Saint Jean de Brebeuf is the patron saint of Canada and the oldest of the eight Canadian martyrs. He was told more than once that he couldn’t pursue his vocation as a missionary, because of either his health problems or his size. Often as moms, we are told similar things. Doctors may tell us that our bodies aren’t suited for conception or natural birth. Health problems may make us question whether we’d be good moms or not. Yet St. Jean didn’t let these “no’s” stop him from doing what God had called him to do. We can ask him to pray for us as we discern and pursue our own vocations as moms.
Saint Jean de Brebeuf was born in Normandy, France, on March 25, 1593. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, he wanted only to serve the Jesuits as a lay brother. He joined the order in October or November 1617 after studying humanities, philosophy, and moral theology.
Four years later, his studied were interrupted by health problems (likely tuberculosis), limiting his theological knowledge. Historian John J. Wynne says “he could not make the usual studies of the young Jesuit, nor could he teach for any length of time” (The Jesuit Martyrs of North America). Despite this, he “studied theology sufficiently to qualify for ordination in the unusually short time, for one of his Order, of six years” (Wynne) and was ordained in 1622.
Saint Jean de Brebeuf in New France
He arrived in New France in June 1625. There he spent the winter on a hunting expedition with the Montagnais, learning to travel and eat like a native. The following summer, a group of Huron arrived in Quebec to trade. Fr. Brébeuf asked to accompany them back to their village. The Huron originally declined to take Fr. Brébeuf because of his huge stature. With some bribes, he “was permitted into a canoe on the condition he would not move” (Jesuit Curia in Rome).
During the trip, Fr. Brébeuf’s great strength came in handy over the many portages. Wynne notes that the trip from Quebec to Huronia “was no pleasure-trip. The distance from Quebec is not more than six hundred miles. The trail and water route, however, was fully nine hundred, owing to the need of avoiding difficult country, and of keeping away from the Iroquois.” They arrived safely in Huronia and established the first Jesuit mission near Georgian Bay.
Saint Jean de Brebeuf with the Huron
From 1626 to 1629, Fr. Brébeuf worked to learn the Huron language and customs. He apparently had a gift for languages and soon wrote a Huron grammar, as well as a catechism and phrase book. He observed the Indians playing a game they called baggataway, and may have been the one to suggest its modern name, based on the similarity of the stick used to a bishop’s crozier (la crosse).
His fellow priest soon returned to Quebec, leaving Fr. Brébeuf alone with the Huron. Wynne says he “showed extraordinary physical courage in dwelling alone with these people. His moral courage was greater still. Not only did he fail to make any converts among them; he soon discovered that they were suspicious of everything about him.” Droughts, diseases, and other misfortunes were blamed on Fr. Brébeuf.
Nearly a decade later, Fr. Brébeuf wrote a set of brief instructions to other missionaries based on his work among the Huron (Saints.SQPN.com). These include such pieces of advice as “Do not begin to paddle unless you intend always to paddle” and “The Indians will keep later that opinion of you which they have formed during the trip.” He also recommended courtesy, cheerfulness and patience towards the Indians, saying, “You must love these Hurons, ransomed by the blood of the Son of God, as brothers.”
The Return to France
In 1629, the French and English ended their war and Quebec was given over to the English. Fr. Brébeuf returned to Rouen and “while there made his final year of probation, the crowning observance of the Jesuit in preparation for his life’s work” (Wynne).
Quebec was returned to France in 1633 and Fr. Brébeuf returned to his missionary work. As Wynne says, “One would imagine that after his experiences with the Indians he might have turned his thoughts to other fields where the harvest would be more promising. On the contrary, suffering had only whetted his appetite for more.” More suffering was to be his fate on his second missionary trip to New France (read all about it next month!).
St. Jean, you fearlessly pursed God’s calling upon your life, ignoring the opinions of those who tried to stop you. Even health problems could not keep you from your vocation. Pray that we may also do what God asks of us, even if we face opposition from our friends and family. Amen.