The adage, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” has a literal meaning here.
Setting the Stage: The Mohawks
During the 17th century, the Mohawks lived on the site of the Shrine in longhouses which were tunnel-like structures made of trees and bark. Extended families, identified by matriarchal lineage, lived together in the longhouses. They fished from the rivers, hunted deer, beaver, turkey and bear, and cultivated corn, squash, and beans.
The Mohawks were one of five tribes (later six tribes) that made up the Iroquois Confederacy that stretch from the Mohawk Valley in the east to the Seneca villages in the west, near present day Buffalo. This fierce alliance was formed to maintain peace among them, 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 Catholics, and the Iroquois with the Dutch and British Protestants in New York. The natives quickly became dependent upon European goods such as firearms, metal pots, iron axes, and the scourge of alcohol. Competition over furs, which were needed to obtain these coveted goods, exacerbated the ongoing contentions among these tribes. They became enmeshed in the political disputes of European countries while attempting to defend their own territories against foreign encroachment.
Competition among tribes was most fierce between the Huron and Iroquois. Although the goal of the Jesuits was to save souls, they became an integral part the geo-political-religious turbulence of the time.
While traveling by canoe between the missions in Canada, Father Jogues, René Goupil, and another lay Frenchman, Guillaume Coûture, were captured in August of 1642 in an Iroquois raid on the St. Lawrence River. They were brought to Osserenon, survived gruesome torture and were enslaved.
Just weeks later, on September 29, Goupil was killed near the village gates by a tomahawk blow. His blessing a Mohawk child with the sign of the cross had been interpreted as something evil.
A Burial in the Ravine
Father Jogues buried his friend in an unmarked grave in the Ravine. Walking down the wooded pathway to the clearing and to the creek, pilgrims can read in Father Jogues’ own writing a description of the murder and burial of René Goupil. The Ravine is considered a reliquary since it contains the relics of the martyr.
After the death of Goupil, Father Jogues remained a slave and infrequently saw Coûture who was kept at another village. Jogues performed menial tasks and endured hard labor, starvation and exposure especially during the winter hunts where he served as the ‘beast of burden’ to his captors. Among them, however, 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 blows of her tribesmen and begged his life on more than one occasion.
Breaking Free to Pray
Whenever he could break free, he found a quiet place, stripped the bark off a tree in the shape of a cross, and knelt and prayed. Pilgrims see the crosses on the trees here on this holy ground, placed in memory of his devotion.
Jogues Acts as Minister
His docility with the Mohawks earned him the freedom to minister to other Catholic prisoners in the villages of the Mohawk Valley. He ministered to the sick, performed baptisms, and heard confessions. But he was unable to offer the Holy Mass - his canonical fingers, those the priest uses to handle the consecrated Host, were severed during the torture.
After a year of captivity, Father Jogues agreed to accept the help of Dutch settlers in the Albany area, most notably the Dutch superintendent of Rensselaerwyck, Arendt Van Corlaer, and Dutch Reform Minister Johannes Megapolensis.
It was a harrowing escape that involved a vicious dog bite, 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 Mohawks, who were angry at having lost a prized captive, or of being surrendered to them by the Dutch.
Return to France
Finally the Mohawks agreed to a ransom and returned to Ossernenon. A Dutch ship took Father Jogues to New Amsterdam (New York City) where he boarded a ship for France. He arrived on his native soil on Christmas Day 1643. There he received special dispensation from the Pope to celebrate Mass without his canonical fingers.
Yearning for the Mohawks
In his profound humility, the priest was repulsed by the adulation given him in Europe. He yearned to return to his beloved Mohawks, the people he described as “espoused to me by my blood.” After a few short months in France, he returned to Canada in 1644.
During the next two years in and around Montreal and Three Rivers, he attended peace talks among the Huron, Algonquin, Iroquois and the French. He and Coûture were reunited at one such meeting, shortly before Coûture was released from his vows in order to marry. (Coûture and his French wife had ten children; he lived an august life as pioneer, explorer, soldier, magistrate, and ambassador. He died in Canada at age 80).
Four years after his initial captivity, Jogues was given the role of peace ambassador to the Mohawks, and was welcomed to Ossernenon in June 1646. Talks were productive, and they invited him to build a mission at the village. Father Jogues would name it Most Holy Trinity Mission. He must first return to Canada to recruit help and supplies. Upon leaving Osserenon, he left a black box likely containing his personal belongings.
Deaths of Lalande & Jogues
Back in Canada he met John Lalande, a teenaged lay Jesuit. In spite of Father Jogues’ warnings of the fragile peace, Lalande volunteered to help build the mission. They expected to be welcomed for this second peace mission. Instead, they were bound, beaten, and taken captive. The Mohawks blamed a crop pestilence on a demon Father Jogues had left in his black box.
For this, while inside the palisades of Ossernenon, he and Lalande were killed by tomahawk blows - Jogues on the evening of October 18, and Lalande in the early morning hours of October 19. They were then beheaded, and their bodies dragged into the Mohawk River. Although no relics were recovered, the ground of their blood sacrifice is considered a natural reliquary.