St. Jean’s Two Martyrdoms

An exact replica of the Shroud of Turin is on display at the Catholic Information Center (CIC) in Washington, D.C., courtesy of the Museum of the Bible. Father Charles Trullols of the CIC commented: “The Shroud reminds us that we need to keep the message of Ash Wednesday imprinted on our souls, as we contemplate the imprint of the suffering of Our Lord on the Shroud.  We also need to help Jesus with His Cross, with his sufferings.”

While contemplating those words, for some reason I could not stop thinking about the martyrdom of St. Jean de Brébeuf. I looked up the original report in the Jesuit Relations, based on the testimony of two Huron Indians the day after, who had witnessed it and escaped.

They tore out his nails to start.  Then they beat him fiercely with cudgels, about 200 blows, over his loins, belly, legs, and face: “Although Father de Brébeuf was overwhelmed under the weight of these blows, he did not cease continually to speak of God, and to encourage all the new Christians who were captives like himself to suffer well, that they might die well, in order to go in company with him to Paradise.”

Next, an Iroquois responded with a mock baptism pouring boiling water over him three times: “‘Echon,’ that is Father de Brébeuf’s name in Huron, ‘thou sayest that Baptism and the sufferings of this life lead straight to Paradise; thou wilt go soon, for I am going to baptize thee, and to make thee suffer well, in order to go the sooner to thy Paradise.’”

Then, they placed upon him a collar of six red hot hatchets. “I have seen no torment which more moved me to compassion than that. For you see a man, bound naked to a post, who, having this collar on his neck, cannot tell what posture to take. For, if he lean forward, those above his shoulders weigh the more on him; if he lean back, those on his stomach make him suffer the same torment; if he keep erect, without leaning to one side or other, the burning hatchets, applied equally on both sides, give him a double torture.

After that, they wrapped around his waist a belt stuffed with highly inflammable pitch and resin, and lit it on fire, “which roasted his whole body.”  Throughout, “Father de Brébeuf endured like a rock, insensible to fire and flames, which astonished all the bloodthirsty wretches who tormented him. His zeal was so great that he preached continually to these infidels, to try to convert them.’


Then, to keep him from speaking, they cut off his upper and lower lips.  Then they flayed his legs, down to the bone, and roasted the flesh before his eyes.  The mocking continued. ”Thou seest plainly that we treat thee as a friend, since we shall be the cause of thy Eternal happiness; thank us, then, for these good offices which we render thee – for, the more thou shalt suffer, the more will thy God reward thee.”

While he was still alive but on the point of death, they carved out his heart and ate it, taking up his still warm blood to drink.  They were so impressed by his courage that they wanted to become like him.

The Feast of the North American Martyrs, I knew, was October 19.  But when did Jean de Brébeuf die?  I looked it up.  It was March 16, 1649, during Lent.  (Easter Sunday was April 4 that year.). He was captured early in the morning and died at 4pm, after sixteen hours of what one secular author has called, “one of the most atrocious martyrdoms in the annals of Christianity.”


Please note that such extraordinary witness does not come from nowhere.  Fr. de Brébeuf had arrived in “New France” twenty-four years earlier.  He studied with great attention first the Algonkins, then the Hurons.  He was the first European to master Wendat, the Huron language, composing a dictionary, a grammar, and catechisms.

He wrote the famous “Huron Carol” in Wendat, although his actual words were different.  It began not with the nostalgic,“Twas in the moon of wintertime,” but rather with a stern warning not to heed the devil:

Have courage, you who are humans. Jesus, He is born.
Behold, it has fled, the spirit who had us as prisoner.
Do not listen to it, as it corrupts our minds, the spirit of our thoughts.

(The tune that the saint used was different too.  You can listen to it here, “Une Jeune Pucelle,” a French folk song from 1557.)

Jean de Bréboeuf’s Spiritual Journal reveals a man deeply dedicated to contemplative prayer and strict in keeping his rule, who was granted many mystical visions, some of them at the same time accompanied by temptations from the devil.  In 1631 he made a “Vow of Service,” which contains these words:  “I make a vow to you never to fail, on my side, in the grace of martyrdom,  if by your infinite mercy you offer it to me some day, to me, your unworthy servant.”

But perhaps equally impressive was his bloodless martyrdom, of returning to the apostolate again and again, over three decades, despite repeated rejections, persecutions, and only a handful of conversions to show for it.   Just before his death, he wrote:

O my God, why are you not known?  Why is this barbarous country not all converted to you?  Why is not sin abolished from it?  Why are you not loved?  Yes, my God, if all the torments which the captives can endure in these countries in the cruelty of the tortures, were to fall on me, I offer myself thereto with all my heart, and I alone will suffer them.

St. Jean de Brebeuf, pray for us.



Part of St. Jean de Brébeuf’s skull in a reliquary [Shrine of the Canadian Martyrs in Ontario, Canada]

** Part of St. Jean de Brébeuf’s skull in a reliquary [Hôtel-Dieu de Québec, Canada]

You may also enjoy:

+James V. Schall, S.J.’s On Martyrdom

Brad Miner’s This Way Out: Jesuits in Early New York

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.