The North American Martyrs: Witnesses to Fraternal Love

On July 4, 1648, a group of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) warriors raced through the village of Teanaustayé, in present-day Simcoe County, Ontario, taking the lives of everyone in their path. Teanaustayé was home to the Wyandot (Huron) people and a small community of French Jesuits who lived and worked with them. As the attack unfolded, Jesuit Father Antoine Daniel grabbed a handkerchief, drenched it in water, and spent his last moments baptizing the Wyandot men, women, and children who asked him for the Sacrament. According to Francis Parkman’s The Jesuits in North America, Father Daniel’s last words to the small group were: “Brothers! Brothers! Today we shall be in heaven.” In the midst of conflict and death, he spoke words of fraternity and life.

On October 3, Pope Francis will sign his third encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (in English, All Brothers). It seems to me that the North American Martyrs, whose feast we celebrate tomorrow in Canada (and on October 19 in the United States), and the Wyandot with whom they lived, have a lot to teach us about what it means to be “brothers,” or family in Christ.

Father Daniel was one of these martyrs. Though born and raised in France, he knew his Christian family extended beyond the boundaries of his native country. Jesus had died to gather “those from every tribe and tongue and people and nation … to be a kingdom and priests” in the service of one God, and as children of one Father (Rev 5:9-10). Father Daniel shared God’s thirst for the unity of the human family and left all that was familiar to him to work for it.  

Father Daniel arrived in present-day Ontario in 1632 and lived among the Wyandot for fourteen years. He learned their language and customs, and he contemplated God who was already at work through the Wyandot way of life. He translated the Our Father and articles of the Catholic Faith into Wyandot, which paved the way for them to pray together, as one family.

His companion martyr Saint Jean de Brébeuf took a similarly contemplative approach to communicating the riches of Christ and the Catholic Faith in North America. In a moving letter of advice to new Jesuit missionaries, de Brébeuf revealed his love for the Wyandot people—a love he must have found in the Heart of Christ Himself. “You must love these Hurons [Wyandot], ransomed by the blood of the Son of God, as brothers,” de Brébeuf wrote. “You must never keep [them] waiting at the time of embarking. Carry a tinder-box or a piece of burning-glass, or both, to make fire for them during the day for smoking, and in the evening when it is necessary to camp… Do not carry any water or sand into the canoe. Be the least troublesome….”[1] De Brébeuf observed the smallest details of Wyandot culture with love and took pains to adapt to a lifestyle that was not his own, so that Jesus’ prayer for the unity of the human family might become a reality.

The mutual encounter of French and Wyandot gave birth to new and beautiful expressions of the Catholic Faith that the Church is still unpacking. When Wyandot council member Chiwatenhwa heard the story of Jesus, he was profoundly moved by this man who cast out demons and gave His life to save the world from evil. Having grown up in a faith tradition where evil spirits were a ubiquitous threat to be feared, Chiwatenhwa experienced tremendous freedom through the news that God had conquered evil and death. Moved by the Holy Spirit, Chiwatenhwa recognized Jesus as his “elder and chief” who revealed the Face of the Father, the Great Spirit.[2] As the Jesuits shared more stories from the Gospel, Chiwatenhwa helped them with translations and played an invaluable role in reframing Christ’s Middle Eastern parables into words and images that more closely mirrored the North American experience, so that the Gospel might be more easily understood. In the words of Saint Jerome Lalemant, another North American martyr, Chiwatenhwa was nothing less than “the leaven of the Gospel that makes the dough of this new Huron church rise.”[3]

The eight North American Martyrs died at different times and in different circumstances between 1642 and 1649. Many Wyandot, including Chiwatenhwa, died for their faith around this time period as well. Their faith-filled deaths challenge us, but perhaps their lives challenge us more.

We are often content to know and love our “brothers and sisters” as those who live in our neighborhoods, belong to our political parties, attend our churches, or share our ethnic backgrounds. But the North American Martyrs—named and unnamed, French and Wyandot—push us further. Saints Antoine Daniel, Jean de Brébeuf, Jerome Lalemant, Isaac Jogues, and their companions were not satisfied to know only a few members of God’s family. They traveled to the ends of the earth to teach and baptize more of them. They gave everything, including their dying breath, to welcome more brothers and sisters into the household of God. The Wyandot likewise took the risk of receiving strangers into their communities and listening to their unfamiliar stories. As they opened themselves to the Word of God, and as the Jesuits relied on them for new ways to communicate it, the two cultures found God reflected in each other’s faces.

Perhaps we are more comfortable sitting in the same pew week after week, following likeminded individuals on Twitter, or limiting our social engagements to a subsection of the Body of Christ who looks, thinks, and acts like we do. But if this is us, we would do well to ponder the example of the North American Martyrs, French and Wyandot alike.   

Through their intercession, may God give us missionary hearts: hearts big enough to welcome more people into the family of God, and humble enough to allow others to lead us into a deeper relationship with Jesus, their Brother and ours.

by Sr Amanda Detry, FSP

[1] Quoted in John D. O’Brien, SJ, “Saint Jean de Brébeuf (1649),” in Canadian Saints, ed. David Beresford (Ottawa: Justin Press, 2015), 79-80.

[2] Quoted in Henry Bruce, Friends of God: The Early Native Huron Church in Canada (North Bay: Tomiko, 1991), https://www.wyandot.org/friendsofgod.htm.

[3] Ibid.

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