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The Martyrs

We have observed that the Huron were at war with the Five Nations and that Iroquois scalping parties haunted the river routes and the trails to waylay Huron canoemen and cut off hunters and stragglers from their villages. When or how the feud began, between the Iroquois on the one side and the Huron and Algonquins on the other, no man can tell. It antedated Champlain; and, as we have seen, he had involved the French in it. There were, no doubt, many bloody encounters of which history furnishes no record. At first the warriors had fought on equal terms, the weapons of all being the bow and arrow, the tomahawk, the knife, and the war-club. But now the Iroquois had firearms, procured from the Dutch of the Hudson, and were skilled in the use of the musket, which gave them a great advantage over their Huron and Algonquin foes.

On the south-east frontier of Huronia, about four miles from Orillia, stood a town of the clan of the Rock, Contarea, a 'main bulwark of the country.' The inhabitants were pagans who had resisted the missionaries, and refused them permission to build a chapel, not even deigning to listen to their appeals. In the early summer of 1642 the people of Contarea were living in fancied security; and when runners brought word that in the forests to the east a large force of Iroquois were encamped, the Contarean warriors felt confident that, from behind their strong palisades, they could resist any attack. No Iroquois appeared; and, believing the rumor false, many of the warriors left the town for the accustomed hunting and fishing grounds. Suddenly, early on a June morning, the sleepy guards were roused by savage yells. The Iroquois were upon them. The alarm rang out; the towers were manned, and the palisades lined with defenders. But in vain. Arrows and bullets swept towers and palisades, and through breaches made in the walls in rushed a horde of bloodthirsty demons. In a few minutes all was over; the town became a shambles; young and old fell beneath the tomahawks of the infuriated invaders. Then the torch! And the Iroquois hied them back in triumph to their homes by the Mohawk, exulting in this first effective blow at the enemy in his own country.

When news arrived of the destruction of Contarea, there was wild alarm in the mission towns. But it was no part of the Iroquois plan to attack at once the other Huron strongholds. Huronia could wait until the tribes of the St Lawrence and the Ottawa, allies of the Huron, should be destroyed. Then the Five Nations could concentrate their forces on the Huron.

And so six years passed over the Jesuits in the mission-fields. Scalping parties occasionally haunted the outskirts of the villages where they were stationed. The Iroquois frequently attacked the annual fleet of canoes on its journey to Quebec, and on several occasions captured and carried off priests and their assistants. But during these years no large body of Iroquois invaded Huronia. The insatiable warriors of the Five Nations were busy devastating the St Lawrence and the Ottawa, pressing the tribes back and ever back, until scarcely a wigwam could be seen between Ville Marie and Lake Nipissing. The Algonquins who had not fallen had left their villages and had sought safety on the bleak shores and islands of Georgian Bay, or among the Huron.

The mission was prospering under the guidance of Paul Ragueneau, who in 1645 succeeded Lalemant as superior, when the latter journeyed to Quebec to take over the office of superior-general of the Canada mission. Ste Marie, a wilderness Mecca of the faith, entertained yearly thousands of Indians, many of whom professed Christianity. On one occasion seven hundred Indians sought this sanctuary within a fortnight, and to each of these the fathers from their abundant stores gave two meals. About the walls fields of corn, beans, pumpkins, and wheat spread fair to the eye. Within the enclosure all was activity. Ambroise Brouet was busy in his kitchen; Louis Gauber was at his forge; Pierre Masson, when not occupied at his tailor's bench, was hard at work in the garden, the pride of the mission; Christophe Regnaut and Jacques Levrier were mending or fashioning shoes and moccasins; Joseph Molere prepared potions for the sick and had charge of the laundry; and Charles Boivin, the master-builder, superintended the erection of new buildings or the strengthening and improving of those already built. The appearance of permanency about the place was enhanced by the fowls, pigs, and cattle. There were two cows and two bulls, which had been brought with incredible toil from Quebec.

The teaching and example of the fathers were winning a way to the hearts of the Indians. In 1648 eleven or twelve mission stations stood throughout Huronia, among the Algonquins, and among the Petuns, now settled in the Blue Hills south of Nottawasaga Bay. Seven of these stations had chapels and in six it had been found necessary to establish residences. In some of the villages, such as Ossossane, the Christians outnumbered the pagans. The Christian Huron gave active help to the fathers in the work of the mission, some among their own people, and others among the Petun and the Neutrals. The chapels had bells--on some discarded kettles served this purpose--to call the flocks to worship; and crosses studded the land. Huronia was in a fair way of being completely won; and the missionaries were already looking to the unexplored regions round and beyond Lake Superior, and even to the land of the Iroquois. Then, with the suddenness of a volcanic eruption, their flocks were scattered and their dearest hopes crushed.

In 1647 there was no communication between Ste Marie and Quebec. Owing to the danger from Iroquois along the route, the annual canoe-fleet did not go down, although a small party of Huron, it seems, went as far as Ville Marie. The necessities of the mission were, however, urgent, and in the spring of the following year Father Bressani set out with a strong contingent of two hundred and fifty Huron warriors, fully half of whom were Christians. No sooner had this expedition begun its descent of the Ottawa than an Iroquois war-party, which had wintered near Lake Nipissing, stole southward through the forests towards Huronia.

Contarea had been destroyed. The dangerous position of St Jean-Baptiste, situated near the site of Cahiague on Lake Simcoe, whence Champlain had set out against the Iroquois in 1615, had led the Jesuits to abandon it. St Joseph or Teanaostaiae, with about two thousand inhabitants, was therefore the frontier town on the south-east of Huronia. Father Daniel, in charge of this station, had just returned from his annual eight-day retreat at Ste Marie. For four years he had labored in this mission; and, though his flock had been a stiff-necked one, his work had brought its reward. On the 4th of July his little chapel was crowded for the celebration of early Mass, and as he gazed at the congregation of his converts his spirit rejoiced within him. He had just finished the service, when shrill through the morning air rang the cry: 'The Iroquois! The Iroquois!' Rushing out he saw the foe already hacking at the palisades and many of the defenders falling beneath a storm of arrows and bullets. His first thought for his flock, he hurried back into the chapel, beseeching them to save themselves. They pressed about him, praying for baptism and for absolution; and, as they held to him appealing hands, he dipped his handkerchief in the font and baptized the crowd by aspersion. Then he boldly strode to the door of his chapel and faced the enemy. For a moment the savage fiends hesitated before the stern-eyed priest standing in his vestments, protecting, as it seemed, the flock that cowered behind him; but only for a moment. Yelling defiance at the white medicine-man, they directed their weapons against him; and this dauntless soldier of the Cross received the crown of martyrdom which he had prayed might be his. His slayers fell upon his body, stripped it of clothing, mutilated it, and cast it into the now flaming chapel, a fitting funeral pyre for the first martyr of the Huron mission. The entire village was given to the flames, and the smoke of the burning cabins and palisades rolled over the forest. A small village not far away, on the trail to Ossossane, shared the same fate. The slaughter glutted the ferocity of the Iroquois for the time being; and, with some seven hundred prisoners, they stole back to their villages south of Lake Ontario.

After this calamity the pall of a great fear hung over the Huron. Paralysed and inert, the warriors took no steps to defend the country against the Iroquois peril. In spite of the exhortations of the Jesuits, they lay idle in their wigwams or hunted in the forest, dejectedly awaiting their doom.

An Iroquois war-party twelve hundred strong spent the winter of 1648-49 on the upper Ottawa; and as the snows began to melt under the thaws of spring these insatiable slayers of men directed their steps towards Huronia. The frontier village on the east was now St Ignace, on the west of the Sturgeon river, about seven miles from Ste Marie. It was strongly fortified and formed a part of a mission of the same name, under the care of Brebeuf and Father Gabriel Lalemant, a nephew of Jerome Lalemant. About a league distant, midway to Ste Marie, stood St Louis, another town of the mission, where the two fathers lived. On the 16th of March the inhabitants of St Ignace had no thought of impending disaster. The Iroquois might be on the war-path, but they would not come while yet ice held the rivers and snow lay in the forests. But that morning, just as the horizon began to glow with the first colors of the dawn, the sleeping Huron woke to the sound of the dreaded war-whoop. The Iroquois devils had breached the walls. Three Huron escaped, dashed along the forest trail to St Louis, roused the village, and then fled for Ste Marie, followed by the women and children and those too feeble to fight. There were in St Louis only about eighty warriors, but, not knowing the strength of the invaders, they determined to fight. The Hurons begged Brebeuf and Lalemant to fly to Ste Marie; but they refused to stir. In the hour of danger and death they must remain with their flock, to sustain the warriors in the battle and to give the last rites of the Church to the wounded and dying.

Having made short work of St Ignace, the Iroquois came battering at the walls of St Louis before sunrise. The Huron resisted stubbornly; but the assailants outnumbered them ten to one, and soon hacked a way through the palisades and captured all the defenders remaining alive, among them Brebeuf and Lalemant.

The Iroquois bound Brebeuf and Lalemant and led them back to St Ignace, beating them as they went. There they stripped the two priests and tied them to stakes. Brebeuf knew that his hour had come. Him the savages made the special object of their diabolical cruelty. And, standing at the stake amid his yelling tormentors, he bequeathed to the world an example of fortitude sublime, unsurpassed, and unsurpassable. Neither by look nor cry nor movement did he give sign of the agony he was suffering. To the reviling and abuse of the fiends he replied with words warning them of the judgment to come. They poured boiling water on his head in derision of baptism; they hung red-hot axes about his naked shoulders; they made a belt of pitch and resin and placed it about his body and set it on fire. By every conceivable means the red devils strove to force him to cry for mercy. But not a sound of pain could they wring from him. At last, after four hours of this torture, a chief cut out his heart, and the noble servant of God quitted the scene of his earthly labors.

Lalemant, a man of gentle, refined character, as delicate as Brebeuf was robust, also endured the torture. But the savages administered it to him with a refinement of cruelty, and kept him alive for fourteen hours. Then at last he, too, entered into his rest.

Ten years before Brebeuf had made a vow to Christ: 'Never to shrink from martyrdom if, in Your mercy, You deem me worthy of so great a privilege. Henceforth, I will never avoid any opportunity that presents itself of dying for You, but will accept martyrdom with delight, provided that, by so doing, I can add to Your glory. From this day, my Lord Jesus Christ, I cheerfully yield unto You my life, with the hope that You will grant me the grace to die for You, since You have deigned to die for me. Grant me, O Lord, so to live, that You may deem me worthy to die a martyr's death Thus my Lord, I take Your chalice, and call upon Your name. Jesu! Jesu! Jesu!' How nobly this vow was kept.

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Chronicles of Canada, The Jesuit Missions, A Chronicle of the Cross in the Wilderness, 1915


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