Saint Rene Goupil: the Deaf Missionary and Martyr

Saint Rene Goupil was a Jesuit missionary to the Hurons of New France. He is one of eight Canadian martyrs (also known as the North American martyrs). I asked myself what these priests from the 1600s could teach me as a mom in the 21st century. They fearlessly travelled the wilds of Eastern Canada and the United States, serving and loving the Native peoples.

They are an inspiration to me as a mom because often their work was menial and unappreciated (like mine!). Despite this, they kept going, keeping their eyes on their higher calling.

Saint Rene Goupil, deaf missionary and martyr

Rene Goupil and the Jesuits

Rene Goupil was born in 1607 in Anjou, France. John Wynne, author of The Jesuit Martyrs of North America, says he “tried hard to be a Jesuit and he actually entered the novitiate, but his health forced him to resign.” It has also been suggested that Goupil’s deafness prevented him from joining the Jesuits.

Determined to serve with the Jesuits despite this, he travelled to New France in 1640 and volunteered as a layperson. He spent two years studying surgery in hospitals in Quebec and caring for French colonists and native converts.

The Mission to the Hurons

In 1642, Goupil joined Father Isaac Jogues on a mission to the Huron. Fr. Jogues likely desired Goupil’s skills as a surgeon. Despite the dangers of such a trip, Goupil was excited about this opportunity. They travelled safely to Trois Rivières. Both priests spent nearly a month there and at Quebec before starting on their return journey on August 1.

A day after departing Trois Rivières, they were attacked by the Iroquois. Fr. Jogues, in another letter, says the Iroquois were “incensed against the French” and “had shortly before declared that, if they should capture any one of them, they would, besides other torments, burn him alive by a slow fire” (as quoted in Wynne). Most of the Hurons who were with Fr. Jogues and Goupil fled as soon as Iroquois attacked.

Goupil and Fr. Jogues were subject to torture by the Iroquois, who tore out their fingernails and bit off their fingers. Fr. Jogues noted, “Rene bore all this with much patience and courage.”

The missionaries tried to minister to the Huron captives, baptizing some on the spot. Goupil cared for the injured, even assisting some wounded Iroquois. After this, the Iroquois marched their prisoners back to their village. This journey was thirty-eight days of “hunger, excessive heat, threats, and blows” (Jogues). During this march, Goupil again expressed his desire to become a Jesuit and Jogues heard his vows.

Tortured by the Iroquois

Goupil chose to remain with Fr. Jogues and the other Hurons (“Christians and catechumens, to the number of twelve or fourteen,” Fr. Jogues says) who were captured, despite being urged by Fr. Jogues to take opportunities to flee.  At the village, they were forced to walk between two rows of Iroquois, who beat them. Fr. Jogues said that “Rene, who was not very nimble, received so many blows, especially in the face, that nothing was seen of him but the whites of his eyes.”

Fr. Jogues recounts how the Iroquois led them from village to village, torture to torture.  The leaders then seemed to debate what to do with the two missionaries.

Saint Rene Goupil’s Death and Burial

North American Martyrs Kids Activity Book by Bonnie Way and Katherine BabcockOn September 29, Fr. Jogues and Goupil went for a walk outside the village to pray the rosary.  They were soon summoned back to the village by two young men. Fr. Jogues told Goupil, “Let us commend ourselves to God and to the Blessed Virgin.” At the gate of the village, one of the young men struck Goupil in the head with a hatchet.  Fr. Jogues had time to give Goupil final absolution before the young man struck Goupil twice more, killing him.

After recounting for his superior how Goupil died (in a letter dated about a year after the event), Fr. Jogues continues,

“He was not more than thirty-five years of age; he was a man of unusual simplicity and innocence of life, of invincible patience, and very conformable to the Divine Will. … he had been, with credit, for several months in our novitiate [and] here he had consecrated himself, under obedience to the Superiors of the Society, in the service of our neophytes and catechumens,—to whom with the art of surgery he was of great assistance.”

The Iroquois dragged Goupil’s body by a rope through the village, then threw it into the river. The next day, Fr. Jogues went in search of the body and covered it with stones.  He attempted to return later to bury the body more securely, but found that it had been moved.

Finally, in the spring, Fr. Jogues found Goupil’s bones on the banks of the river and buried them. He remains in an unknown grave.

For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. …  To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment. ~ 1 Corinthians 4:9-13

Lessons from Saint Rene Goupil

Many of us have faced difficulties or obstacles in achieving a goal, just as Saint Rene Goupil did. Despite his physical handicap, he didn’t stop trying to serve God or follow his vocation. As moms, we can follow his example.

Maybe, like Saint Rene, you have a physical handicap. Instead of looking at what it doesn’t allow you to do, consider how you can chase your dreams despite your handicap. My friend Monique suffers from hearing loss, like Saint Rene. She faced several doubts about becoming a mom because of this, but now has two beautiful daughters.

Maybe your handicap is more of a mental or emotional struggle. Often I’ve thought, “Well, I can’t do that with four kids in tow.” Or I’ve allowed my shyness or fear to hold me back from doing something. If a deaf young man can travel from France to New France to volunteer with the Order he wishes to join, then I should also be able to face my fears as well.

Saint Rene Goupil, you fearlessly served God and those around you, even when it was difficult and others doubted you. Pray that I might also follow God bravely to serve my family and friends. May your life inspire me to go beyond my comfort zone in pursuit of my vocation. Amen.

Free Printable Canadian Saints & Blesseds Kids' Activities Pack, which includes Saint Bingo cards, crossword puzzles, word searches, saint profile, and more!

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