Sunday, October 18, 2009

For All the Saints: Isaac Jogues

My father tried his best to make a man of me, playing tackle football with my brother and me on the living room carpet and encouraging us to savor the great outdoors, of which there was much to savor in the Minnesota of our childhood. But at age fourteen, I set off on a six-week canoe trip in the north woods, and my Paul Bunyan period came to an abrupt end.

There were two terrors I remember from that trip: the leeches that found their way into our boots during a portage and the gauntlet we had to run if we happened to utter the forbidden word cocoa. The latter was a longstanding tradition on this trip: The sweet, warm, brown stuff in a cup was referred to as hot choc and never cocoa. Say the forbidden word and you had to run buck naked down a line of paddle-wielding mates. Fortunately, I never transgressed, though I lived in mortal fear of this sin. 

I never returned to the north woods, nor have I ever been proud of my record as a backwoodsman. But memories of the experience give me a greater appreciation for the incredible hardships and literal torture suffered by Isaac Jogues, who with John de Brébeuf and companions are known collectively as the North American Martyrs. We celebrate these saints today, October 19.

Jogues was born in Orléans, France, about 160 years after Joan of Arc won her greatest military victory there. He, Brébeuf, and others became Jesuit priests dedicated to converting the indigenous tribes of New France, ministering to them in upstate New York and around the Great Lakes.

Quebec was short on Jesuits, so Jogues enlisted a lay assistant named René Goupil, who knew medicine. Together they set off into Mohawk country. Richard P. McBrien's Lives of the Saints picks up the story:

They were attacked by Mohawks, who bit off Jogues's fingernails or chewed his forefingers. Goupil was similarly abused. Thy were taken captive and brought to the Mohawk village. On the way, Jogues accepted Goupil's vows as a Jesuit. During a pause in the jorney, however, they were stripped and forced to run the gauntlet up a rocky hill. When they reached the village (located in present-day Auriesville, New York) on the bank of the Mohawk River, they were again forced to run the gauntlet, after which a squaw cut off Jogues's left thumb with a jagged shell. The men were then taken to a building where they were stretched out and tied to the ground while children dropped hot coals on their naked bodies. After three days of torture, they were handed over to the chief to act as his personal slaves. A few weeks later, Goupil was tomahawked to death for making the sign of the cross on a child.

I gather that the gauntlet run by the brave men of New France involved tomahawks and not canoe paddles. An entry from the Catholic Encyclopedia continues with the story of Jogues:  

. . . he remained [in Auriesville] for thirteen months in slavery, suffering apparently beyond the power of natural endurance. The Dutch Calvinists at Fort Orange (Albany) made constant efforts to free him, and at last, when he was about to be burnt to death, induced him to take refuge in a sailing vessel which carried him to New Amsterdam (New York). . . . From New York he was sent, in mid-winter, across the ocean on a lugger of only fifty tons burden and after a voyage of two months, landed Christmas morning, 1643, on the coast of Brittany, in a state of absolute destitution. Thence he found his way to the nearest college of the Society [of Jesus]. He was received with great honour at the court of the Queen Regent, the mother of Louis XIV, and was allowed by Pope Urban VII the very exceptional privilege of celebrating Mass, which the mutilated condition of his hands had made canonically impossible; several of his fingers having been eaten or burned off [by his Indian captors]. He was called a martyr of Christ by the pontiff. . . .

And then? Jogues went back to North America to minister to the Iroquois and Mohawks! It comes as no surprise that the determined Jesuit was tortured and then tomahawked to death in October 1646.

Bruce Beresford's fine 1991 film Black Robe is apparently a fictionalized rendering of the Jogues story, with the requisite gratuitous love story between a lay French companion of the priest "Father Laforgue" and an Indian maiden. But at least it preserves the gruesome detail of a thumb being amputated with a shell.

I will be thinking of Isaac Jogues today and of the other patron saints of North America; of their courage and even more remarkable witness; and of a teenage boy who did everything in his power to avoid using the forbidden word cocoa.

(Sources: Richard P. McBrien, Lives of the Saints; and the Catholic Encyclopedia, available on line at the New Advent web site)