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St. Isaac Jogues, Apostle of the Mohawks

10/18/2019 | Comments

A soft-spoken, gentle man born in Orleans, France, in 1607, Isaac Jogues entered the Society of Jesus in 1624, was ordained, and served at the university in Rouen as a professor of literature. He was sent as a Jesuit missionary to Canada in 1636, where he joyfully brought the Gospel to Native Americans, sailing up the St. Lawrence River to the city of Quebec. He wrote his mother:

“I do not know what it is to enter Heaven, but this I know — that it would be difficult to experience in this world a joy more excessive and more overflowing than I felt in setting foot in the New World, and celebrating my first Mass on the day of the Visitation.”

In order to help convert foreign peoples, it was a Jesuit practice to live among them as one of them. For six years, Father Jogues labored in “New France,” as Canada was called. It took time to learn the language well enough to properly catechize the people of the New World.

The French explorers and fur traders had found the Huron and Algonquin tribes to be friendly, and the Jesuits began their missionary labors among them. Paddling canoes and blazing trails across the countryside, the missionaries lived on eels and corn paste and had to endure woefully squalid conditions. In time, however, over 2000 Hurons were baptized.

On one of his journeys, Father Jogues stood on the shore of Lake Superior, at the site of the present city of Sault Ste. Marie. He found some 2,000 Ojibways gathered to celebrate their Feast of the Dead. Father Jogues made a well-received address. As a sign of his great hope of preaching Christ to the Sioux, he erected a cross facing west towards the headwaters of the Mississippi where that tribe lived.

But trouble began to brew when tribes from New Amsterdam and New England arrived in New France. They spread stories about the French settlers and the priests.

The Dutch and English settlers, hoping to undercut French financial enterprises in Canada, had begun spreading rumors among the Iroquois, Seneca and Mohawk tribes forming the Iroquois Confederation. The tribal leaders were told that wherever the French and the “Blackrobes” — as the Jesuits were called — came to live, they “brought calamity” along with them, especially illnesses like smallpox and measles, against which the Indians had no immunity. The Indians were informed that the Blackrobes would kidnap the women and children and sell warriors and chiefs into slavery.

On top of all that, the Dutch and English warned medicine men to beware the Blackrobes’ hand motions. The Mass was a diabolic ceremony, the Indians were told, and the Sign of the Cross was evil magic. The plotting worked well. The false stories spread rapidly. Formerly friendly villages became hostile as the Hurons turned on the Blackrobes.

At the same time, the Mohawks invaded the Huron and Algonquin territories to take the French unawares. With the French preoccupied with the warring tribes, the Dutch and English reasoned, they could pounce on trade in New France without much trouble.

As Father Jogues and others were returning in canoes from Quebec City, the Mohawks attacked, taking the Christians captive. Returning to their village, the Mohawks began torturing them. Father Jogues’ fingernails were ripped out. His thumbs and forefingers were gnawed to the bone to prevent his “evil magic” from taking effect. A captive Algonquin woman was forced to cut off the priest’s left thumb. The captives then ran the gauntlet. Jogues wrote:

“We were made to go up from the shore between two lines of Indians who were armed with clubs, sticks, and knives. I was the last and blows were showered on me. I fell on the ground and thought my end had come, but they lifted me up all streaming with blood and carried me more dead than alive to the platform.”

On the platform, the captives endured insults as rocks and sticks were thrown at them. The Iroquois were especially cruel to the Huron converts.

At nightfall, the prisoners were taken to a cabin and thrown onto the ground where they were tied spread eagle. The children were then encouraged to drop hot coals on the prisoners.

News of their capture soon reached the Dutch Calvinists of New Amsterdam at the mouth of the Hudson. Commandant Van Corlear himself came up to ransom them but the Indians refused to give them up. It was also decided not to kill such valuable captives, perhaps expecting an even greater ransom from the French.

For 13 months, the Mohawks kept Father Jogues as a slave. Clad only in his tattered black Jesuit habit he was provided with a few furs by a friendly old Mohawk woman whom he gratefully called “aunt.” She also fed him when she could, protecting him and warning him of danger.

During this time, Father Jogues saved a pregnant woman who fell into an icy river, and when he came upon dying children he baptized them and others who desired it, 70 in total, supplying New York State with its first Catholic baptismal record.

Remarking on this period of his life to his confessor, Father Jogues said, “The only sin I can remember during my captivity is that I sometimes looked on the approach of death with complacency.” Watching him bear his suffering with remarkable fortitude, the Mohawks called Father Jogues Ondessonk, “the indomitable one.”

A number of Dutch settlers at Fort Orange (now Albany) heard of Father Jogues’ capture and sought to free the priest without jeopardizing their own fairly stable relations with the Mohawks. The Dutch rescued him and paid the tribe a sum of money as ransom.

After getting passage to New Amsterdam, Father Jogues was put off on the island of “Manhatte,” becoming the first Catholic priest in what is now New York City. His descriptions of the fort and the town have been incorporated in the official Documentary History of the State.

On Christmas morning, 1643, Father Jogues was put ashore in France, not realizing that his reputation had preceeded him. For 40 years, a record of Jesuit adventures in New France entitled “Jesuit Relations,” was published in French newspapers. Unbeknownst to Father Jogues, his own record had received widespread notice among the public. When people learned of his return, France was electrified. Ladies of fashion and members of the nobility wished to visit him. Public acclaim was the last thing the modest priest desired; he even refrained from going to see his mother to spare her the sight of his maimed hands.

Out of respect for the monarchy, Father Jogues agreed to be received in audience by the Queen Regent, Anne of Austria, who desired to hear his story. When Father Jogues concluded, Queen Anne was so moved that she rose and stooped to kiss the mutilated hands, which the priest habitually kept thrust in the pockets of his habit.

His great fear was that he should not be allowed to celebrate Mass since the anointed thumbs and forefingers were missing or mutilated, and he was canonically barred from touching the host with any other fingers.

Pope Urban VIII, who had canonized Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, and Francis Xavier, the order’s first great missionary, happily acceded to the Jesuit’s request to again offer Holy Mass. In granting the dispensation Urban wrote: “Indignum esset Christi Martyrum Christi non bibere sanguinem”: “It would be shameful that a martyr of Christ not be allowed to drink the blood of Christ.”

Now Father Jogues longed to return to the St. Lawrence Valley. At his request, the Jesuits allowed him to be named an ambassador to New France to ensure the fragile peace which had been achieved among the French, Algonquin and Huron tribes and the Iroquois Confederation. 

By June 1644 he was again in Quebec, then sent to the new outpost of Montreal. Two years later, an embassy of Iroquois came to work out a truce and the ransom of prisoners. Father Jogues participated in the deliberations and gifts were exchanged.

The French thought it best to send a conciliatory deputation to meet with other Iroquois chieftains. Knowing the terrain and the tribe’s language, Father Jogues volunteered. He wrote his superior: “Oh, how I should regret to lose so glorious an occasion when it may depend only on me that some souls be saved! I hope that his goodness, which has not abandoned me in the hour of trial, will aid me still.”

The party traveled south, stopping first at Fort Orange, where the priest happily greeted his Dutch friends and reimbursed them for his ransom. He astonished the Dutch hearing that he was going back among his former captors. The Mohawks, too, were impressed by his courage when he appeared among them showing no trace of ill will. Ondessonk indeed deserved his name! The man who was once the tribe’s despised captive now returned as an envoy of peace. Father Jogues was able to greet his old “aunt” who told him, “With us you will always have a mat to lie on and a fire to warm yourself.”

Gifts were exchanged, securing the release of the Hurons held captive. Father Jogues went back to Quebec but, now that friendly relations were established, he promised to return to spend the winter among the Mohawks.

Meanwhile, after Father Jogues left, an epidemic broke out. Caterpillars ate the crops, threatening a famine. Smallpox broke out and, as usual, the Mohawks blamed their troubles on the Blackrobe.

Totally unaware of the mounting tension, Father Jogues and John Lalande, a lay missionary, were once more on the trail. They were met by a party of Mohawks, and the two Frenchmen were taken prisoner. Speaking to the tribal council, Jogues’ arguments seemed to affect his hearers.

“I am a man like yourselves,” he replied to their charges. “I do not fear death or torture. I do not know why you wish to kill me. I come here to confirm the peace and show you the way to Heaven, and you treat me like a dog.”

The majority were ready to give the brave Ondessonk his freedom. However, the minority faction, members of the Bear clan, were opposed and took matters into their own hands. On Oct. 18, 1646, after being invited to visit the cabin of the Bear chief, Father Jogues was brutally murdered as he lowered his head to enter the door.

Lalande was killed the next day. Before both bodies were unceremoniously thrown into a nearby ravine, their heads were cut off and fixed on poles facing the trail by which they had come, a warning to other Blackrobes.

The example of Father Jogues’ heroism and sanctity was not forgotten. Three Jesuit priests sent from Canada to establish the Mission of the Martyrs were well received. Before long, Mohawk converts were traveling to the seminary in Quebec.

An ecclesiastical court was established in Quebec to receive testimony concerning the heroism, sanctity, and cause of death of Isaac Jogues and other priests and laymen. Near the town of Auriesville, New York, a shrine was dedicated in 1885 to the Martyrs of North America.

Isaac Jogues was canonized with seven other North American martyrs by Pope Pius XI on June 29, 1930. They are commemorated on Oct. 19.

Sean M. Wright, an Emmy-nominated television writer, is a Master Catechist for the archdiocese of Los Angeles and part of his parish’s RCIA team. He replies to comments sent him at

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