“Tell His Glory Among the Nations”

The North American Martyrs serve as powerful and self-sacrificing models for the often difficult work of evangelization.

Mosaic of St. Isaac Jogues in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. (Image: Andrew Balet/Wikipedia)

Evangelization is  not for the faint of heart. It is for those whose hearts are conformed to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, pierced for sinners. The Church’s mission of proclaiming the Gospel is aided by those saints whose heroic lives provide models of self-sacrificing witness to salvation in Jesus Christ.

On October 19th, the Church celebrates the memorial of several such heroic witnesses, the North American Martyrs. At Detroit’s Sacred Heart Major Seminary, where I serve, these holy Jesuits are commemorated in a Pewabic tile in the sanctuary, into which have been sculpted the weapons of their martyrdom. They are similarly honored in a number of the churches throughout the Midwest and Northeastern United States, as well as in Canada, where for understandable reasons they are typically referred to as the Canadian Martyrs.

In order to understand the power of the martyrs’ witness, to those they evangelized and to us today, we need to allow our minds to travel back over 350 years, to a time when the region of New France in which they labored for Christ was an almost totally unknown wilderness. As one traveled west from Quebec, there was not nearly as much farming as there would later be, and the boom days of the lumber industry were not yet dreamed of. Thick forests covered most of the Midwest and stretched farther up into Canada than any living person could reckon.

Into this wilderness of wood and water, of long, frozen winters and hot, bug-infested summers came a squadron of Jesuit missionaries. These Jesuits bathed the native peoples who came to believe in Jesus with the waters of Baptism. And they bathed the very land with the blood they spilled for Christ.

I often vacation on the western shore of Lake Huron, in Michigan, and when I do I like to look out across the lake and to think about the martyrs having worked, and suffered, and died on the other side of the big lake named for the very tribe for which they offered their labors and their lives.

They came to this wilderness from France, which in the mid-seventeenth century offered everything that civilization and culture could offer: community life in cities and villages, fine food, clothing, and medical care, perhaps the world’s finest collection of Gothic cathedrals, and world-class educational opportunities. All this the young Jesuits not only left behind, but longed to leave behind with the burning desire only love can kindle. They were consumed with zeal for the salvation of Native peoples about whom they knew only what they had read.

There are far too many stories about the six priests and two brothers known as the North American Martyrs to tell here. So we’ll take St. Isaac Jogues as a particular model for living out the Lord’s call through the Psalmist to “tell (God’s) glory among the nations” and to “say among the nations: the Lord is king.”

Saint Isaac spent most of his priestly ministry in Quebec and northern New York State. Many priests, when they are first ordained, are assigned to relatively large and stable parishes. At such parishes, the locals might become occasionally irritated with them, but are not likely to cut off their fingers or hack at them with tomahawks.

When Isaac Jogues was ordained in 1636, he neither had nor wished for any such assurances. His first priestly assignment was to serve as a missionary in the wilds of New France, and so he travelled to Quebec in the early summer of that year. From Quebec, he launched zealously into the forest and a life of suffering, isolation, and coping with the constant threat of death.

The food Isaac Jogues and the other missionaries ate was almost always scarce and repellant. The hospitality they received was uneven at best, though many members of the Huron Tribe came to love and revere the martyrs, and embraced the Catholic faith. The shelters they lived in—when they had shelters—were usually cold, crowded, and unsanitary.

When I think of how often I become absorbed by the trivial discomforts I experience, I realize how easily the North American Martyrs could have become discouraged by their innumerable and almost unthinkable sufferings. Yet they endured, and persevered, “keeping their eyes fixed on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2). They had chosen to serve Christ their King during their preparation for missionary life, praying through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. They had chosen to honor and serve Jesus as their King, and they longed to share with others the treasure they had received.

They longed to honor the words of the Lord, Who says through the Prophet Isaiah (45:5-6): “It is I who arm you, though you know me not, so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun people may know that there is none besides me. I am the Lord, there is no other.”

In July of 1642, just over six years after his arrival in New France, Isaac Jogues and Rene Goupil set off as members of a group seeking to evangelize and offer medical services to a group of Hurons living near Three Rivers, Quebec. The expedition had only travelled one day when they came upon some hostile Iroquois, who had already caused the Hurons to flee into the woods. The Jesuits were taken prisoner, and at the hands of their captors suffered terrifying tortures. The Iroquois warriors “fell upon us like mad dogs with sharp teeth, tearing out our nails and crushing our fingers,” St. Isaac would later write. He also reports that they were forced to endure beatings as they “ran the gauntlet” and had hot coals placed on their exposed flesh, while they lay helpless with their hands bound fast.

Isaac Jogues is our authority for this account, because Rene Goupil would not live to write again. In the Jesuit Relations, the documents by which the missionaries shared with their superiors the stories of their labors, St. Isaac tells the story of what led up to St. Rene’s martyrdom:

After we had been in the country six weeks—as confusion arose in the councils of the Iroquois, some of whom were quite willing that we should be taken back—we lost the hope, which I did not consider very great, of again seeing Three Rivers that year. We accordingly consoled each other in the divine arrangement of things, and we were preparing for everything that it might ordain for us…

One day, then, as in the grief of our souls we had gone forth from the village in order to pray more suitably and with less disturbance, two young men came after us to tell us that we must return home. I had some presentiment of what was to happen, and said to him, ‘My dearest brother, let us commend ourselves to Our Lord and to our good mother the Blessed Virgin; these people have some evil design, as I think.’ We had offered ourselves to Our Lord shortly before with much devotion, beseeching him to receive our lives and our blood, and to unite them with his life and blood for the salvation of these poor peoples. We accordingly returned to our village, reciting our rosary…

In fact, as St. Isaac predicted, further evil would soon befall them. Saint Rene Goupil was martyred when an Iroquois warrior attacked him with a hatchet on September 29, 1642. He died with the Holy Name of Jesus on his lips, as he had often said he wished to do. Isaac Jogues survived and went to France for a time, requiring a special dispensation to offer Mass with mutilated hands, since both of his index fingers and one of his thumbs had been cut off. All the time he was in France, however, he longed to return to his beloved mission. He did return, and was killed by a tomahawk blow on October 18, 1646 at the hands of an Iroquois warrior. As did Rene Goupil before him, and as would the other North American Martyrs after him, Isaac Jogues in life and in death offered himself completely to the Father in union with the Lord Jesus. Later, the man who killed St. Isaac Jogues would himself seek Baptism and take the Christian name of Isaac Jogues.

It has been said that the saints provide for us a kind of “living Gospel.” Their lives bring to every age the holiness, the sacrificial and saving love of Jesus Christ. So it is with the North American Martyrs, who have brought the love of Christ to these lands and laid down their lives so that others might truly live.

We are the beneficiaries of their witness, of course. But their heroic virtues call forth from us not only our admiration but also our imitation. Their commitment to Christ, their self-sacrificial love for all people, their devotion to the Blessed Virgin and especially to the Holy Eucharist, are all virtues we need to make our own as we engage in the mission of evangelization.

And we must be willing to suffer with perseverance. There is no truly Christian life without suffering. In the words of Blessed John Henry Newman, which beautifully capture the spirit of the martyrs—a spirit we are all called to share:

O simple soul, is it not the law of thy being to endure since thou camest to Christ? Why camest thou but to endure? Why didst thou taste His heavenly feast, but that it might work in thee? Why didst thou kneel beneath His hand, but that He might leave on thee the print of His wounds?

In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we come to taste Christ’s heavenly feast. We should all pray fervently for the Eucharistic Lord to work in us, to leave on us the print of His wounds, that we might both strive and endure all we must to carry our crosses with Him. And we should pray that the North American Martyrs give us the prayers and help we need to imitate them, who so closely imitated our crucified, risen, and Eucharistic Lord.

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About Fr. Charles Fox 67 Articles
Rev. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome. He is also chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren, MI.


  1. Thank you Fr Charles for this focus on evangelism: that is, the conveying of the Good News we have learned from Our Lord Jesus Christ, by witnessing it to everyone.

    As Jesus tells Pontius Pilate (John 18:37): “. . I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to My voice.”

    From Revelation 12:17b we learn that the children of our Blessed Mother Mary are all those who “. . obey God’s commandments and bear witness for Jesus.”

    All obedient, Christ-witnessing Catholics inherently testify to the Good News. As Pope Francis encourages us: every Catholic is supposed to be an evangelist; daily evangelism is our most important vocation.

    Perfectly naturally, by virtue of who we are, we’re all honored to be able to give others their first taste of an Encounter With Jesus Christ; on a daily basis.

    For some, our witness will prove deeply attractive and they may progress to fully encounter The Lord and joyfully give their lives to Him. Many will be indifferent or even repelled. A few will become furious; Jesus told us to be discerning and not to try and give His Holy Pearls to such (see Matthew 7:6).

    In John 1 we’re told the world was made through Christ, its Light, yet the world rejected Him. Those who – against the world-impetus of unbelief – received and believed in Christ, gain the right to rise above their physicality and choose to be God’s own children.

    From the very start, Christian evangelism has divided people. In fact, we may see the whole cosmic story, from alpha to omega as a process of separation of God’s children out of this universe of space-time/energy-matter, which is scientifically tenuous and liminal and guaranteed to end in destruction & dissolution. (see ‘Ethical Ontology Harmonizes . .’ free on web)

    These realities might give pause to those ‘evangelists’ who take their work to be that of, by any means (including deceit and hypocrisy), conscripting individuals and societies into their religious communities. That process demeans the free human persons that God has made all of us to be. In contrast, everything of Jesus Christ and His Apostles speaks of truth-telling and free, human, voluntary choice-making.

    Since Constantine, our Church’s frequent history of coercive ‘evangelism’ is not of God, yet it has set the pattern for Hindus & Islamists & Communists & other religions who have followed the long and tortuous path of conquest and forceful conscription, by any means. Numbers, territory, property, wealth, possessions, position, and influence are preeminent. The ends justify the means they proclaim!

    Maybe the synodal processes being introduced by Pope Francis will finally get us all back on the original path of Truth? The vastly superior intellectual and religious message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is well able to attract those being called into God’s family. Conscription, intrigue, hypocrisy, and grandiosity have no part in it.

    So, let us indeed all be true evangelists, aware that our job is to humbly WITNESS; and realizing it is not of Christ to try and win by all & any means.

    We are to be obedient & humbly WITNESS; in full confidence that God in Jesus Christ will effect all of the winning that is necessary!

    Always in the grace & mercy of God; love & blessings from Marty

    • “ In contrast, everything of Jesus Christ and His Apostles speaks of truth-telling and free, human, voluntary choice-making”

      How true, while authority demands dutiful respect but so does love in gentle dress and loyalty is its constant guest which is reflected in “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory” God is patient and gentle with all of us, thank God.

      A disciple in the ancient biblical world actively imitated both the life and teaching of the master. It was a deliberate apprenticeship that made the fully formed disciple a living copy of the master.
      True faith induces humility, as a holy heart is a humble heart because to walk in humility (St Bernard, Humility; a virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself) is to walk, His ‘Way’ of Truth/love, before our Father in heaven.

      “But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you”

      For professed Christians not to do so, would imply, as yet, that we do not have the full light of Christ within us as

      “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your vision is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your vision is poor, your whole body will be full of darkness”

      So, we need to be very careful, especially in our own assumed relationship with God and our fellow man as we need to see true discipleship, not mere words. We see this discipleship in St Mother Teresa, who overcame hostility from Hinduism etc. As initially, when she went out into the streets of Calcutta, she had to confront hostility in creating a centre for the destitute, but the ‘gentleness (Humility) of her witness, was accepted, because her witness was authentic’.

      She approached the goodness within men’s hearts, encouraging them, in words to the effect of ‘be good Hindus’, understanding that the Truth (The divine spark) resides in all men’s hearts, waiting to be nourished and they responded positively. So, in this lived reality (Discipleship) these words by the Master would be applicable…

      “Whoever gives to one of these little (Humble) ones even a cup of cold water because he is a ‘disciple’, truly, I say to you he shall not lose his reward”

      ‘Because he is a disciple’ one gives (Water) in humility, a sincere acknowledgement of manifest goodness/Truth, reflecting the indwelling Divine spark within the heart/soul of the giver, now ignited and waiting to be further enkindled by the Holy Spirit. As “other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice”

      Here we see the basis of reciprocal love in action, emanating from humility (a sincere acknowledgement of goodness) before true Discipleship. Through the eyes of faith, we come to see, as God wants (Wills) us to see, that is, that every other, is made in the image of God.

      I believe that Confirmed Discipleship (Male and Female) is the way forward for the Church in our present-day: As to-day for many it is easier to accept the status quo as we the ‘laity’ have been led for generations as The Eucharist is the centre of Christian worship and by implication, the priest is our ‘Focal Point’, as he is given a special charisma via ordination.
      To Peter “feed my flock” we will always need central direction (Leadership).

      The place-name Emmaus is derived from “warm spring” – for me symbolic of the His Way (Journey) the encounter of ‘warm embrace’ in previous times manifest as “see how those Christians love one and other”
      So how do we encounter each other on the ‘Way’ in the market (Working) place of life, from the Tea Plantation to the Office as partaking of the ‘warm spring’ (Grace)?
      Where are the working disciples?

      Food for thought: ‘The Emmaus encounter’ incorporates ‘joyous living’ in sharing (breaking) the Bread (Sustenance) of Life publicly, but not the Wine (Blood) suffering of full (Confirmed) discipleship (Focal point) of His Way.

      I have read that “The grace of Confirmation, properly administered, is real, but the recipient has to be properly disposed to receive it” And for this reason, I believe that The Sacrament of Confirmation should only be conferred on Mature Christians, those capable of discerning the ‘full’ implication /calling/reality of His ‘Way’ of life. While praying not to be led “into temptation (The test)”, rather “but deliver us from evil”“For the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”

      The Church has lost the sense of awe (mystical tradition) before the ‘living’ Inviolate Word (Will) of God. And this loss has revealed itself in that the educated within the Church have colluding ..V.. with the elite in the ‘ongoing’ breaking of the Second Commandment

      “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”

      To permit this sin to continue is to collude with it “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire/Truth of your love. And You shall renew the face of the earth/Church. O, God”

      Please consider continuing via the link.

      kevin your brother
      In Christ

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