Born in Normandy, France in 1593, rather fittingly, to a family of farmers. Even though he suffered from ill health from an early age, he worked with his parents on their land,until he left for school. He then attended a nearby university at Caen. He joined the Jesuits of Rouen in 1617. As a young adult his health continued to suffer, and he was almost forced to leave the society when he contracted tuberculosis, but he persevered and in 1622 was ordained a priest. In 1625 he managed to be sent to North America to serve in the missions of Canada. Which was a literal God send for the saint. The cold harsh climate agreed with him and his health improved under the adverse conditions.
He was a rather large man and the natives called him echon which means load bearer. They looked at him as a man of great endurance and wished that he live with them. He was a learned man who knew many languages, although his knowledge of such was useless in the task of learning the Huron language and he struggled with it a great deal. But again, his perseverance paid off and he was able to learn the language well enough that he even wrote a catechism in the Huron language for the native people.
The odds were always stacked against this missionary priest. He was often blamed for any disease that came through the village and though many of the natives listened to him, there were still struggles with renegade Indians. And then there were the Protestant Huguenots who opposed him as well. But he had a sense of humor that helped him deal with the many obstacles he faced, as witnessed in experts from letters Saint John wrote to his fellow Jesuits in hopes of getting them to join him in North America:
“When you reach the land of the Hurons, you will find us full of love. We will receive you in a hut so miserable that none in France compare to it. Completely exhausted as you will be, we shall be able to give you nothing but a mat for a bed. Besides you will arrive in the season when ubiquitous fleas will prevent you from closing an eye all night long.
“You will spend the winter in almost continuous discomforts—excessive cold, smoke, the annoying habits of the savages, who crowd around our fireplace all day expecting to be fed.
“For the rest—well, so far life has been a bed of roses. We have Christians in almost every village, so we must plan on making rounds at all seasons. And our lives hang by a thread. Our straw cabin may catch fire at any moment. The malice of the savages causes perpetual fear. Some malcontent may cleave open your head because he believes you are the cause of droughts.”
“The food will be insipid, but the gall and vinegar of Our Blessed Saviour will make it like honey on your lips. Clambering over rocks and skirting cataracts will be pleasant if you think of Calvary; and you will be happy if you have lost the trail, or are sick and dying with hunger in the woods”…
As well as having a good sense of humor, he displayed strong character and a steadfastness in serving the Lord. In many of his letters he wrote about his missionary work and being able to convert the savage lands for the greater glory of the Lord. A few of these excerpts show his desire to unite himself in all things for God:
“There is no danger for your soul, if you bring into this Huron country the love and fear of God. In fact I find many helps to perfection. For in the first place, you have only the necessaries of life, and that makes it easy to be united with God.”
“As for your spiritual exercises you can attend to them; you have nothing else to do except study Huron and talk with the Indians. And what pleasure there is for a heart devoted to God to make itself a little scholar of children, thereby gain them for God!”
He understood the hardships and sacrifices that he must endure for the Church. He also understood that the fate of martyrdom was never far from him and his companions, in fact, from an excerpt from his journal we find that he was preparing himself spiritually for this outcome:
For two days now I have experienced a great desire to be a martyr and to endure all the torments the martyrs suffered…. I vow to you, Jesus my Savior, that as far as I have the strength I will never fail to accept the grace of martyrdom, if some day you in your infinite mercy should offer it to me, your most unworthy servant…. On receiving the blow of death, I shall accept it from your hands with the fullest delight and joy of spirit…. My God, it grieves me greatly that you are not known, that in this savage wilderness all have not been converted to you, that sin has not been driven from it. – St. John de Brebeuf
In 1637, when a smallpox epidemic killed thousands of Indians, the missionaries were blamed by the tribal men, and were condemned to death. However St. John spoke so eloquently of the after-life that he was given a reprieve. He remained in Quebec for four years and then returned to the Indians.
In 1649, while most of the male Huron warriors were away from the village, they were attacked by roughly 1,200 Iroquois. The Iroquois considered the Huron people their enemies and were out to kill as many as they could. Father de Brebeuf and his companion Father Gabriel Lalemont stood alongside the eighty warriors that had remained in the village, trying to delay the attackers and trying to allow enough time for the women, the elders, and the children to escape.
The battle was one sided and the Huron converts and the warriors were killed. The two priests were taken prisoners. Back in their own village, the Iroquois tortured the priests for hours on end. The suffering they endured is indescribable. They were burned with red hot hatchets, ‘baptized’ with boiling water. Amazingly, throughout the torture, St. John continued to preach to his tormentors. They then gagged him as they continued the torture. Their flesh was then cut off in strips, which the savages ate while the priests were still alive. Because St. John and St. Gabriel showed such great courage during this, the natives pulled the hearts out of the priests and devoured them, hoping, the astonishing strength these two priests displayed would be passed on to them.
Ultimately, St. John de Brébeuf had his prayer of martyrdom answered. The holiness and courage he lived with was the cause of conversion for some 7,000 souls! He had indeed served as a farmer for the Lord! He went into the rough terrain of an unsettled country and sowed the seeds of the Catholic Faith among the people. Not only did he sow such seeds, he remained and cultivated this garden for the Lord. He then went on to trade his life for the conversions and salvation of many native people. His blood, which drenched the soil, was able to spring forth new life…new interest in the Faith…new growth in the Church.
Interestingly, by 1650, just one short year later, the Huron nation was exterminated. And the mission that the Jesuits built was abandoned, but the martyrdom of these North American martyrs created a wave of vocations and missionary fervor in France, and it gave new heart to the missionaries in New France. We owe a great deal of thanks to these brave men, who, when called by the Lord, struggled through such adverse conditions and offered their lives…their everything back to the Lord. We need to pray for men and women who are willing to serve the Lord with such devotion. Especially in an age when we are so quick to allow ourselves to turn from a task when it proves to be difficult or hard. Saint John de Brebeuf, pray for us.
Prayer to Saint Jean de Brébeuf
Saint Jean de Brébeuf, obtain for me, through your intercession, courage to overcome all human respect, resignation in times of trial, confidence in God’s power and goodness, and zeal for my spiritual welfare; so that, raised above the things of earth, I may lead a truly Christian life and gain merit for eternity. Amen.