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  • Sacred SeedsThe French Jesuit Martyrs in American Catholic Historiography
  • Paul G. Monson (bio)

Few pedagogical tools annoy a student more than the trick question, and just such a question perplexes any student of American Catholicism, namely, who is the first canonized saint of the United States? The astute undergraduate might name Mother Francesca Cabrini (1850–1917), who in 1946 became the first U.S. citizen to be canonized. The saintly convert Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774–1821), the first native-born American canonized in 1975, might also come to mind. Alas, neither answer is correct. In 1930, on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, Pope Pius XI canonized six French Jesuit missionaries and their two lay companions. Three of these men, the famous Isaac Jogues (1607–1646) and his two donnés, or lay assistants, René Goupil (1608–1642) and Jean de la Lande (d. 1646), endured a violent death near Albany, New York, between 1642 and 1646. The other five Jesuits included Jean de Brébeuf (1593–1649) and his confreres Gabriel Lalemant (1610–1649), Antoine Daniel (1610–1648), Charles Garnier (1605–1649), and Noël Chabanel (1613–1649). These priests eventually met their death as the Iroquois advanced into present-day Ontario in late 1648 and early 1649. These men, America’s first saints, are better known collectively as the North American Martyrs. [End Page 87]

This question of the origins of American Catholic sainthood is more than a matter of pedantic trivia. Whereas a secular historian might find this fact worthy of a footnote, a Catholic theologian should recognize a clear allusion to the history of Christianity’s development. Behind countless petitions from U.S. Catholics to canonize the Jesuit martyrs was the unmistakable intention to heed Tertullian’s “semen est sanguis Christianorum”—the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.1 For generations of Catholics in the United States, these saints stood as the sacred origins of the American Catholic story and the mystery of an ostensible failure transformed into a vibrant modern church. In their eyes, what the violence of Christ’s cross had done for human history, the violence of the Jesuits’ martyrdom did for American Catholic history. The emergence of this view of the martyrs’ story in American Catholic historiography represents the meeting of history, hagiography, and theology, a convergence overlooked by most scholars. Most literature on the martyrs is devoted either to the seventeenth-century records of their deaths or to devotional reflections on their spiritual significance.2 The present study rises above this literature to demonstrate how American Catholic historians, in recovering the story of the North American Martyrs, created a distinctly Catholic narrative of U.S. history through a theology of martyrdom. Nineteenth-century American Catholic scholarship, especially through the work of John Gilmary Shea, renewed interest in the Jesuit martyrs, inspiring a host of popular and devotional histories to champion the martyrs’ canonization in the twentieth century. In light of the recent canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha (1656–1680), the historical and theological significance of the martyrs in American Catholic scholarship is worth rediscovering.

The Story

In 1625 the Jesuits arrived in New France, joining the Franciscan Recollects. The missionaries focused on the native tribes in present-day Ontario, an area commonly known as Huronia. Overshadowing [End Page 88] these missions was the ongoing hostility between, on the one hand, French and Huron interests around the Great Lakes and, on the other hand, Iroquois and Dutch prospects in present-day New York State. Despite initial setbacks, the Jesuit “blackrobes” eventually won the hearts of the Huron, so much so that several Jesuits were given Huron names.3 Although the French Jesuits created reductions (mission complexes) similar to those in South America, the French were more successful in learning Huron culture, compiling a dictionary of its language, and providing intimate details to their superiors and compatriots. The missionaries respected native customs to the degree that they conformed to the gospel, recognizing some inherent good in the native culture.4 Of course, the Jesuits were not without a sense of romance and biblical idealism, seeing themselves as following in the footsteps of the apostles as they baptized...