Saint Jean de Brebeuf embarked on his first missionary journey to New France in 1625. He spent four years among the Huron, learning their language and customs. Then war between the English and the French forced him to return to France. There, Fr. Brebeuf made his final vows as a Jesuit and served as steward, minister and confessor at the College of Eu.
Relationships with the people of New France were very important to Fr. Brebeuf and his companions. It’s hard to share stories and God’s love without a relationship with the person listening. Despite this, it wasn’t easy for the priests to get to know the Huron and Iroquois. Often as moms, we may also struggle to form relationships with those around us. Just as the priests were viewed with suspicion for what they did, we may be judged by other moms for what we do. Yet like Fr. Brebeuf, we can continue to reach out with love to those around us, and to live our faith for them.
Saint Jean de Brebeuf Returns to New France
In 1632, England and France signed a treaty returning Quebec to the French. Fr. Brebeuf, along with Fr. Antoine Daniel, returned to the Huron missions. Despite the fact that Fr. Brebeuf had made no converts in his first missionary journey, he had apparently formed good relationships with the Huron. They “lamented the loss of their robust and intelligent priest who regarded the Natives as his own brothers and sisters” (Schmidt). On his return, however, Fr. Brebeuf found it difficult to re-establish relationships.
Political problems abounded, despite the truce with England. Samuel de Champlain, the re-appointed lieutenant general, had to partially rebuild Quebec. The Iroquois, who traded mostly with the Dutch, attacked the Huron and the French repeatedly and blockaded their trade routes. This postponed the missionaries’ journey to Huronia from 1933 to 1934, and when Fr. Brebeuf and Fr. Daniel did go, it was “by a more desolate northern route that included eight hundred miles by canoe” (Schmidt).
The Mission to the Huron
Arriving at Ihonatiria (near the village where he had lived from 1626-1629) in 1934, Fr. Brebeuf was named Superior of the Jesuit missions. He held this position for the next four years. With help from the Huron, the priests built themselves a dwelling, similar to those of the Huron. Fr. Brebeuf compared them to “bowers or garden arbors—some of which, in place of branches and vegetation, are covered with cedar bark, some others with large pieces of ash, elm, fir, or spruce bark” (John Wynne, The Jesuit Martyrs of North America).
Besides teaching the Huron, Fr. Brebeuf also taught Fr. Daniel to speak Huron. They found it hard to overcome the superstitions of the Huron. During their first year, they baptized only twelve, all of whom were ill or elderly and about to die. Historian John J. Wynne explains that they would “confer baptism on adults only after mature preparation and proof of constancy.”
During Fr. Brebeuf’s years at Ihonatiria, illness ravaged the Huron. Latourelle notes, “The epidemics of 1634 (smallpox combined with dysentery), 1636 (malignant influenza), and 1639 (smallpox), reduced to 12,000 a population that Sagard, Brébeuf, and Champlain estimated at 30,000 souls.”
These epidemics were blamed on the missionaries. In 1637, Fr. Brebeuf wrote a letter to his superior predicting that they could be massacred. That year also had some good news, though: the priest baptized their first healthy adult convert.
The Jesuit Village of Ste. Marie
In 1636, Fr. Daniel returned to Quebec to found a boys’ school and Fr. Jogues joined Fr. Brebeuf in the mission. Two years later, Fr. Brebeuf established a new mission at Teanaostaiaë. It was beset by difficulties, however, especially when the smallpox epidemic of 1639 caused riots, beatings, and the desertion of most of his converts.
The rivalries of the various Huron villages caused the missionaries to change their tactics in 1639. Fr. Brebeuf and his companions established a new village, Ste. Marie, on the Wye River, a short distance away from their other missions. They had found that identifying with one village made them less welcome in other villages. From the new mission, they were able to make trips to new tribes as well as to their current missions.
In 1641, Fr. Brebeuf returned to Quebec, where he coordinated the missions for the next three years. During that time, he wrote the Huron Christmas carol, still a popular Christmas song today. These were difficult times for the missions, as the threat from the Iroquois was stronger than ever. Mission convoys were often captured by the Iroquois, and in 1642, Rene Goupil became the first martyr and Fr. Isaac Jogues spent a year as an Iroquois prisoner.
Saint Jean de Brebeuf’s Final Years
Fr. Brebeuf returned to his work among the Huron in 1644. In the next four years, three more missionaries were martyred by the Iroquois. Fr. Brebeuf had once witnessed the Iroquois torture their victim (one of his recent converts) and knew what death at their hands meant. Despite this, he remained with his people, teaching and helping. In 1649, the Iroquois attacked the village where Fr. Brebeuf was serving with Fr. Lalemant. After being tortured, they were martyred on March 17.
St. Jean de Brebeuf, you didn’t let superstition or fear prevent you from trying to form relationships with those you met. Pray that I might also reach out to those around me with friendship and kindness. May my relationships reflect God’s love, even when I am judged and persecuted as you were. Amen.