Each year, we here at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom take a late-winter pilgrimage on March 16th to Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland. (This year, we went on Saturday, the 14th, due to scheduling, but back on track for next year!)
Of course, the shrine itself is closed, and usually blanketed in deep, wet snow. But the 16th is the day, in the late afternoon, that one of the most famous of the martyrs, Saint Jean de Brebeuf, was put to death, in one of the most gruesome, and well-documented martyrdoms in the history of the Church. Saint Gabriel Lalemant, captured with de Brebeuf, was also tortured to death, following his older companion to paradise early. The courage, equanimity and charity of these two saints inspired even their tormentors, who had never seen anything like it, and echoes through the ages to our own day.
Since the year 2000, we have taken our students on the 3.5 hour bus ride to Midland, Ontario, to experience the same conditions, at least weather-wise, as the martyrs, trudging through the deep snow with cold wet boots to sites of their capture and their martyrdoms. At least we had boots…The two Jesuits and their fellow Huron captives were stripped and marched naked 5 km through the forest. When they arrived at the next village, Saint Ignace, they were pummeled, their fingers chewed and broken, before being tied to torture stakes, slashed with knives, scalded with boiling water, burned with flaming brands and red-hot hatchets, their eyes gouged out, their feet chopped off, and scalped, before their hearts were torn out and eaten, to imbibe some of their bravery; all the while they were conscious, the Jesuits prayed for fellow Huron victims, and for their Iroquois tormentors, who likely did not know fully what they were doing.
When we reach the site where they were put to death, former village of Saint-Ignace II, now a quiet, remote, open field with a covered stone altar on one side, and a simple cross, with a pole on either side not far away(perhaps a replica of the torture-stakes to which the martyrs were tied), the grace is almost palpable. An account of the martyrdom is read, and we normally also have a Mass said at the stone altar not far from the cross, just around the time that de Brebeuf was killed.
I consider this the holiest place in Canada. Besides the stone altar and cross, the acre-sized field is empty, surrounded by trees, but that very emptiness gives it poignancy. A sign, perhaps, that Canada itself is still an ’empty field’, not yet converted to Christ and His Cross.
There were five martyrs put to death in what is now Canada, and three in what is now the United States. Besides the bloody martyrdoms of the Jesuits, the faith in Canada was planted and given growth by the untold number of white martyrdoms, the known and unknown missionaries, pioneers and settlers who suffered, laboured and toiled to make this country great and Christian.
We are witnessing a dismantling of this Christian heritage in our country, a heritage upon which we have lived for the past century. Many of the institutions in this country, the hospitals, schools, churches, were founded by Christians, most by Catholic religious Sisters and Brothers. Even our laws are based on Christian morality. All of this is now becoming secularized, which is to say, made atheist. The buildings turned over to other uses: the churches, due to our loss of faith, and the schools, due to our lack of children.
But the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church, so we must not lose hope, but fight the good fight for the faith (spiritually, of course!) as long as we can.
On a note of hope: We also visit the site of the first Mass said in Ontario (then Upper Canada), by Father Joseph Caron and 14 Frenchmen, including Samuel de Champlain, on the north end of the Penetanguishene peninsula. This year marks the four-hundredth anniversary of that Mass, August 12, 1615. I hope the diocese and the Knights of Columbus have organized a grand event for that occasion; if not, keep posted, and I will organize something on a smaller scale.
As long as Mass is prayed in this fair land, and we can receive the Eucharist, there is strength, there is hope, even to suffer with de Brebeuf and Lalemant, or to persevere in the faith, like the countless habitants.
One way or the other, we must always remember that our ultimate, and unwavering, hope is in heaven, not here.
March 16, 2015
Anniversary of the death of Saint Jean de Brebeuf