While still a Jesuit novice, John of Brebeuf prayed fervently that God send him on a dangerous mission. As it turned out, his prayers were answered. In fact, after years of often fruitless struggle among the Indians of North America, he died at their hands.
John was a French Norman with the courage of his forefathers. Selected to work in New France, he rejoiced. He arrived in Quebec in 1625 and "went native," living in a wigwam. Beginning in 1626, he and another missionary worked for two years with the Huron near Georgian Bay, but had little success in converting the Indians. Brebeuf was recalled to France in 1629 when Britain got control of the French colony. But the French regained Canada in 1633 and Brebeuf returned to the scene of his labors and his eventual death.
It was heartbreaking work. A lesser man might have dropped aside. For the most part, the Indians were not very interested in Christianity. For sixteen years Brebeuf labored among various tribes, gaining a small but growing success only among the Huron.
In 1648 the Iroquois attacked the Huron. John escaped death that year. In March of the following year, messengers raced to warn the Huron at St. Ignace and St. Louis that the Iroquois were on the war path. John could have fled. Instead, he helped women and children escape into the woods. Only the braves remained. They urged Brebeuf and his young assistant, Gabriel Lalemant, to flee. This was not their fight, they said. The Jesuits refused to go, although they knew they would be tortured if captured. They reasoned that now more than ever, the Huron needed spiritual counsel, baptism, and the last rites.
When the assault began, the two Jesuits raced among the men, shouting encouragement, urging them to pray, tending the wounded, baptizing the dying. The Iroquois prevailed, capturing Brebeuf, Lalemant and sixty Huron warriors, whom they beat and herded to St. Ignace. Brebeuf called on the Huron warriors to stay true to Christ until death.
Stripped naked, the Jesuits were tied to stakes and tortured with fire. Brebeuf suffered from noon until four p.m. on this day, March 16, 1649. When he would not scream out, but continued to pray for the salvation of his tormentors, the Iroquois heated cauldrons of boiling water and poured it over him in mockery of baptism. They cut and hacked his body, and gouged out his eyes. Before he died, they scalped him and cut out his heart, which they ate. Lalemant died of similar tortures early the next morning.
- Campell, T. J. "Jean de Brébeuf." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- MacDougall, Angus. "Jean de Brebeuf / 1593-1649." (www.wyandot.org/brebeuf.htm).
- O'Brien, John Anthony. The American Martyrs ; the story of the eight Jesuit martyrs of North America. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1953.
- Parkman, Francis. The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century. Boston: Little, Brown, and company, 1886.
- Talbot, Francis X. Saint among the Hurons, the life of Jean de Brébeuf. New York: Harper, 1949.
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles.
Last updated May, 2007.