Canada’s Christian Heritage Web Site
Jean de Brébeuf
“His desire was to die for Jesus Christ.”
Jesuit priest Jean de Brébeuf, the giant of the Huron missions, was a hero and a martyr. His unbridled commitment to God’s work among the Huron resulted in his canonization by Pius XI in 1930 and, in 1940, his being proclaimed the patron saint of Canada by Pius XII. For Brébeuf, Jesus Christ was the sole reason for living and, indeed, for dying, as he reveals in his diary:
My God, my Saviour, I take from thy hand the cup of thy sufferings. I vow never to fail thee in the grace of martyrdom, if by thy mercy, thou dost offer it to me. I bind myself, and when I have received the stroke of death, I will accept it from thy gracious hand with all pleasure and with joy in my heart; to thee my blood, my body and my life!
Death held no fear for Brébeuf; for him, it meant life with God forever. Fifteen years before his death, he told his Huron friends that “it is in God alone that my heart rests, and, outside him, all is naught to me.”
Jean de Brébeuf was born in 1593 in Condé-sur-Vire in Lower Normandy, France. He grew to become a giant of a man, physically and spiritually. Tall and broad shouldered, Brébeuf would live up to his Huron name, Echon: “he who pulls the heavy load.”
When Brébeuf was twenty-four, he entered the Jesuit noviciate in Rouen, France. Although he later became known as the most robust of the Black-robes—as the Jesuits were called by the natives—poor health shortened his studies and brought his early ordination into the priesthood, in 1622. Brébeuf then remained at the College of Rouen for a time, where he held the office of steward, before eventually being chosen for the missions in New France. He sailed from Quebec from Dieppe in spring 1625. After a brief missionary apprenticeship among the Algonquin, Brébeuf was assigned by his superior, Father Charles Lalemant, to Huron country (near modern-day Midland, Ontario), where the sedentary Huron were deemed more desirable candidates for evangelization than the nomadic life Algonquin. Three years later, he was forced back to France. Brébeuf, however, returned to Huronia in 1634 and, except for one brief stay in Quebec, remained there to his death.
Lalemant chose Brébeuf to work among the Huron primarily because of Brébeuf’s talent for languages. Indeed, Brébeuf’s ability to communicate with the Huron and the ease with which he assimilated into their culture endeared him to the Huron. Brébeuf composed the first dictionary and grammar of the Huron language, translated prayers into Huron, and wrote the Huron Carol in an attempt to give an indigenous interpretation of the nativity.
Other Brébeuf writings include two contributions to Relations de Jésuites, in 1635 and in 1636. In them, Brébeuf reveals a desire to thoroughly understand the culture of the Huron. They remain a significant contribution to Huron ethnography. Along with Samuel de Champlain, Brébeuf is one of the most important witnesses of this period of first contacts. Like the other Jesuits, however, Brébeuf viewed Huron country as a “stronghold of Satan” and viewed the dances and native ceremonies as pagan.
The Jesuits nonetheless pinned their greatest hopes on the Huron mission, seeing it as a prototype for native evangelization and a model for other missions. The work of conversion, however, advanced very slowly, the result, in Brébeuf’s estimation, of the Huron’s immorality and attachment to customs and the prevalence of epidemics. Unwittingly, the Europeans had brought diseases unknown to and against which the Indians had little immunity. After smallpox broke out in 1637, the natives—rightly attributing the scourge to the Europeans—tore down crosses and vandalized the chapel. The few members of Brébeuf’s flock deserted their newly embraced faith.
Amid beatings and attempts on his life, Brébeuf remained steadfast. In a letter to priests in France who were considering joining the mission, he wrote:
Your life hangs by a thread. Of calamities you are the cause—the scarcity of game, a fire, famine, or an epidemic … you are the reasons, and at any time a savage may burn your cabin down or split your head.… “Wherein the gain,” you ask? There is no gain but this—that what you suffer shall be of God. So if despite these trials you are ready to share our labours, come; for you will find a consolation in the cross that far outweighs its burdens.
Father Ragueneau, another of Brébeuf’s superiors, is known to have commented, “I find nothing more frequent in Brébeuf’s memoirs than the expression of his desire to die for Jesus Christ.”
Heedless of entreaties for him to flee, even when the weakened Huron faced attack from their traditional enemies, the Iroquois, Brébeuf remained with the Huron, ministering to them as they awaited the approaching war party. With the Huron greatly outnumbered, the outcome was inevitable.
Brébeuf’s death ranks among the most atrocious martyrdom’s in the annals of Christianity. The few Huron prisoners who escaped provided Jesuit scribes with eyewitness accounts of how he was killed. The Jesuits later confirmed their stories by examining Brébeuf’s body.
Brébeuf was stripped naked by the triumphant Iroquois. His fingernails were torn from his fingers, and he was then beaten with sticks and bound to a stake. He exhorted his fellow captives to suffer patiently and promised heaven as their reward. His feet were severed from his legs so that he could not smother the fire that was lit at the base of the stake. Then, as the Iroquois taunted him, boiling water was slowly poured over his head in a mockery of baptism. Still, Brébeuf did not cry out. In a rage, strips of flesh were cut from his limbs, roasted, and devoured before his eyes. Brébeuf, the prized captive of the Iroquois, seemed insensible to pain, further enraging the Iroquois, who took pride in their ability to torture. As he continued to pray aloud, his captors cut away his tongue and lips and thrust a glowing iron shaft down his throat. With the torture entering its fourth hour, Brébeuf was scalped. Seeing him near death, they laid open his breast and devoured his heart and drank his blood, thinking that they might imbibe some portion of his courage.
Brébeuf’s ministry among the Hurons lasted fifteen years. Sadly, he never lived to see the abundant harvest of his apostolate. It is in his death that his life is best understood and that his work bore its greatest fruit. Conversions, which for many years were few in number, grew to number in the hundreds and even thousands in the years following Brébeuf’s martyrdom. The dispersion of the Huron spread the Christian faith among the native peoples of the Great Lakes. And these converts formed the Christian communities that the Jesuits were to found among the Iroquois and the natives of the west. Brébeuf’s death, like his Saviour’s, led others to eternal life.