A History of the Martyrs of Auriesville

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"The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." This adage literally occurred at Auriesville, formerly known as the Mohawk village of Ossernenon. During the 1640s three French Jesuit missionaries - Father Isaac Jogues and his two lay companions, René Goupil and John Lalande - were killed by the Mohawks while bringing Christianity to the New World. These three along with five Jesuit priests martyred in Canada during the same decade, were canonized in 1930 as the eight North American Martyrs. Ossernenon is now known as the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs, and has been owned by the Jesuits since 1884. It is also believed to be the 1656 birthplace of the Mohawk maiden, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha.

During the 17th century, the Mohawks lived here in longhouses which were tunnel-like structures made of trees and bark. They could be over 100 feet long and 20 feet high. Extended families, identified by matriarchal lineage, lived together in the longhouses. They fished from the rivers, hunted deer, beaver, turkey and bear, and cultivated "the three sisters": corn, squash and beans.

The Mohawks were one of five tribes comprising the Iroquois Confederacy. This fierce alliance was formed to maintain peace among themselves, to defend against invading Europeans, and to war upon enemy tribes, particularly those in Canada.

European immigration to the Americas introduced a contentious fur trade. Huron and Algonquin tribes in Canada forged alliances with the French in Canada, and the Iroquois with the Dutch and British in New York. The natives quickly became dependent upon European goods such as fire arms, metal pots, iron axes, and the scourge of firewater. Competition over furs, which were needed to obtain these coveted goods, exacerbated an already uneasy coexistence among these tribes. They became enmeshed in the political disputes of European countries while attempting to defend their own territories against foreign encroachment.

The French Jesuits came to Canada in 1625 which was soon after Samuel Champlain established Quebec and Montreal. Lead by Father John de Brebeuf, who became one of the North American Martyrs, the missionaries ventured to regions of Lake Huron to evangelize the Huron tribe. Father Isaac Jogues joined him in 1636 and helped build Fort St. Marie, a sort of Jesuit stockade in what in now Ontario. 

In July 1642, Father Jogues left Fort St. Marie with several Hurons and a priest who was ill. In Quebec they would receive medical attention and pick up supplies. It was an arduous 800-mile canoe trip along the French River to the Ottawa to the St. Lawrence that took one month and required 60-80 portages around rapids and waterfalls.

Attempting to interrupt the fur trade between the Huron and French, the Iroquois made frequent raids on the St. Lawrence River. In spite of the danger, Father Jogues arrived safely in Quebec.

There he met René Goupil. Goupil had aspired to become a Jesuit priest but due to deafness, he was not accepted. Instead he became a donne, or a lay Jesuit, and came to New France to help the missionaries in his capacity as a physician and surgeon. When Father Jogues described the great need for medical care, Rene agreed to accompany him to Huronia.

Accompanied by another French donne named William Couture, they set out on the St. Lawrence River in a flotilla of canoes with 40 Algonquin and Hurons. Among them was a 13-year old Catholic Huron named Theresa who was returning home after studying with the Ursaline sisters in Quebec. 

After only a few days journey, they were ambushed by the Iroquois. Many escaped but Father Jogues, Rene Goupil, and William Couture were among those beaten, bound and taken captive. On the two-week trek by canoe and on foot to the Mohawk Valley, they were brutalized at Iroquois settlements. Enroute, Rene Goupil told Father Jogues he wished to pronounce vows. Father Jogues accepted and blessed Goupil as a Brother in the Society of Jesus.

They arrived at Ossemenon on August 14, 1642, the eve of the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother. They were beaten with clubs as they ran the gauntlet up a steep hill between two single files of braves then taken to a stage or platform to be burned, cut and mutilated. Several of Father Jogues' fingers were either severed or maimed including his index fingers and thumbs. These are the "canonical fingers" with which the priest holds the consecrated Host during Mass.

Similar brutalities were inflicted at two other villages west of Ossernenon but Father Jogues, Goupil and Couture survived the ordeal. The Mohawk war council decided to spare their lives. They were adopted as slaves into clans who had lost family members. Father Jogues and Goupil were taken to Ossernenon, and Couture and Theresa to the other villages.

Most captives of the Mohawks did not endure torture. Many native captives were absorbed into the tribe to replenish the population that was being decimated by disease and war. This was the fate of Theresa. Others, including the Auriesville martyrs and several Hurons with them, were tortured as a sacrifice to gods and in retribution for warriors killed in battle.

Within a few weeks of their capture, the Dutch superintendent of Rensselaerwyck, Arendt Van Corlaer, came to Ossernenon to negotiate the release of the three Frenchmen. Although the Dutch were on good trading terms with the Iroquois, offers of ransom were unsuccessful. 

In what Father Jogues describes as "an excess of devotion and a love of the cross," Rene Goupil made the sign of the cross over a Mohawk boy. Unaware of the meaning of the Cross of Christ, the child's grandfather thought this was black magic. He dispatched two braves to avenge this "curse."

On the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel, September 29, 1642 Father Jogues and Goupil climbed the Hill of Prayer to pray the rosary. The first documented recitation of the rosary in New York State occurred at Auriesville by these martyrs.

After finishing four decades, two braves ordered them to return to the village. As they approached the palisades, one of them struck Goupil on the head with a tomahawk. Nearly unconscious and uttering the name of Jesus, Father Jogues gave him absolution. The brave struck Goupil twice more in the head, killing him.

Goupil's body was thrown over a precipice into the Ravine and later recovered by Father Jogues. Distraught and grief stricken, he placed it in a creek that runs through the Ravine and weighed it down with heavy rocks. He intended to give Goupil a Christian burial when he was again allowed out of the village. Before he could do so, heavy rains swelled the creek and carried the body away. The following spring, Father Jogues found Goupil's skull and a few bones. He buried them in an unmarked grave. Because the exact location of the grave is not known, the entire Ravine is considered a reliquary of the saint's remains.

Throughout a cruel winter at Ossernenon, Father Jogues had little to eat or wear. A deer skin cape did not cover his legs. His skin was cracked and painful from cold and exposure. This holy and highly educated man was a slave who gathered firewood, served as a 'beast of burden' and endured contempt and mistreatment. 

The crosses and the name of Jesus inscribed on the trees of Auriesville is a replication of Father Jogues' devotion. Whenever he could break free from his many menial tasks, he found a quiet place, carved the cross onto a tree, and knelt and prayed. He wrote, "How often on the stately trees of Ossernenon did I carve the most Sacred name of Jesus so that seeing it the demons might take to flight, and hearing it they might tremble with fear." Prayer was his only weapon.

Among his captors was a kindly Mohawk woman whom Father referred to as his Aunt and she called him her nephew. She protected him at times from the cruel blows of her tribesmen and begged his life on more than one occasion.

In July the warriors took him to their conquered territories on the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers to show off this white Frenchman as their slave. They returned to Ossernenon. But later that month he returned with his aunt's family to Fort Orange (Albany) and Rensselaerwyck on the Hudson to fish and to trade with the Dutch. Again his allies Arendt Van Corlaer and Dutch Reform Minister Johannes Megapolensis, wanted to ransom him. Father Jogues initially refused. He believe it was God's will that he comfort new captives, convert the natives, and minister to his Christian flock in the villages, particularly William Couture and young Theresa. But he learned that a letter he had written to the French warning of Iroquois war plans was the cause of retaliation against the Iroquois. Father Jogues had betrayed the Mohawks. The penalty was death. He would be tortured and killed upon return to Ossernenon.

Van Corlaer secretly told Father Jogues that a row boat was left for him on the bank of the Hudson River. If he could slip away from his captors, he could use the boat to row to the Dutch ship anchored in the river and they would take him to safety. After a prayerful night, Father agreed to attempt an escape. 

It was a harrowing escape. It involved a vicious dog bite that nearly cost Father his leg. He endured a stifling 48 hours hiding in the foul hold of a ship on the Hudson River, and another six weeks in a cramped, sweltering attic in Rensselaerwyck. There he barely survived on meager food and poison water. He was under constant threat of either being discovered by the enraged Mohawks or of being surrendered to them by the Dutch.

Finally the Mohawks agreed to a ransom and returned to Ossernenon. Father Jogues left Rensselaerwyck by in the last week of September 1643 and arrived in NewAmsterdam (New York City) about a week later. In November, he set sail for Europe.

Via England and after further misfortune — canon fire, shipwreck, robbery — he arrived on the northern coast of France on Christmas Day, 1643. Kindly villagers directed him to a church where a priest heard his confession before Mass. For the first time in 17 months he received the Body and Blood of the Lord in Holy Communion.

After another ten days and 200 miles by horseback he arrived in Rennes at the College of the Society of Jesus on Jan 5, 1644. He asked to see the rector because he had news of New France. His brother Jesuits did not recognize him. Having heard of his capture, the rector asked he knew if Father Jogues were still alive.

"He is at liberty," Father Jogues said, and then, began to weep. "Reverend Father, it is he who speaks to you." He fell on his knees, kissed the hands of the rector and begged his blessing. He was nourished and refreshed to be home with the Sacraments, the fellowship of his brothers, a visit to his mother, good food, warm bed, proper clothing. He met with the queen, with the cardinal, with students and with an adoring public. Pope Urban VIII, learning of Father Jogues request to celebrate Mass without the canonical fingers, gave him this special dispensation. He said, "It would be shameful that a martyr of Christ be not allowed to drink the Blood of Christ."

In his humility, the adulation and attention given to him as a "living martyr" was abrasive. After only four months in France, he returned to Canada. He spent two years in Montreal and attended peace councils at nearby Three Rivers with the French, Huron, Algonquin and Iroquois. There was hope that the raids and wars would come to an end.

In May of 1646, his superior granted his request to journey to Ossernenon as a peace ambassador. Although he had prayed for this moment and had an intense desire to convert the Mohawks, he described "a dread that seized my heart" at the thought of returning to the scene of his torture and the death of his brother in Christ, René Goupil. 

But he did set out from Three Rivers by canoe with a French engineer who would map the route. They were the first non-natives to see what is known today as Lake George. It was May 30, 1646, the eve of the Feast of Corpus Christi or "the Body of Christ." Hence Father Jogues named it "The Lake of the Blessed Sacrament."

He was welcomed at Ossernenon in June, 1646. Peace talks went well. He negotiated the release of Theresa, now 17 years old, who was married to a Mohawk brave but longed to return home to Huronia. William Couture had escaped some time after Father Jogues had done so, and returned safely to Canada. Because the majority of the Mohawks desired peace with the French and the Canadian natives, they invited Father Jogues to establish a mission at Ossemenon. In joyful acceptance, he blessed the ground renaming it the Village of the Holy Trinity.

Upon departing for Canada to secure supplies and helpers to build the mission, Father Jogues left a black box of his belongings - clothing, books and items he would need for Mass. The Mohawks were suspicious of it because they had never before seen a lock and key. But they agreed he could leave the box in his aunt's longhouse.

He returned to Quebec and Montreal and received permission for a second peace mission to Ossernenon with the purpose of extending the peace treaties with the Mohawks to the other tribes of the Iroquois nation, and establishing the Holy Trinity Mission.

While in Three Rivers he met a young donne, John Lalande, who volunteered to accompany the priest and offer his skills as a woodsman and craftman on the journey and at Ossernenon.

Father Jogues described to Lalande the gruesome details of the torture he had suffered. He warned John that he, too, could be a victim if the fragile peace were to collapse. Filled with missionary fervor, John was not discouraged. Toward the end of September 1646, they set out by canoe from Three Rivers to the Valley of the Mohawks.

On October 14, 1646 Father Jogues, Lalande and a Huron were a few days walk from Ossernenon when they were ambushed on the trail. They were bound, beaten and taken captive. They arrived at the village on October 17. 

After Father Jogues's first peace mission, illness and crop failures plagued the village. The natives blamed a "demon" in the black box Father had left with them in June.

Father Jogues' aunt sheltered them in her longhouse while the war council met to decide their fate. There was dissention between the Bear Clan who wanted to kill them, and the Wolf and Turtle Clans who sought peace. On October 18th, Father was invited to the longhouse of the Bear clan for a meal. To refuse would be an insult; to go meant almost certain harm. Against his aunt's advice, he went. As he entered the longhouse, a tomahawk crashed upon his head taking his life.

Lalande heard the commotion and knew Father had been murdered. Although the aunt advised him to remain inside, he insisted on trying to recover the priest's body or at least whatever was in his pockets. In the darkness of the predawn on October 19'h, he left the safety of the longhouse. The Bear Clan was waiting in the darkness. A tomahawk blow ended his life.

Both martyrs were beheaded, their heads placed on the palisades facing Canada as a warning to other Frenchmen, and their bodies were thrown into the Mohawk River. In the light of day of October 19th, the war council returned to Ossernenon with its verdict — the missionaries were to live. But as already noted, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church."

The Catholic faith took root and eventually flourished because of the sacrifice of these and other holy men and women in the New World. But even more immediate was the witness of Kateri Tekakwitha, known as the Lily of the Mohawks.

Born in 1656 on the very ground where the three martyrs of Auriesville shed their blood, Kateri was the daughter of a Catholic Algonquin woman who had been captured in Canada and brought to Ossemenon where she married the Mohawk chief When Kateri was four years old, small pox swept the village. Her parents and brother were among the casualties, and Kateri was badly scarred and nearly blinded by the disease.

She was adopted by her uncle and two aunts who were hostile to Christianity. But Kateri knew that God had claimed her for himself even before she was able to articulate a means of describing it.

When Ossernenon was burned by the French in 1666, the tribe moved to Fonda on the north side of the Mohawk River. There Kateri grew up an odd and isolated child, unable to tolerate either the sunlight due to her impair vision, or the tortures inflicted by her people onto enemy captives. She spent her time either engrossed in bead work in her longhouse, or in the woods communing with her unseen Beloved.

During the 1670s, the Jesuit missionaries returned to the Mohawk Valley to continue the work Father Jogues had begun. Kateri was baptized in 1676 at age 20. Her insistence on sexual purity rather than marriage created animosity among her tribesman. Who would hunt for her and feed her if she would not take a husband? How would the population endure if she refused to have children?

Psychologically persecuted for her convictions and for her love of Jesus and the cross, Kateri's life was threatened. She fled to the Christian community of Caughnawaga in Montreal. There she was devoted her life to prayer, penance and charitable works. Due to compromised health from harsh mortifications, she died at age 24. The facial scarring from the small pox disappeared upon her death, and people almost immediately began having visions of her and prayers answered through her intercession.

Kateri was beatified in 1980. Rome is currently reviewing a possible miracle that could lead to her canonization.

The heroic story of the North American Martyrs and the exemplary life of Blessed Kateri are historically, spiritually, profoundly connected with the hallowed grounds of Auriesville. From those beginnings, the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs has been a place of pilgrimage for 125 years, steeped in Catholic sacraments, devotions and traditions. Here is found healing for the wounded, reconciliation for the lost, and peace for the restless through the love and mercy of Jesus Christ.