Saint Jean de Brébeuf
Witness to the Hurons
Join me today to meet a saint who followed his calling fearlessly into danger and horror and death.
Name: Jean de Brébeuf
Life: 1593 - 1649
Feast: March 16
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In 1629, Father Jean de Brébeuf got his orders. He was being ordered to drop what he was doing and return to the settlement of Quebec, modern Quebec City in Eastern Canada. When the orders arrived, Brébeuf was almost eight hundred miles to the West in the lands of the Huron people, Huronia, near the modern city of Toronto. It had taken Brébeuf years to find his way out to this remote place. He was finally making progress. Now he had to go. But Father Jean de Brébeuf was a loyal Jesuit, and he obeyed orders.
When Father Brébeuf had made the long journey back to Quebec, he discovered what had happened. The English, enemies of the French, were about to capture the settlement. Soon Samuel de Champlain, the French leader, had surrendered Quebec to the English. He and the other French were packed aboard English ships, as prisoners of war, and the fleet set sail for England.
But as things would turn out, it was the English who were in for a surprise.
Jean de Brébeuf had always been an unlikely candidate for a mission to North America. He was from Normandy, on the Northwest of coast of France. The area took its name from the once fearsome Normans. Jean’s family, the Brébeufs, were proud to have been part of that great history.
When Duke William of Normandy conquered England in 1066, Brébeufs were among his forces. When the people of Europe answered the call of Saint Louis and went on crusade, the Brébeufs were there too. When the Holy Land was lost one castle at a time, Brébeufs were there in the fighting retreat. Young Jean even looked like those early Normans, slim but with huge shoulders, towering a full head over most men of his time.
For Jean, though, there were no crusades. The great issue of his time was the battle between the Protestants and Catholics in France. The Brébeufs were orthodox Catholics. They encouraged young Jean to join the most hardline, orthodox, and active of the religious orders, the shock troops of the Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation: the Jesuits.
At 16 Jean entered a Jesuit College. After his studies, he joined the Jesuit order. Although he had completed almost all of the studies he needed to become a priest, Jean felt that he had a humbler calling. He saw himself assisting the Jesuits as a brother monk, putting his strength to work in physical activity. The joke became that he wasn’t Brébeuf, but vrai boeuf, a real ox.
But then something strange happened. Brébeuf got extremely sick, and his strength left him. Suddenly he could barely drag himself from one place to another. The Jesuits reassigned him to study for the priesthood, because now studying was the only thing he could do. Brébeuf was so sick that when he became a deacon, he had to be carried away afterwards. By 1622, looking thin and pale, Jean de Brébeuf became a priest. The Order put him to work in what seemed like a safe office job: treasurer at the College of Rouen.
And then, as unexpectedly as it had gone, Jean de Brébeuf’s physical strength returned to him. It was a good thing, because the bickering between Protestants and Catholics often became dangerous. On one occasion, Brébeuf had to ride hard for three days to get for Paris and secure the help of the king. There was also the kind of work a treasurer might do in any age. Since the College of Rouen was near the coast, as treasurer, Brébeuf found himself dealing with the large companies that controlled much of the trade going West, to the French holdings in North America.
The more Brébeuf read about North America, the more he started to feel the tug of a calling: to travel out into the wilderness and bring the good news to those who were there.
That was never going to happen, of course, Brébeuf reasoned, because the Jesuits would not send a man with poor health like his. But when he heard that a mission was going to the New World, he applied. To his surprise, he was accepted, and soon Brébeuf was seeing canoes for the first time as his ship sailed into the Saint Lawrence river.
The Jesuits settled just outside of the new town of Quebec. Brébeuf felt his calling was to go further inland, but first he needed to learn the language and customs of the tribes. He got his chance with the Montagnais people, attaching himself to a group that had come to hunt eels near Quebec.
After the eel hunt, the Montagnais migrated away from Quebec and Brébeuf trooped along with them, watching to pick up their customs and the way they spoke. The march was exhausting. The insects were unrelenting, and soon Brébeuf was covered in parasites. There were all sorts of tricks and rules to pick up, such as where to wipe the eel grease off your hand after a meal (the correct answer was on a passing dog, and failing that, in your hair).
It was a new, hostile landscape, one in which wolves, bears and mountain lions would not hesitate to snatch a careless European. The Montagnais hunted for the summer, then overwintered in a large communal building. It was cold, and Brébeuf froze. The food ran out and they subsisted on what little could be hunted through the winter. The next summer, when the Montagnais were again near Quebec, Brébeuf rejoined the Jesuits. He had been frozen, starved and eaten by bugs. He was more certain than ever that he was being called to serve God in this place.
Brébeuf had heard about a people far to the West, the Huron. They were allies of the French, and Brébeuf intended to set up a mission for them. The plan was to go with the Huron when they came East to trade. It wasn’t easy, and more than once Brébeuf was turned down because he was so tall and broad that the paddler in the rear of the canoe complained he couldn’t see forward. Finally Brébeuf got a place in a large canoe, and he began the journey of about 775 miles West, following the rivers deep into what is today Canada.
When the parties hit rapids, they had to pick up the canoes and all their possessions and carry them. There, Brébeuf could help, easily hefting more than his share. Later, he would make notes to help those priests who were following in his footsteps, with tips on the importance of keeping quiet in the canoe and not to start paddling if you didn’t intend to do it all day.
At last they arrived in Huronia, a cluster of villages near the shores of modern Lake Huron. Brébeuf had his reservations about what he found. The religion was a mixture of silly superstition and something darker, which Brébeuf recognized as demonic. His place among the Huron was never fully certain, and there was always conflict between Brébeuf and the Huron magicians. The Huron’s were cruel, torturing their captive enemies for hours in the most gruesome ways. But what shines through Brébeuf’s writings is a deep love for this people. In his advice to other priests, he told them to bear with the Hurons’ faults and always try to see the good in them.
Alone among a strange people in a strange place, Brébeuf built a little hut with a red cross over the door to use as a base. This was where he was meant to be. And as if to confirm that feeling, as he went about his business, he began to have visions that would stop him for a minute or two along the way, brief glimpses of glory out there in the wilderness.
And that was when he was ordered to return to Quebec.
Soon after he arrived back in Quebec, the settlement fell to the English, and Brébeuf was taken prisoner. Jesuits were not popular in Protestant England, and he and the other Jesuits would be threatened, abused, robbed, rounded up and put on boats as prisoners of war.
When the fleet arrived in England, the triumphant English commander stopped in Plymouth to announce to the English government that he had captured Quebec. He was expecting to be hailed as a hero. To his horror, he discovered that England was no longer at war with France. North America was so far away that the news had not yet reached him or the now greatly amused Samuel de Champlain. But since England and France had been at peace, that meant the English commander was at risk of being hanged as a pirate. The French could hardly believe their luck. The English sent them back to France with an apology.
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As English and French diplomats figured out how Quebec would be returned to France, all Jean de Brébeuf wanted was to return to Huronia. He knew that it was dangerous, but that didn’t trouble him. Over the years, he had felt a growing yearning to be a martyr. As soon as it was possible, he took ship and sailed back to Quebec. This time, though, he knew what to expect, and he brought supplies. He was going to build a church in the lands of the Hurons.
Once back in Quebec, Father Brébeuf soon found his way to Huronia again. He set up a mission there, on the coast of Lake Huron, near the modern town of Midland. There he built Saint Mary of the Hurons, a little mission complex with a real wooden church. Brébeuf began his missionary work with renewed energy, moving between the Huron villages preaching, teaching, baptizing.
In 1636 the Jesuits came down with a vicious flu. It did not help that many Huron had never seen a sick Jesuit, and crowded in to witness the event. Soon everyone was sick. After the flu, there was a wave of smallpox. The Hurons muttered that the Jesuits had brought these diseases, and their anger focused on Brébeuf as the best known Jesuit leader. Although he was quite willing to die, he wasn’t willing to be an obstacle to their faith. And so Father Brébeuf returned to Quebec. The Jesuits considered whether to give him a supervisory or a training role, but he was eager to return when he could. By 1641 he was back in Huronia, returning to a growing Christian community.
But there was a new danger on the horizon. The Huron were at war with a tribal confederacy, the Iroquois. The war mirrored the conflicts of the Europeans: the Iroquois were allied with the English, while the Hurons were allies of the French. But while the English and the French were merely trying to push one another out of the way, the Iroquois intended to annihilate the Hurons and their allies completely. Now the war was turning against the Hurons and their allies, and the front lines were moving ever closer to Huronia.
Brébeuf and the other missionaries were making the Huron a Christian nation. By now Brébeuf had baptized around seven thousand Huron, out of a population of around 30,000. But it seemed as if everyone was living on borrowed time. Some Hurons waited. Some defected to the Iroquois. Some ran. Some gave in to despair.
Now villages around Saint Mary of the Hurons were being attacked. A Jesuit who was at one of those villages was killed. At Saint Mary of the Hurons, Brébeuf spoke to the other priest who was there, a relative newcomer, Father Gabriel Lalemant. Both men, it turned out, yearned for martyrdom.
When the Iroquois arrived at Saint Mary of the Hurons, the Hurons fought hard but didn’t stand a chance. They were vastly outnumbered. They were outgunned too, for by now the Iroquois had obtained hundreds of muskets. Brébeuf and Lalemant stayed in the settlement, tending the wounded, offering last rites to the dying, until the Iroquois swarmed in. Both priests were captured alive.
It would not be an easy martyrdom. Brébeuf knew what to expect, because he had watched the Hurons inflict tortures upon their enemies. The tortures were intended as a gruesome test of the man being killed. A true warrior did not beg, or scream, or flinch. He looked down on his killers with contempt.
When it was Brébeuf’s turn, he looked at his Iroquois tormentors without fear. As the torment began, he didn’t cry, or beg, or even seem to feel it. But what he displayed wasn’t contempt, exactly. It was sadness, and not for himself. When he spoke, it was to encourage the others to hold on. He led them in chanting
Jesus, have mercy on us.
After he had been burned with sticks and with hot iron, had his fingers and legs mutilated, one of the Hurons who had joined the Iroquois brought a pail of boiling water and poured it over Brébeuf’s head. He was intending to mock baptism. Brébeuf told the man that he felt sorry for him. And then, to the rage of his torturers, he began to pray for them. Brébeuf’s unbreakable spirit made him manly, but the way he loved his enemies even as they were tormenting him makes Jean de Brébeuf a manly saint.
It was a terrible way to die. Jean de Brébeuf amazed the Iroquois by meeting it without fear. Brébeuf stood tall and resolute to the end. He was leading the chant of “Jesus, have mercy on us” when they cut out his tongue. The Iroquois recognized that this man had been unbreakable, and they paid him the grotesque compliment of eating his heart to try to gain some of that courage for themselves.
The martyrdom of Jean de Brébeuf was also the beginning of the end of Huronia. The Iroquois stormed through the lands of the Hurons. Among the few who remained, many sought protection close to their French allies in Quebec. Brébeuf was dead, and his beloved Huronia had been wiped off the map. Was it all for nothing?
This was a question for the French, and for Christendom more broadly, as the tale of the unbreakable Jesuit and his terrible last stand made its way through Europe. And from the blood and ashes, something new began to grow. The story of Jean de Brébeuf inspired a wave of vocations. In time, he would become part of the story of Quebec, which would stand for centuries as a Catholic enclave on the North American continent. Now the wave of missionaries who would create that enclave began to arrive, to explore, to build, and to continue the labour of love that Jean de Brébeuf had begun.
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It was very good to reconnect with this story and to remember how good, passionate and strong Fr. Brebeuf and his fellow were. The frequent denigration of their work had watered down my understanding. Thank you.