|Following in the Footsteps of the Saints|
By John Paul Meenan
After praying the Stations of the Cross at the Midland Shrine, pilgrims visit the site of the first Mass in Ontario, St. Louis—where the martyrs were captured, and St. Ignace, the site of their martyrdom. The pilgrimage concludes at St. Ignace with the celebration of Mass. The students usually receive the day off from classes, to follow in the footsteps of the Canadian Martyrs.
The Jesuits arrived in Canada in the early seventeenth century, at what is now Quebec City, and they soon made their way into the interior of this vast country, from Montreal, past Ottawa, up the Ottawa River, across Lake Nipissing, down the French River, across the storm-tossed seas of Georgian Bay, finally arriving after an 800 mile paddle and portage in what is now the Midland-Penetanguishene area. Here, they evangelized the Huron Indians for many years, spreading the faith and the Gospel message. Other tribes were not so amenable: The Iroquois turned against the French, and the "blackrobes" in particular. The Iroquois-Huron war was part of the larger wars going on in Europe at the time between France, England and the Low Countries (now Holland), which in turn was part of an even larger war about religion.
It was in the middle of this conflict that the two priests, Jean de Brebeuf, a giant of a man who had laboured for decades amongst the Hurons, and his fellow-laborer Gabriel Lalemant, a delicate scholar who had only been in Canada a few months, were captured by the Iroquois. They had left their Jesuit home base at Ste. Marie, a fortified retreat centre where the Jesuits lived along with many natives. The two Jesuits departed in the chill air of the morning of March 15th for their tour of the surrounding villages. They arrived in the village of St. Louis, where they spent the day in priestly work. The next morning, March 16th, after they had said Mass, the village was attacked by the Iroquois. After a vicious battle, during which the Jesuits, refusing to flee and abandon their neophytes, baptized and blessed whom they could, the two saints were captured and forcibly marched a few miles' distance across the snow to the neighbouring village of St. Ignace, along with numerous Huron captives.
It was here at St. Ignace that the two Jesuits were tortured to death for their faith. Their sufferings recall the most brutal martyrdoms in the history of the Church’s annals, and I hesitate to describe them here. Suffice it to say that with the burnings, slashings, and mutilations they underwent before death, Jean de Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant offered themselves as true holocausts not only for the people of their age, but, I believe, also for the people of our country today. Their blood makes the field that marks the location of St. Ignace one of the holiest pieces of ground in our country. Jean de Brebeuf died late in the afternoon of March 16th, while his confrere Gabriel died the next morning. How many Huron martyrs died with them we do not know.