebec, where they were venerated; within twenty years they were reputed to work miracles. Meanwhile the Jesuits’ work in Huronia went on and over two thousand Hurons were baptised the following year. Brebeuf and Lalement had not died in vain.

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