BREBEUF AND HIS BRETHREN by E. J. PRATT
I II III IV V VI VII VIII IX X XI XII
1600’sApril 26, 1625 July, 1626 1629 1633 1634 August 27, 1635 1639 The Founding of Sainte Marie1640-1641 The Mission to the Petuns and the NeutralsThe Story of Jogues 1642
Account of Joques’s Capture and Enslavement 1643 The Later Account1646 Bressani July, 1648 March 16, 1649 (Brebeuf and Lalemant)The Martyrs Shrine
The winds of God were blowing over France,
Kindling the hearths and altars, changing vows
Of rote into an alphabet of flame.
The air was charged with songs beyond the range
Of larks, with wings beyond the stretch of eagles.
Skylines unknown to maps broke from the mists
And there was laughter on the seas.
With sound of bugles from the Roman catacombs,
The saints came back in their incarnate forms.
Across the Alps St. Francis of Assisi
In his brown tunic girt with hempen cord,
Revisited the plague infected towns.
The monks were summoned from their monasteries,
Nuns from their convents; apostolic hands
Had touched the priests; foundlings and galley slaves
Became the charges of Vincent de Paul;
Francis de Sales put his heroic stamp
Upon his order of the Visitation.
Out of Numidia by way of Rome,
The architect of palaces, unbuilt
Of hand, again was busy with his plans,
Reshaping for the world his City of God.
Out of the Netherlands was heard the call
Of Kempis through the Imitatio
To leave the dusty marts and city streets
And stray along the shores of Galilee.
The flame had spread across the Pyrenees –
The visions of Theresa burning through
The adorations of the Carmelites;
The very clouds at night to John of the Cross
Being cruciform – chancel, transept and aisle
Blazing with light and holy oracle.
Xavier had risen from his knees to drive
His dreams full-sail under an ocean compass.
Loyola, soldier-priest, staggering with wounds
At Pampeluna, guided by a voice,
Had travelled to the Montserrata Abbey
To leave his sword and dagger on an altar
That he might lead the Company of Jesus.
The story of the frontier like a saga
Sang through the cells and cloisters of the nation,
Made silver flutes out of the parish spires,
Troubled the ashes of the canonized
In the cathedral crypts, soared through the nave
To stir the foliations on the columns,
Roll through the belfries, and give deeper tongue
To the Magnificat in Notre Dame.
It brought to earth the prophets and apostles
Out of their static shrines in the stained glass.
It caught the ear of Christ, reveined his hands
And feet, bidding his marble saints to leave
Their pedestals for chartless seas and coasts
And the vast blunders of the forest glooms.
So, in the footsteps of their patrons came
A group of men asking the hardest tasks
At the new outposts of the Huron bounds
Held in the stern hand of the Jesuit Order.
And in Bayeux a neophyte while rapt
In contemplation saw a bleeding form
Falling beneath the instrument of death,
Rising under the quickening of the thongs,
Stumbling along the Via Dolorosa
No play upon the fancy was this scene,
But the Real Presence to the naked sense
The fingers of Brebeuf were at his breast,
Closing and tightening on a crucifix,
While voices spoke aloud unto his ear
And to his heart – per ignem et per aquam
Forests and streams and trails thronged through his mind
The painted faces of the Iroquois,
Nomadic bands and smoking bivouacs
Along the shores of western inland seas,
With forts and palisades and fiery stakes
The stories of Champlain, Brule, Viel,
Sagard and Le Caron had reached his town
The stones of those northern boundaries
Where in the winter the white pines could brush
The Pleiades, and at the equinoxes
Under the gold and green of the auroras
Wild geese drove wedges through the zodiac
The vows were deep he laid upon his soul
‘I shall be broken first before I break them.’
He knew by heart the manual that had stirred
The world – the Canon calling through the notes
Of the Ignatian preludes. On the prayers,
The meditations, points and colloquies,
Was built the soldier and the martyr programme
This is the end of man – Deum laudet,
To seek and find the will of God, to act
Upon it for the ordering of life,
And for the soul’s beatitude This is
To do, this not to do. To weigh the sin:
The interior understanding to be followed
By the amendment of the deed through grace;
The abnegation of the evil thought
And act: the trampling of the body under
The daily practice of the counter virtues.
‘In time of desolation to be firm
And constant in the soul’s determination,
Desire and sense obedient to the reason.’
The oath Brebeuf was taking had its root
Firm in his generations of descent.
The family name was known to chivalry
In the Crusades; at Hastings; through the blood
Of the English Howards; called out on the rungs
Of the siege ladders; at the castle breaches
Proclaimed by heralds at the lists, and heard
In Council Halls – the coat of arms a bull
In black with horns of gold on a silver shield.
So on that toughened pedigree of fibre
Were strung the pledges. From the novice stage
To the vow-day he passed on to the priesthood,
And on the anniversary of his birth
He celebrated his first mass at Rouen.
APRIL 26, 1625
And the first clauses of the Jesuit pledge
Were honoured when, embarking at Dieppe,
Brebeuf, Masse and Charles Lalemant
Travelled three thousand miles of the Atlantic,
And reached the citadel in seven weeks.
A month in preparation at Notre Dame
Des Anges, Brebeuf in company with Daillon
Moved to Three Rivers to begin the journey.
taking both warning and advice from traders,
They packed into their stores of altar-ware
And vestments, strings of coloured beads with knives,
Kettles and awls, domestic gifts to win
The Hurons’ favour or appease their wrath
There was a touch of omen in the warning,
For scarcely had they started when the fate
Of the Franciscan mission was disclosed
News of Viel, delivered to Brebeuf,
Drowned by the natives in the final league
Of his return at Sault-au-Recollet!
Back to Quebec by Lalemant’s command
A year’s delay of which Brebeuf made use
By hardening his body and his will,
Learning the rudiments of the Huron tongue,
Mastering the wood-lore, joining in the hunt
For food, observing habits of speech, the ways
Of thought, the moods and the long silences.
Wintering with the Algonquins, he soon knew
The life that was before him in the cabins
The troubled night, branches of fir covering
The floor of snow; the martyrdom of smoke
That hourly drove his nostrils to the ground
To breathe. or offered him the choice of death
Outside by frost, inside by suffocation;
The forced companionship of dogs that ate
From the same platters, slept upon his legs
Or neck; the nausea from sagamite,
Unsalted. gritty, and that bloated feeling,
The February stomach touch when acorns,
Turk’s cap, hog-onion bulbs dug from the snow
And bulrush roots flavoured with eel skin made
The menu for his breakfast-dinner-supper.
Added to this, the instigated taunts
Common as daily salutations threats
Of murderous intent that just escaped
The deed – the prologue to Huronia!
Midsummer and the try again – Brebeuf,
Daillon, de Noue just arrived from France,
Quebec up to Three Rivers; the routine
repeated bargaining with the Indians,
Axes and beads against the maize and Passage;
The native protest when they saw Brebeuf,
High as a totem-pole. What if he placed
His foot upon the gunwale, suddenly
Shifted an ounce of those two hundred pounds
Off centre at the rapids! They had visions
Of bodies and bales gyrating round the rocks,
Plunging like stumps and loss over the falls.
The Hurons shook their heads: the bidding grew;
Kettles and porcelain necklaces and knives,
Till with the last awl thrown upon the heap,
The ratifying grunt came from the chief.
Two Indians holding the canoe, Brebeuf,
Barefooted, cassock pulled up to his knees,
Planted one foot dead in the middle, then
The other, then slowly and ticklishly
Adjusted to the physics of his range
And width, he grasped both sides of the canoe,
Lowered himself and softly murmuring
An Ave, sat, immobile as a statue.
So the flotilla started – the same route
Champlain and Le Caron eleven years
Before had taken to avoid the swarm
Of hostile Iroquois on the St. Lawrence.
Eight hundred miles – along the Ottawa
Through the steep gorges where the never narrowed,
Through calmer waters where the river widened.
Skirting the island of the Allumettes,
Thence to the Mattawa through lakes that led
To the blue waters of the Nipissing,
And then southward a hundred tortuous miles
Down the French River to the Huron shore.
The record of that trip was for Brebeuf
A memory several times to be re-lived:
Of rocks and cataracts and portages,
Of feet cut by the river stones, of mud
And stench, of boulders, logs and tangled growths
Of summer heat that made him long for night,
And when he struck his bed of rock mosquitoes
That made him doubt if dawn would ever break.
‘Twas thirty days to the Georgian Bay, then south
One hundred miles threading the labyrinth
Of islands till he reached the western shore
That banked the Bay of Penetanguishene.
Soon joined by both his fellow priests he followed
The course of a small stream and reached Toanche,
Where for three years he was to make his home
And turn the first sod of the Jesuit mission.
‘Twas ploughing only – for eight years would pass
Before even the blades appeared. The priests
Knew well how barren was the task should signs,
Gestures and inarticulate sounds provide
The basis of the converse. And the speech
Was hard. De Noue set himself to school,
Unfalteringly as to his Breviary,
Through the long evenings of the fall and winter.
But as light never trickled through a sentence,
Either the Hurons’ or his own, he left
With the springs expedition to Quebec,
Where intermittently for twenty years
He was to labour with the colonists,
Travelling between the outposts, and to die
Snow-blind, caught in the circles of his tracks
Between Three Rivers and Fort Richelieu.
Daillon migrated to the south and west
To the country of the Neutrals. There he spent
The winter, fruitless, jealousies of trade
Awoke resentment, fostered calumnies,
Until the priest under a constant threat
That often issued in assault, returned
Against his own persuasion to Quebec.
Brebeuf was now alone. He bent his mind
Ta the great end. The efficacious rites
Were hinged as much on mental apprehensions
As on the disposition of the heart.
For that the first equipment was the speech.
He listened to the sounds and gave them letters,
Arranged their sequences, caught the inflections
Extracted nouns from objects, verbs from actions
And regimented rebel moods and tenses.
He saw the way the chiefs harangued the clans,
The torrent of compounded words, the art
Concealed within the pause, the look, the gesture
Lacking all labials, the open mouth
Performed a double service with the vowels
Directed like a battery at the hearers.
With what forebodings did he watch the spell
Cast on the sick by the Arendiwans
The sorcery of the Huron rhetoric
Extorting bribes for cures, for guarantees
Against the failure of the crop or hunt!
The time would come when steel would clash on steel,
And many a battle would be won or lost
With weapons from the armoury of words.
Three years of that apprenticeship had won
The praise of his Superior and no less
Evoked the admiration of Champlain.
That soldier, statesman, navigator, friend,
Who had combined the brain of Richelieu
With the red blood of Cartier and Masellan,
Was at this time reduced to his last keg
Of powder at the citadel. Blockade,
The piracy of Kirke on the Atlantic,
The English occupation of Quebec,
And famine closed this chapter of the Mission.
Four years at home could not abate his zeal.
Brebeuf absorbed within his meditations,
Made ready to complete his early vows.
Each year in France but served to clarify
His vision. At Rouen he gauged the height
Of the Cathedral’s central tower in terms
Of pines and oaks around the Indian lodges.
He went to Paris. There as worshipper,
His eyes were scaling transepts, but his mind,
Straying from window patterns where the sun
Shed rose ellipses on the marble floor,
Rested on Classless walls of cedar bark.
To Rennes – the Jesuits’ intellectual home,
Where, in the Summa of Aquinas, faith
Laid hold on God’s existence when the last
Link of the Reason slipped, and where Loyola
Enforced the high authoritarian scheme
Of God’s viceregent on the priestly fold.
Between the two nostalgic fires Brebeuf
Was swung – between two homes; in one was peace
Within the holy court, the ecstasy
Of unmolested prayer before the Virgin,
The daily and vicarious offering
On which no hand might dare lay sacrilege:
But in the other would be broken altars
And broken bodies of both Host and priest.
Then of which home, the son? From which the exile?
With his own blood Brebeuf wrote his last vow
‘Lord Jesus! Thou didst save me with thy blood:
By thy most precious death; and this is why
I make this pledge to serve thee all my life
In the Society of Jesus – never
To serve another than thyself. Hereby
I sign this promise in my blood, ready
To sacrifice it all as willingly
As now I give this drop.’ – Jean de Brebeuf.
Nor did the clamour of the Thirty Years,
The battle-cries at La Rochelle and Fribourg,
Blow out the flame. Less strident than the names
Of Richelieu and Mazarin, Conde,
Turenne, but just as mighty, were the calls
of the new apostolate. A century
Before had Xavier from the Indies summoned
The world to other colours. Now appeals
Were ringing through the history of New France.
Le Jeune, following the example of Biard
And Charles Lalemant, was capturing souls
By thousands with the fire of the
Relations: Noble and peasant, layman, priest and nun
Gave of their wealth and power and personal life.
Among his new recruits were Chastellain.
Pijart, Le Mercier, and Isaac Jogues
The Lalemants – Jerome and Gabriel –
Jerome who was to supervise and write,
With Ragueneau, the drama of the Mission;
Who told of the survivors reaching France
When the great act was closed that ‘all of them
Still hold their resolution to return
To the combat at the first sound of the trumpets.’
The other, Gabriel, who would share the crown
With Jean Brebeuf, pitting the frailest body
Against the hungers of the wilderness,
The fevers of the lodges and the fires
That slowly wreathed themselves around a stake.
Then Garnier, comrade of Jogues. The winds
Had fanned to a white heat the hearth and placed
Three brothers under vows – the Carmelite,
The Capuchin, and his, the Jesuit.
The gentlest of his stock, he had resolved
To seek and to accept a post that would
Transmit his nurture through a discipline
That multiplied the living martyrdoms
Before the casual incident of death.
To many a vow did Chabanel subject
His timid nature as the evidence
Of trial came through the Huronian records.
He needed every safeguard of the soul
To fortify the will, for every day
Would find him fighting, mastering his revolt
Against the native life and practices.
Of all the priests he could the least endure
The sudden transformation from the Chair
Of College Rhetoric to the heat and drag
Of portages, from the monastic calm
To the noise and smoke and vermin of the lodges,
And the insufferable sights and stinks
When, at the High Feast of the Dead, the bodies
Lying for months or years upon the scaffolds
Were taken down, stripped of their flesh, caressed,
Strung up along the cabin poles and then
Cast in a pit for common burials
The day would come when in the wilderness,
The weary hand Protesting he would write
This final pledge – ‘I, Noel Chabanel,
Do vow, in presence of the Sacrament
Of Thy most precious blood and body, here
To stay forever with the Huron Mission,
According to commands of my Supenors.
Therefore I do beseech Thee to receive me
As Thy perpetual servant and to make
Me worthy of so sublime a ministry.’
And the same spirit breathed on Chaumonot,
Making his restless and undisciplined soul
At first seek channels of renunciation
In abstinence, ill health and beggary.
His months of Pilgrimages to the shrines
At Rome and to the Lady of Loretto,
The static hours upon his knees had sapped
His strength, turning an introspective mind
Upon the weary circuit of its thoughts,
Until one day a letter from Brebeuf
Would come to burn the torpors of his heart
And galvanize a raw novitiate.
New France restored! Champlain, Masse, Brebeuf
Were in Quebec, hopes riding high as ever.
If Davost and Daniel soon arrived to join
The expedition west. Midsummer trade,
The busiest the Colony had known,
Was over: forty-three canoes to meet
The hazards of return: the basic sense
Of safety. now Champlain was on the scene;
The joy of the Toanche Indians
As they beheld Brebeuf and heard him speak
In their own tongues was happy augury.
But as before upon the eve of starting
The path was blocked, so now the unforeseen
Stepped in. A trade and tribal feud long-blown.
Between Hurons and the Allumettes
Came to a head when the Algonquin chief
Forbade the passage of the priests between
His island and the shore. The Hurons knew
The roughness of this channel, and complied.
In such delays which might have been construed
By lesser wills as exits of escape,
As providential doors on a light latch,
The Fathers entered deeper preparation.
They worked incessantly among the tribes
In the environs of Quebec, took hold
Of Huron words and beat them into order.
Davost and Daniel gathered from the store
Of speech, manners, and customs that Brebeuf
Had garnered, all the subtleties to make
The bargain for the journey. The next year
Seven canoes instead of forty! Fear
Of Iroquois following a recent raid
And massacre; growing distrust of priests;
The sense of risk b having men aboard
Unskilled in fire-arms, helpless at the paddles
And on the Portages – all these combined
To sharpen the terms until the treasury
Was dry of presents and of promises.
The ardours of his trip eight years before
Fresh in his mind, Brebeuf now set his face
Ta graver peril, for the native mood
Was hostile. On the second week the corn
Was low, a handful each a day. Sickness
Had struck the Huron, slowing down the blades,
And turning murmurs into menaces
Against the Blackrobes and their French companions.
The first blow hit Davost. Robbed of his books.
Papers and altar linens, he was left
At the island of the Allumettes: Martin*
Was put ashore at Nipissing; Baron* *French assistants
And Daniel were deserted, made to take
Their chances with canoes along the route,
Yet all in turn, tattered, wasted, with feet
Bleeding – broken though not in will, rejoined
Their great companion after he had reached
The forest shores of the Fresh Water Sea,
And guided by the sight of smoke had entered
The village of Ihonatiria.
A year’s success flattered the priestly hope
That on this central field seed would be sown
On which the yield would be the Huron nation
Baptized and dedicated to the Faith;
And that a richer harvest would be gleaned
Of duskier grain from the same seed on more
Forbidding ground when the arch-foes themselves
Would be reborn under the sacred rites,
For there was promise in the auspices.
Ihonatiria received Brebeuf
With joy. Three years he had been there, a friend
Whose visit to the tribes could not have sprung
From inspiration rooted in private gain
He had not come to stack the arquebuses
Against the mountains of the beaver pelts.
He had not come to kill. Between the two
Barter and battle – what was left to explain
A stranger in their midst? The name Echon* *Echon – he who pulls the heavy load
Had solved the riddle.
So with native help
The Fathers built their mission house – the frame
Of young elm-poles set solidly in earth;
Their supple tops bent, lashed and braced to form
The arched roof overlaid with cedar-bark.
‘No Louvre or palace is this cabin,’ wrote
Brebeuf, ‘no stories, cellar, garret, windows,
No chimney – only at the top a hole
To let the smoke escape. Inside, three rooms
With doors of wood alone set it apart
From the single long-house of the Indians.
The first is used for storage; in the second
Our kitchen, bedroom and refectory;
Our bedstead is the earth; rushes and boughs
For mattresses and pillows in the third,
Which is our chapel, we have placed the altar,
The images and vessels of the Mass.’
It was the middle room that drew the natives
Day after day, to share the sagamite
And raisins, and to see the marvels brought
From France – marvels on which the Fathers built
A basis of persuasion, recognizing
The potency of awe for natures nurtured
On charms and spells, invoking kindly spirits
And exorcising demons. So the natives
Beheld a mass of iron chips like bees
Swarm to a lodestone: was it gum that held
Them fast? They watched the handmill grind the corn ‘
Gaped at a lens eleven-faceted
That multiplied a bead as many times,
And at a phial where a captive flea
Looked like a beetle. But the miracle
Of all, the Clock! it showed the hours it struck
Or stopped upon command. Le Capitaine
Du Jour which moved its hands before its face,
Called up the dawn, saluted noon, rang out
The sunset, summoned with the count of twelve
The Fathers to a meal, or sent at four
The noisy pack of Indians to their cabins.
‘What did it say?’ ‘Yo eiouahaoua –
Time to put on the cauldron.’ ‘And what now?’
‘Time to go home at once and close the door.’
It was alive: an oki dwelt inside,
Peering out through that black hub on the dial
As great a mystery was writing – how
A Frenchman fifteen miles away could know
The meaning of black signs the runner brought.
Sometimes the marks were made on peel of bark,
Sometimes on paper – in itself a wonder!
From what strange tree was it the inside rind?
What charm was in the ink that transferred thought
Across such space without a spoken word?
this growing confirmation of belief
Was speeded by events wherein good fortune
Waited upon the priestly word and act.
AUG. 27, 1635
A moon eclipse was due – Brebeuf had known it –
Had told the Indians of the moment when
The shadow would be thrown across the face.
Nor was there wastage in the prayers as night,
Uncurtained by a single cloud, produced
An orb most perfect. No one knew the lair
Or nest from which the shadow came: no one
the home to which it travelled when it passed.
Only the vague uncertainties were left
Was it the dread invasion from the south?
Such portent was the signal for the braves
To mass themselves outside the towns and shoot
Their multitudes of arrows at the sky
And fling their curses at the Iroquois.
Like a crow’s wing it hovered, broodily
Brushing the face – five hours from rim to rim
While midnight darkness stood upon the land.
This was prediction baffling all their magic.
Again, when weeks of drought had parched the land
And burned the corn, when dancing sorcerers
Brought out their tortoise shells, climbed on the roofs
Clanging their invocation to the Bird
Of Thunder to return, day after day,
Without avail, the priests formed their processions,
Put on their surplices above their robes,
And the Bird of Thunder came with heavy rain,
Released by the nine masses at Saint Joseph.
Nor were the village warriors slow to see
The value of the Frenchmen’s strategy
In war. Returning from the eastern towns,
They told how soldiers had rebuilt the forts,
And strengthened them with corner bastions
Where through the embrasures en dins fire
Might flank the Iroquois bridging the ditches,
And scaling ramparts. Here was argument
That pierced the thickest prejudice of brain
And heart, allaying panic ever present,
When with the first news of the hated foe
From scouts and hunters, women with their young
Fled to the dubious refuge of the forest
From terror blacker than a pestilence.
On such a soil tilled by those skillful hands
Those passion flowers and lilies of the East,
The Aves and the Paternosters bloomed.
The Credos and the Thou-shalt-nots were turned
By Daniel into simple Huron rhymes
And taught to children, and when points of faith
Were driven hard against resistant rock,
The Fathers found the softer crevices
Through deeds which readily the Indian mind
Could grasp – where hands were never put to blows
Nor the swift tongues used for recrimination.
Acceptance of the common lot was part
Of the original vows. But that the priests
Who were to come should not misread the text,
Brebeuf prepared a sermon on the theme
Of Patience: – ‘Fathers, Brothers, under call Of God!
Take care that you foresee the perils,
Labours and hardships of this Holy Mission.
You must sincerely love the savages
As brothers ransomed by the blood of Christ,
All things must be endured. To win their hearts
You must perform the smallest services.
Provide a tinder-box or burning mirror
To light their fires. Fetch wood and water for them:
And when embarking never let them wait
For you; tuck up your habits, keep them dry
To avoid water and sand in their canoes,
Carry your load on portages. Always appear
Cheerful their memories are good for faults.
Constrain yourselves to eat their sagamite
The way that they prepare it, tasteless, dirty.’
And by the priests upon the ground all dots
And commas were observed. They suffered smoke
That billowed from the buck-draughts at the roof,
Smothered the cabin, seared the eyes; the fire
That broiled the face, while frost congealed the spine;
The food from unwashed platters where refusal
Was an offence, the rasp of speech maintained
All day by men who never learned to talk
In quiet tones, the drums of the Diviners
Blasting the night – all this without complaint!
And more – whatever sleep was possible
To snatch from the occasional lull of cries
Was broken by uncovenanted fleas
That fastened on the priestly flesh like hornets.
Carving the curves of favour on the lips,
Tailoring the man into the Jesuit coat,
Wrapping the smiles round inward maledictions,
And sublimating hoary Gallic oaths
Into the Benedicite when dogs
And squaws and reeking children violated
The hours of rest, were penances unnamed
Within the iron code of good Ignatius.
Was there a limit of obedience
Outside the jurisdiction of this Saint?
How often did the hand go up to lower
The flag? How often by some ringing order
Was it arrested at the halliard touch?
How often did Brebeuf seal up his ears
When blows an insults woke ancestral fifes
Within his brain, blood-cells, and viscera,
Is not explicit in the written story.
But never could the Indians infer
Self-gain or anything but simple courage
Inspired by a zeal beyond reproof,
As when the smallpox spreading like a dame
Destroying hundreds, scarifying thousands,
The Fathers took their chances of contagion,
Their broad hats warped by rain, their moccasins
Worn to the gibes, that they might reach the huts,
Share with the sick their dwindled stock of food –
A sup of partridge broth or raisin juice,
Inscribe the sacred sign of the cross, and place
A touch of moisture from the Holy Water
Upon the forehead of a dying child.
Before the year was gone the priests were shown
The way the Hurons could prepare for death
A captive foe. The warriors had surprised
A band of Iroquois and had reserved
The one survivor for a fiery pageant.
No cunning of an ancient Roman triumph.
Nor torment of a Medici confession
Surpassed the subtle savagery of art
Which made the dressing for the sacrifice
A ritual of mockery for the victim.
What visions of the past came to Brebeuf,
And what forebodings of the days to come,
As he beheld this weird compound of life
In jest and intent taking place before
His eyes – the crude unconscious variants
Of reed and sceptre, robe and cross, brier
And crown! Might not one day baptismal drops
Be turned against him in a rain of death?
Whatever the appeals made by the priests,
They could not break the immemorial usage
Or vary one detail. The prisoner
Was made to sing his death-song, was embraced,
Hailed with ironic greetings, forced to state
His willingness to die.
‘See how your hands
Are crushed. You cannot thus desire to live.
Then be of good courage – you shall die.
True! – What shall be the manner of my death?
When shall it be?
All is well.’
Were lit along the whole length of the cabin,
His body smeared with pitch and bound with belts
Of bark, the Iroquois was forced to run
The fires, stored at each end by the young braves,
And swiftly driven back, and when he swooned,
They carried him outside to the night air,
Laid him on fresh damp moss, poured cooling water
Into his mouth, and to his burns applied
The soothing balsams. With resuscitation
They lavished on him all the courtesies
Of speech and gesture, gave him food and drink,
Compassionately spoke of his wounds and pain.
The ordeal every hour was resumed
And halted, but, with each recurrence, blows
Were added to the burns and gibes gave place
To yells until the sacrificial dawn
Lighting the scaffold, dimming the red glow
Of the hatchet collar, closed the festival.
Brebeuf had seen the worst. He knew that when
A winter pack of wolves brought down a stag
There was no waste of time between the leap
And the business click upon the jugular.
Such was the forthright honesty in death
Among the brutes. They had not learned the sport
Of dallying around the nerves to halt
A quick dispatch. A human art was torture,
Where Reason crept into the veins, mixed tar
With blood and brewed its own intoxicant.
Brebeuf had pleaded for the captive’s life
But as the night wore on, would not his heart,
Colliding with his mind, have wished for death?
The plea refused, he gave the Iroquois
The only consolation in his power.
He went back to his cabin, heavy in heart.
To stem that viscous melanotic current
Demanded labour, time, and sacrifice.
Those passions were not altered over-night.
Two plans were in his mind – the one concerned
The seminary started in Quebec.
The children could be sent there to be trained
In Christian precepts, weaned from superstition
And from the savage spectacle of death.
He saw the way the women and their broods
Danced round the scaffold in their exaltation.
How much of this was habit and how much
Example? Curiously Brebeuf revolved
The facets of the Indian character.
A fighting courage equal to the French
It could be lifted to crusading heights
By a battle speech. Endurance was a code
Among the braves, and impassivity.
Their women wailing at the Feast of Death,
The men sat silent, heads bowed to the knees.
‘Never in nine years with but one exception,’
Wrote Ragueneau, ‘did I see an Indian weep
For grief.’ Only the fires evoked the cries,
And these like scalps were triumphs for the captors.
But then their charity and gentleness
To one another and to strangers gave
A balance to the picture. Fugitives
From villages destroyed found instant welcome
To the last communal share of food and land.
Brebeuf’s stay at Toanche gave him proof
Of how the Huron nature could respond
To kindness. But last night upon that scaffold!
Could that be scoured from the heart? Why not
Try out the nurture plan upon the children
And send the boys east, shepherded by Daniel?
The other need was urgent – labourers!
The villages were numerous and were spread
Through such a vast expanse of wilderness
And shore. Only a bell with a bronze throat
Must summon missionaries to these fields.
With the last cry of the captive in his ears,
Brebeuf strode from his cabin to the woods
To be alone. He found his tabernacle
Within a grove, picked up a stone flat-faced
And going to a cedar-crotch, he jammed
It in, and on this table wrote his letter.
‘Herein I show you what you have to suffer.
I shall say nothing of the voyage – that
You know already. If you have the courage
To try it, that is only the beginning,
For when after a month of river travel
You reach our village, we can offer you
The shelter of a cabin lowlier
Than any hovel you have seen in France.
As tired as you may be, only a mat
Laid on the ground will he your head. Your food
May he for weeks a gruel of crushed corn
That has the look and smell of mortar paste.
This country is the breeding place of vermin.
Sandflies, mosquitoes haunt the summer months.
In France you may have been a theologian,
A scholar, master, preacher, but out here
You must attend a savage school: for months
Will pass before you learn even to lisp
the language – Here barbarians shall be
Your Aristotle and Saint Thomas. Mute
Before those teachers you shall take your lessons.
What of the winter? Half the year is winter.
Inside your cabins will be smoke so thick
You may not read your Breviary for days.
Around your fireplace at mealtime arrive
The uninvited guests with whom you share
Your stint of food. And in the fall and winter,
You tramp unbeaten trails to reach the missions,
Carrying your luggage on your back. Your life
Hangs by a thread. Of all calamities
You are the cause – the scarcity of game,
A fire, famine or an epidemic.
There are no natural reasons for a drought
And for the earth’s sterility. You are
The reasons, and at any time a savage
May burn your cabin down or split your head.
I tell you of the enemies that live
Among our Huron friends. I have not told
You of the Iroquois our constant foes.
Only a week ago in open fight
They killed twelve of our men at Contarea,
A day’s march from the village where we live.
Treacherous and stealthy in their ambuscades,
They terrorize the country, for the Hurons
Are very slothful in defence, never
On guard and always seeking flight for safety.
‘Wherein the gain, you ask, of this acceptance?
There is no gain but this – that what you suffer
Shall be of God: your loneliness in travel
Will be relieved by angels overhead;
Your silence will be sweet for you will learn
How to commune with God, rapids and rocks
Are easier than the steeps of Calvary.
There is a consolation in your hunger
And in abandonment upon the road,
For once there was a greater loneliness
And deeper hunger. As regards the soul
There are no dangers here, with means of grace
At every turn, for if we go outside
Our cabin, is not heaven over us?
No buildings block the clouds. We say our prayers
Freely before a noble oratory,
Here is the place to practise faith and hope
And charity where human art has brought
No comforts, where we strive to bring to God
A race so unlike men that we must live
Daily expecting murder at their hands.
Did we not open up the skies or close
Them at command, giving them sun or rain.
So if despite these trials you are ready
To share our labours, come: for you will find
A consolation in the cross that far outweighs
Its burdens. Though in many an hour your soul
Will echo – “Why hast Thou forsaken me?”,
Yet evening will descend upon you when,
Your heart too full of holy exultation.
You call like Xavier – “Enough, O Lord!”‘
This letter was to loom in history,
For like a bulletin it would be read
In France, and men whose bones were bound for dust
Would find that on those jagged characters
Their names would rise from their oblivion
To flame on an eternal Calendar.
Already to the field two young recruits
Had come – Pijart, Le Mercier: on their way
Were Chastellain with Garnier and Jogues
Followed by Ragueneau and Du Peron.
On many a night in lonely intervals,
The priest would wander to the pines and build
His oratory where celestial visions
Sustained his soul. As unto Paul and John
Of Patmos and the martyr multitude
The signs were given – voices from the clouds,
Forms that illumined darkness, stabbed despair,
Turned dungeons into temples and a brand
Of shame into the ultimate boast of time
So to Brebeuf had Christ appeared and Mary,
One night at prayer he heard a voice command
‘Rise, Read!’ Opening the Imitatio Christi,
His eyes ‘without design’ fell on the chapter,
Concerning the royal way of the Holy Cross,
Which placed upon his spirit ‘a great peace’
And then, day having come, he wrote his vow
‘My God, my Saviour, I take from thy hand
The cup of thy sufferings. I invoke thy name;
I vow never to fail thee in the grace
Of martyrdom, if by thy mercy, Thou
Dost offer it to me. I bind myself,
And when I have received the stroke of death,
I will accept it from thy gracious hand
With all pleasure and with joy in my heart;
To thee my blood, my body and my life.’
The labourers were soon put to their tasks,
The speech, the founding of new posts, the sick:
Ihonatiria, a phantom town,
Through plague and flight abandoned as a base,
The Fathers chose the site, Teanaostaye,
To be the second mission of St. Joseph.
But the prime hope was on Ossossane,
A central town of fifty cabins built
On the east shore of Nottawasaga Bay.
The native council had approved the plans.
The presence of the priests with their lay help
Would be defence against the Iroquois
Under the supervision of Pijart
The place was fortified, ramparts were strengthened,
And towers of heavy posts set at the angles.
And in the following year the artisans
And labourers from Quebec with Du Peron,
Using broad-axe and whipsaw built a church,
The first one in the whole Huronian venture
To be of wood. Close to their lodge, the priests
Dug up the soil and harrowed it to plant
A mere handful of wheat from which they raised
A half a bushel for the altar bread.
From the wild grapes they made a cask of wine
For the Holy Sacrifice. But of all work
The hardest was instruction. It was easy
To strike the Huron sense with sound and colour –
The ringing of a bell; the litanies
And chants; the surplices worn on the cassocks:
The burnished ornaments around the altar;
The pageant of the ceremonial,
But to drive home the ethics taxed the brain
To the limit of its ingenuity.
Brebeuf had felt the need to vivify
His three main themes of God and Paradise
And Hell. The Indian mind had let the cold
Abstractions fall: the allegories failed
To quicken up the logic, Garnier
Proposed the colours for the homilies.
The closest student of the Huron mind,
He had observed the fears and prejudices
Haunting the shadows of their racial past;
Had seen the flaws in Brebeuf’s points; had heard
The Indian comments on the moral law
And on the Christian scheme of Paradise.
Would Iroquois be there? Yes, if baptized
Would there be hunting of the deer and beaver?
No. Then starvation. War? And Feasts? Tobacco?
No. Garnier saw disgust upon their faces,
And sent appeals to France for pictures – one
Only of souls in bliss: of ames damnets
Many and various – the horned Satan
His mastiff jaws champing the head of Judas;
The plummet fall of the unbaptized pursued
By demons with their fiery forks: the lick
Of flames upon a naked Saracen;
Dragons with scarlet tongues and writhing serpents
In ambush by the charcoal avenues
Just ready at the Judgment word to wreak
Vengeance upon the unregenerate.
The negative unapprehended forms
Of Heaven lost in the dim canvas oils
Gave way to glows from brazier pitch that lit
The visual affirmatives of Hell.
Despite the sorcerers who laid the blame
Upon the French for all their ills – the plague,
The drought, the Iroquois – the Fathers counted
Baptisms by the hundreds, infants, children
And aged at the point of death. Adults
In health were more intractable, but here
The spade had entered soil in the conversion
Of a Huron in full bloom and high in power
And counsel, Tsiouendaentaha
Whose Christian name – to aid the tongue – was Peter.
Being the first, he was the Rock on which
The priests would build their Church. He was baptised
With all the pomp transferable from France
Across four thousand miles combined with what
A sky and lake could offer, and a forest
Strung to the aubade of the orioles.
The wooden chapel was their Rheims Cathedral.
In stole and surplice Lalemant intoned –
‘If therefore thou wilt enter into life,
Keep the commandments. Thou shalt love the Lord
Thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul,
With all thy might, and thy neighbour as thyself.’
With salt and water and the holy chrism,
And through the signs made on his breast and forehead
The Huron was exorcised, sanctified,
And made the temple of the Living God.
The holy rite was followed by the Mass
Before the motliest auditory known
In the annals of worship, Oblates from Quebec,
Blackrobes, mechanics, soldiers, labourers,
With almost half the village packed inside,
Or jammed with craning necks outside the door.
The warriors lean, lithe, and elemental,
‘As naked as your hand’ * but for a skin * Lalemant’s phrase
Thrown loosely on their shoulders, with their hair
Erect, boar-brushed, matted, glued with the oil
Of sunflower larded thickly with bear’s grease:
Papooses yowling on their mothers’ backs,
The squatting hags, suspicion in their eyes,
Their nebulous minds relating in some way
The smoke and aromatics of the censer
The Candles, crucifix and Latin murmurs
With vapours, sounds and colours of the judgment
(THE FOUNDING OF FORT SAINTE MARIE)
The migrant habits of the Indians
With their desertion of the villages
Through pressure of attack or want of food
Caged for a central site where undisturbed
The priests with their attendants might pursue
Their culture, gather strength from their devotions,
Map out the territory, plot the routes,
Collate their weekly notes and write their letters.
The roll was growing – priests and colonists,
Lay brothers offering services for life.
For on the ground or on their way to place
Themselves at the command of Lalemant,
Superior, were Claude Pijart, Poncet,
Le Moyne, Charles Raymbault, Rene Menard
And Joseph Chaumonot- as oblates came
Le Coq, Christophe Reynaut, Charles Boivin,
Couture and Jean Guerin. And so to house
Them all the Residence – Fort Sainte Marie
Strategic as a base for trade or war
The site received the approval of Quebec,
Was ratified by Richelieu who saw
Commerce and exploration pushing west,
Fulfilling the long vision of Champlain
‘Greater New France beyond those inland seas.’
The fort was built, two hundred feet by ninety,
Upon the right bank of the River Wye:
Its north and eastern sides of masonry,
Its south and west of double palisades,
And skirted by a moat ran parallel
To stream and lake. Square bastions at the corners,
Watch-towers with magazines and sleeping posts,
Commanded forest edges and canoes
That furtively came up the Matchedash,
And on each bastion was placed a cross.
Inside, the Fathers built their dwelling house,
No longer the bark cabin with the smoke
Ill-trained to work its exit through the roof.
But plank and timber – at each end a chimney
Of lime and granite field-stone. Rude it was
But clean, capacious, full of twilight calm.
Across the south canal fed by the river,
Rinsed by another palisade were buildings
Offering retreat to Indian fugitives
Whenever war and famine scourged the land.
The plans were supervised by Lalemant,
Assigning zones of work to every priest.
He made a census of the Huron nation;
Some thirty villages – twelve thousand persons.
Nor was this all: the horizon opened out.
On larger fields. To south and west were spread
The unknown tribes – the Petuns and the Neutrals.
(THE MISSION TO THE PETUNS AND NEUTRALS)
In late November Joques and Garnier
Set out on snow-obliterated trails
Towards the Blue Hills south of the Nottawasaga,
A thirty-mile journey through a forest
Without a guide. They carried on their backs
A blanket with the burden of the altar.
All day confronting swamps with fallen logs,
Tangles of tamarack and juniper,
They made detours to avoid the deep ravines
And swollen creeks. Retreating and advancing,
Ever in hope their tread was towards the south,
Until, ‘surprised by night in a fir grove’,
They took an hour with flint and steel to nurse
A fire from twigs, birch and needles of pine;
And flinging down some branches on the snow
They offered thanks to God, lay down and slept.
Morning – the packs reshouldered and the tramp
Resumed, the stumble over mouldering trunks
of pine and oak, the hopeless search for trails,
Till after dusk with cassocks torn and ‘nothing
To eat all day save each a morsel of bread’,
They saw the smoke of the first Indian village.
And now began a labour which for faith
And triumph of the spirit over failure
Was unsurpassed in records of the mission.
Famine and pest had struck the Neutral tribes,
And fleeing squaws and children had invaded
The Petun villages for bread and refuge,
Inflicting on the cabins further pest
And further famine. When the priests arrived,
They found that the black cassocks had become
The symbols of the scourge. Children exclaimed
‘Disease and famine are outside.’ The women
Called to their young and fled to forest shelters,
Or hid them in the shadows of the cabins.
The men broke through a never-broken custom,
Denying the strangers right to food and rest.
Observing the two priests at prayer, the chief
Called out in council voice – ‘What are these demons
Who take such unknown postures, what are they
But spells to make us die – to finish those
Disease had failed to kill inside our cabins?’
Driven from town to town with all doors barred,
Pursued by storms of threats and flying hatchets,
The priests sought refuge through the forest darkness
Back to the palisades of Sainte Marie.
As bleak an outlook faced Brebeuf when he
And Chaumonot took their November tramp
Five forest days – to the north shores of Erie,
Where the most savage of the tribes – the Neutrals
Packed their twelve thousand into forty towns.
Evil report had reached the settlements
By faster routes, for when upon the eve
Of the new mission Chaumonot had stated
The purpose of the journey, Huron chiefs,
Convinced by their own sorcerers that Brebeuf
Had laid the epidemic on the land,
Resolved to make the Neutral leaders agents
Of their revenge: for it was on Brebeuf,
The chieftain of the robes, that hate was centred.
They had the reason why the drums had failed
The hunt, why moose and deer had left the forest
And why the Manitou who sends the sun
And rain upon the corn, lures to the trap
The beaver, trains the arrow on the goose,
Had not responded to the Chants and cries.
The magic of the ‘breathings’ had not cured
The sick and dying. Was it not the prayers
To the new God which cast malignant spews?
The rosary against the amulet?
The Blackrobes with that water-rite performed
Upon the children – with that new sign
Of wood or iron held up before the eyes
Of the stricken? Did the Indian not behold
Death following hard upon the offered Host?
Was not Echon Brebeuf the evil ones
Still, all attempts to kill him were forestalled,
For awe and fear had mitigated fury:
His massive stature, courage never questioned,
His steady glance, the firmness of his voice,
And that strange nimbus of authority,
In some dim way related to their gods,
Had kept the bowstrings of the Hurons taut
At the arrow feathers, and the javelin poised
And hesitant. But now cunning might do
What fear forbade. A brace of Huron runners
Were sped to the Neutral country with rich bribes
To put the priests to death. And so Brebeuf
And his companion entered the first town
With famine in their cheeks only to find
Worse than the Petun greetings – corn refused
Whispers of death and screams of panic, flight
From incarnated plague, and while the chiefs
In closest council on the Huron terms
Voted for life or death, the younger men
Outside drew nearer to the priests, cursed them,
Spat at them while convulsive hands were clutching
At hatchet helves, waiting impatiently
The issue of that strident rhetoric
Shaking the cabin bark. The council ended,
The feeling strong for death but ruled by fears,
For if those foreign spirits had the power
To spread the blight upon the land, what could
Their further vengeance not exact? Besides,
What lay behind those regimental colours
And those new drums reported from Quebec
The older men had qualified the sentence
The priests at once must leave the Neutral land,
All cabins to be barred against admission,
No food, no shelter, and return immediate.
Defying threats, the Fathers spent four months,
Four winter months, besieging half the towns
In their pursuit of souls, for days their food
Boiled lichens, ground-nuts, star-grass bulbs and roots
Of the wild columbine. Met at the doors
By screams and blows, they would betake themselves
To the evergreens for shelter over-night.
And often, when the body strength was sapped
By the day’s toil and there were streaks of blood
Inside the moccasins, when the last lodge
Rejected them as lepers and the welts
Hung on their shoulders, then the Fathers sought
The balm that never failed. Under the stars,
Along an incandescent avenue
The visions trembled, tender, placid, pure,
More beautiful than the doorway of Rheims
And sweeter than the Galilean fields.
For what was hunger and the burn of wounds
In those assuaging, healing moments when
The clearing mists revealed the face of Mary
And the lips of Jesus breathing benedictions?
At dawn they came back to the huts to get
The same rebuff of speech and club. A brave
Repulsed them at the palisade with axe
Uplifted – ‘I have had enough,’ he said.
‘Of the dark flesh of my enemies. I mean
To kill and eat the white flesh of the priests.’
So close to death starvation and assault
Had led them and so meagre of result
Were all their ministrations that they thought
This was the finish of the enterprise.
The winter ended in futility.
And on their journey home the Fathers took
A final blow when March leagued with the natives
Unleashed a northern storm, piled up the snow-drifts,
Broke on the ice the shoulder of Brebeuf
And stumbled them for weeks before she sent
Them limping through the postern of the fort.
Upon his bed that night Brebeuf related
A vision he had seen – a moving cross,
Its upright beam arising from the south
The country of the Iroquois: the shape
Advanced along the sky until its arms
Cast shadows on the Huron territory,
‘And huge enough to crucify us all.’
(THE STORY OF JOGUES)
Bad days had fallen on Huronia.
A blight of harvest, followed by a winter
In which unusual snowfall had thinned out
The hunting and reduced the settlements
To destitution, struck its hardest blow
At Sainte Marie. The last recourse in need,
The fort had been a common granary,
And now the bins were empty. Altar-ware,
Vessels, linens, pictures lost or damaged;
Vestments were ragged, writing paper spent.
The Eucharist requiring bread and wine,
Quebec eight hundred miles away, a war
Freshly renewed – the Iroquois Dutch armed
And seething with the memories of Champlain,
Arrayed against the French and Huron allies.
The priests assessed the perils of the journey,
And the lot fell on Joques to lead it. He,
Next to Brebeuf, had borne the heaviest brunt
The Petun mission, then the following year,
The Ojibway where, after a hundred leagues,
Canoe and trail, accompanied by Raymbault,
He reached the shores of Lake Superior,
‘And planted a great cross. facing it west’.
The soundest of them all in legs, he gathered
A band of Huron traders and set out,
His task made double by the care of Raymbault
Whose health was broken mortally.
He reached Quebec with every day of the five weeks
A miracle of escape. A few days there,
With churches, hospitals, the Indian school
At Sillery, pageant and ritual,
Making their due impression on the minds
Of the Huron guides, Joques with his band of forty
Packed the canoes and started buck. Mohawks,
Enraged that on the east-bound trip the party
Had slipped their hands, awaited them, ambushed
Within the grass and reeds along the shore.
(THE ACCOUNT OF JOGUES’S CAPTURE AND
ENSLAVEMENT BY THE MOHAWKS AS TAKEN FROM
HIS LETTER TO HIS PROVINCIAL, JEAN FILLEAU,
DATED AUGUST 5, 1643.)
‘Unskilled in speech, in knowledge and not knowing
The precious hour of my visitation,
I beg you, if this letter chance to come
Unto your hands that in your charity
You aid me with your Holy Sacrifices
And with the earnest prayers of the whole Province,
As being among a people barbarous
In birth and manners, for I know that when
You will have heard this story you will see
The obligation under which I am
To God and my deep need of spiritual help.
Our business finished at Quebec, the feast
Of Saint Ignatius celebrated, we
Embarked for the Hurons. On the second day
Our men discovered on the shore fresh tracks
Thought by Eustache, experienced in war,
To be the footprints of our enemies.
A mile beyond we met them, twelve canoes
And seventy men. Abandoning the boats,
Most of the Hurons fled to a thick wood,
Leaving but twelve to put up the best front
We could, but seeing further Iroquois
Paddling so swiftly from the other shore,
We ceased from our defence and fled to cover
Of tree and bulrush. Watching from my shelter
The capture of Goupil and Indian converts.
I could not find it in my mind to leave them,
But as I was their comrade on the journey,
And should be made their comrade in the perils,
I gave myself as prisoner to the guard.
Likewise Eustache, always devoted, valiant,
Returned, exclaiming “I praise God that He
Has granted me my prayer – that I should live
And die with you.” And then Guillaume Couture
Who, young and fleet, having outstripped his foe,
But finding flight intolerable came back
Of his free will, saying “I cannot leave
My father in the hands of enemies.”
On him the Iroquois let loose their first
Assault for in the skirmish he had slain
A chief. They stripped him naked; with their teeth
They macerated his finger tips, tore off
The nails and pierced his right hand with a spear,
Couture taking the pain without a cry.
Then turning on Goupil and me they beat
Us to the ground under a flurry of fists
And knotted clubs, dragging us up half-dead
To agonize us with the finger torture.
And this was just the foretaste of our trials
Dividing up as spoils of war our food,
Our clothes and books and vessels for the church,
They led or drove us on our six weeks’ journey,
Our wounds festering under the summer sun
At night we were the objects of their sport
They mocked us by the plucking of our hair
From head and beard. And on the eighth day meeting
A band of warriors from the tribe on march
To attack the Richelieu fort, they celebrated
By disembarking all the captives, making
Us run the line beneath a rain of clubs.
And following that they placed us on the scaffolds,
Dancing around us hurling jests and insults.
Each one of us attempted to sustain
The other in his courage by no cry
Or sign of our infirmities. Eustache,
His thumbs wrenched off, withstood unconquerably
The probing of a stick which like a skewer
Beginning with the freshness of a wound
On the left hand was pushed up to the elbow.
And yet next day they put us on the route
Again – three days on foot and without food.
Through village after village we were led
In triumph with our backs shedding the skin
Under the sun – by day upon the scaffolds,
By night brought to the cabins where, cord-bound,
We lay on the bare earth while fiery coals
Were thrown upon our bodies. A long time
Indeed and cruelly have the wicked wrought
Upon my back with sticks and iron rods.
But though at times when left alone I wept,
Yet I thanked Him who always giveth strength
To the weary (I will glory in the things
Concerning my infirmity, being made
A spectacle to God and to the angels,
A sport and a contempt to the barbarians)
That I was thus permitted to console
And animate the French and Huron converts,
Placing before their minds the thought of Him
Who bore against Himself the contradiction
Of sinners. Weak through hanging by my wrists
Between two poles, my feet not touching ground,
I managed through His help to reach the stage,
And with the dew from leaves of Turkish corn
Two of the prisoners I baptized. I called
To them that in their torment they should fix
Their eyes on me as I bestowed the sign
Of the last absolution. With the spirit Of Christ.
Eustache then in the fire entreated His Huron
friends to let no thought of vengeance
Arising from this anguish at the stake
Injure the French hope for an Iroquois peace.
Onnonhoaraton, a youthful captive,
They killed – the one who seeing me prepared
For torture interposed, offering himself
A sacrifice for me who had in bonds
Begotten him for Christ. Couture was seized
And dragged off as a slave. Rene Goupil,
While placing on a child’s forehead the sign
Of the Cross was murdered by a sorcerer,
And then, a rope tied to his neck, was dragged
Through the whole village and flung in the River.’
(THE LATER ACCOUNT)
A family of the Wolf Clan having lost
A son in battle, Joques as substitute
Was taken in, half-son, half-slave, his work
The drudgery of the village. bearing water,
Lighting the fires, and clad in tatters made
So join the winter hunt, bear heavy packs
On scarred and naked shoulders in the trade
Between the villages. His readiness
To execute his tasks, unmurmuring,
His courage when he plunged into a river
To save a woman and a child who stumbled
Crossing a bridge made by a fallen tree,
Had softened for a time his master’s harshness.
It gained him scattered hours of leisure when
He set his mind to work upon the language
To make concrete the articles of Faith.
At intervals he stole into the woods
To pray and meditate and carve the Name
Upon the bark. Out of the Mohawk spoils
At the first battle he had found and hid
Two books – The Following of Christ and one
Of Paul’s Epistles, and with these when ‘weary
Even of life and pressed beyond all measure
Above his strength’ he followed the ‘running waters’
To quench his thirst. But often would the hate
Of the Mohawk foes flame out anew when Jogues
Was on his knees muttering the magic words,
And when a hunting party empty-handed
Returned or some reverse was met in battle,
Here was the victim ready at their door.
Believing that a band of warriors
Had been destroyed, they seized the priest and set
His day of death, but at the eleventh hour,
With the arrival of a group of captives,
The larger festival of torture gave
Him momentary reprieve. Yet when he saw
The holocaust and rushed into the flames
To save a child, a heavy weight laid hold
Upon his spirit lasting many days –
‘My fire wasted with grief, my years with sighs;
Oh wherefore was I born that I should see
The ruin of my people! Woe is me!
But by His favour I shall overcome
Until my change is made and He appear.’
This story of enslavement had been brought
To Montmagny, the Governor of Quebec,
And to the outposts of the Dutch, Fort Orange.
Quebec was far away and, short of men,
Could never cope with the massed Iroquois,
Besides, Joques’s letter begged the Governor
That no measures ‘to save a single life’
Should hurt the cause of France. To the Provincial
He wrote – ‘Who in my absence would console
The captives? Who absolve the penitent?
Encourage them in torments? Who baptize
The dying? On this cross to which our Lord
Has nailed me with Himself am I resolved
To live and die.’
And when the commandant
Of the Dutch fort sent notice that a ship
At anchor in the Hudson would provide
Asylum, Joques delayed that he might seek
Counsel of God and satisfy his conscience,
Lest some intruding self-preserving thought
Conflict with duty. Death was certain soon.
He knew it – for that mounting tide of hate
Could not be checked: it had engulfed his friends,
‘Twould take him next. How close to suicide
Would be refusal? Not as if escape
Meant dereliction: no, his early vows
Were still inviolate – he would return.
He pledged himself to God there on his knees
Before two bark-strips fashioned as a cross
Under the forest trees – his oratory.
And so, one night, the Indians asleep,
Jogues left the house, fumbling his darkened way,
Half-walk, half crawl, a lacerated leg
Making the journey of one-half a mile
The toil of half a night. By dawn he found
The shore, and, single-handed, pushed a boat,
Stranded by ebb tide, down the slope of sand
To the river’s edge and rowed out to the ship,
Where he was lifted up the side by sailors
Who, fearful of the risk of harbouring
A fugitive, carried him to the hatch
And hid him with the Cargo in the hold.
The outcry in the morning could be heard
Aboard the ship as Indians combed the cabins.
Threatened the guards and scoured the neighbouring woods,
And then with strong suspicion of the vessel
Demanded of the officers their captive.
After two days Jogues with his own consent
Was taken to the fort and hid again
Behind the barrels of a store. For weeks
He saw and heard the Mohawks as they passed,
Examining Cordage, prying into casks,
At times touching his clothes, but missing him
As he lay crouched in darkness motionless.
With evidence that he was in the fort,
The Dutch abetting the escape, the chiefs
Approached the commandant – ‘The prisoner
is ours. He is not of your race or speech.
The Dutch are friends: the Frenchmen are our foes.
Deliver up this priest into our hands.’
The cries were countered by the officer
‘He is like us in blood if not in tongue.
The Frenchman here is under our protection.
He is our guest We treat him as you treat
The strangers in your cabins, for you feed
And shelter them. That also is our law.
The custom of our nation.’ Argument
of no avail, a ransom price was offered,
Refused, but running up the bargain scale, it
Caught the Mohawks at three hundred livres,
And Jogues at last was safely on the Hudson.
The tale of Jogues’s first mission to the Hurons
Ends on a sequel briefly sung but keyed
So the tune of the story, for the stretch
Home was across a wilderness, his bed
A coil of rope on a ship’s open deck
Swept by December surge. The voyage closed
At Falmouth where, robbed by a pirate gang,
He wandered destitute until picked up
By a French crew who offered him tramp fare.
He landed on the shore of Brittany
On Christmas Eve, and by New Year he reached
The Jesuit establishment at Rennes.
The trumpets blew once more, and Joques returned
With the spring expedition to Quebec.
Honoured by Montmagny, he took the post
Of peace ambassador to hostile tribes,
And then the orders came from Lalemant
That he should open up again the cause
Among the Mohawks at Ossernenon.
Jogues knew that he was travelling to his death,
And though each hour of that former mission
Burned at his finger stumps, the wayward flesh
Obeyed the summons. Lalemant as well
Had known the peril – had he not re-named
Ossernenon, the Mission of the Martyrs?
So Jogues, accompanied by his friend Lalande
Departed for the village – his last letter
To his Superior read: ‘I will return
Cost it a thousand lives. I know full well
That I shall not survive, but He who helped
Me by His grace before will never fail me
Now when I go to do His holy will.’
And to the final consonant the vow
Was kept, for two days after they had struck
The town, their heads were on the palisades,
And their dragged bodies flung into the Mohawk.
The western missions waiting Joques’s return
Were held together by a scarlet thread.
The forays of the Iroquois had sent
The fugitive survivors to the fort.
Three years had passed – and where was Jogues? The scant
Supplies of Sagamite could never feed
The inflow from the stricken villages.
The sparse reports had filtered to Quebec
And the command was given to Bressani
To lead the rescue band to Sainte Marie.
Leaving Three Rivers in the spring when ice
Was on the current, he was caught like Jogues,
With his six Hurons and a French oblate,
A boy of twelve; transferred to Iroquois’
Canoes and carried up the Richelieu:
Disbarked and driven through the forest trails
To Lake Champlain; across it; and from there
Around the rocks and marshes to the Hudson.
And every time a camp was built and fires
Were laid the torment was renewed; in all
The towns the squaws and children were regaled
With evening festivals upon the scaffolds.
Bressani wrote one day when vigilance
Relaxed and his split hand was partly healed
‘I do not know if your Paternity
Will recognise this writing for the letter
Is soiled. Only one finger of the hand
Is left unburned. The blood has stained the paper.
My writing table is the earth; the ink
Gunpowder mixed with water.’ And again
This time to his Superior – ‘I could
Not have believed it to be possible
That a man’s body was so hard to kill.’
The earlier fate of Joques was his – enslaved,
But ransomed at Fort Orange by the Dutch;
Restored to partial health; sent to Rochelle
In the autumn, but in April back again
And under orders for the Huron mission.
Where he arrived this time unscathed to take
A loyal welcome from his priestly comrades.
Bressani’s presence stimulated faith
Within the souls of priests and neophytes.
The stories burned like fuel of the faggots
Joques’s capture and his rock stability,
And the no less triumphant stand Eustache
Had made showing the world that native metal
Could take the test as nobly as the French.
And Ragueneau’s letter to his General stated
‘Bressani ill-equipped to speak the Huron
Has speech more eloquent to capture souls:
It is his scars, his mutilated hands.
“Only show us.” the neophytes exclaim,
“The wounds, for they teach better than our tongues
Your faith, for you have come again to face
The dangers. Only thus we know that you
Believe the truth and would have us believe it.” ‘
In those three years since Jogues’s departure doubts
Though unexpressed had visited the mission.
For death had come to several in the fold
Raymbault, Goupil, Eustache, and worse than death
To Jogues, and winter nights were bleaker, darker
Without the company of Brebeuf. Lion
Of limb and heart, he had entrenched the faith,
Was like a triple palisade himself.
But as his broken shoulder had not healed,
And ordered to Quebec by Lalemant,
He took the leave that seven years of work
Deserved. The city hailed him with delight.
For more than any other did he seem
The very incarnation of the age
Champlain the symbol of exploring France,
Cracking the rivers to their lairs, Brebeuf
The token of a nobler chivalry.
He went the rounds of the stations, saw the gains
The last had made in converts – Sillery
For Indians and Notre Dame des Anges
For the French colonists: convents and schools
Flourished. Why should the West not have the same
Yield for the sowing? It was labourers
They needed with supplies and adequate
Defence. St. Lawrence and the Ottawa
Infested by the Iroquois were traps
Of death. Three bands of Hurons had been caught
That summer. Montmagny had warned the priest
Against the risk of unprotected journeys.
So when the reinforcements came from France,
Brebeuf set out under a guard of soldiers
Taking with him two young recruits – Garreau
And Chabanel – arriving at the fort In the late fall.
The soldiers wintered there
And supervised defensive strategy.
Replaced the forlorn feelings with fresh hopes,
And for two years the mission enterprise
Renewed its lease of life. Rumours of treaties
Between the French and Mohawks stirred belief
That peace was in the air, that other tribes
Inside the Iroquois Confederacy
Might enter – with the Hurons sharing terms.
This was the pipe dream – was it credible?
The ranks of missionaries were filling up:
At Sainte Marie, Brebeuf and Ragueneau,
Le Mercier, Chastellain and Chabanel;
St Joseph – Garnier and Rene Menard
St. Michel – Chaumonot and Du Peron;
The others – Claude Pijart, Le Moyne, Garreau
What validity the dream
Possessed was given by the seasonal
Uninterrupted visits of the priests
To their loved home, both fort and residence.
Here they discussed their plans, and added up
In smiling rivalry their tolls of converts:
They loitered at the shelves, fondled the books,
Running their fingers down the mellowed pages
As if they were the faces of their friends.
They stood for hours before the saints or knelt
Before the Virgin and the crucifix
In mute transfiguration. These were hours
That put the bandages upon their hurts,
Making their spirits proof against all ills
That had assailed or could assail the flesh.
Turned winter into spring and made return
To their far mission posts an exaltation.
The bell each morning called the neophytes
To Mass, again at evening, and the tones
Lured back the memories across the seas.
And often in the summer hours of twilight
When Norman chimes were ringing, would the priests
Forsake the fort and wander to the shore
To sing the Gloria while hermit thrushes
Rivalled the rapture of the nightingales.
The native register was rich in name
And number. Earlier years had shown results
Mainly among the young and sick and aged,
Where little proof was given of the root
Of faith, but now the Fathers told of deeds
That flowered from the stems. Had not Eustache
Bequeathed his record like a testament?
The sturdiest warriors and chiefs had vied
Among themselves within the martyr ranks:
Stories of captives led to sacrifice,
Accepting scaffold fires under the rites,
Enduing to the end, had taken grip of towns and clans.
St. Joseph had its record
For Garnier reported that Totiri,
A native of high rank, while visiting
St. Ignace when a torture was in progress,
Had emulated Jogues by plunging through
The flaming torches that he might apply
The Holy Water to an Iroquois,
Garreau and Pijart added lists of names
From the Algonquins and the Nipissings,
And others told of Pentecostal meetings
In cabins by the Manitoulin shores.
Not only was the faith sustained by hopes
Nourished within the bosom of their home
And by the wish-engendered talk of peace,
But there outside the fort was evidence
Of tenure for the future. Acres rich
In soil extended to the forest fringe.
Each year they felled the trees and burned the stumps,
Pushing the frontier back, clearing the land,
Spading, hoeing. The stomach’s noisy protest
At sagamite and wild rice found a rest
With bread from wheat, fresh cabbages and pease,
And squashes which when roasted had the taste
Of Norman apples. Strawberries in July,
October beechnuts, pepper roots for spice,
And at the bottom of a spring that flowed
Into a pond shaded by silver birches
And ringed by marigolds was water-cress
In chilled abundance. So, was this the West?
The Wilderness? That flight of tanagers
Those linguals from the bobolinks; those beeches,
Roses and water-lilies: at the pools
Those bottle-gentians! For a time the fields
Could hypnotize the mind to scenes of France.
Within five years the change was wrought. The cocks
Were crowing in the yards, and in the pasture
Were sheep and cows and pigs that had been brought
As sucklings that immense eight hundred miles
In sacks – canoed, and portaged on the shoulders,
The traders, like the soldiers, too, had heard
Of a great ocean larger than the Huron.
Was it the western gateway to Cathay?
The Passage? Master-theme of song and ballad;
The myth at last resolved into the fact!
Along that route, it was believed, French craft
Freighted with jewels, spices, tapestries,
Would sail to swell the coffers of the Bourbons.
Such was the dream though only buffalo roamed
The West and autumn slept upon the prairies.
This dream was at its brightest now, Quebec
Was building up a western citadel
In Sainte Marie. With sixty Frenchmen there,
The eastern capital itself had known
Years less auspicious. Might the fort not be
The bastion to one-half the continent,
New France expanding till the longitudes
Staggered the daring of the navigators?
The priests were breathless with another space
Beyond the measure of the astrolabe
A different empire built upon the pulses,
Where even the sun and moon and stars revolved
Around a Life and a redemptive Death.
They pushed their missions to the north and west
Further into Algonquin territories,
Among the Ottawas at Manitoulin,
And towards the Ojibways at Sault Sainte Mane.
New village groups were organized in stations
St. Magdalen, St. Jean, and St. Matthias.
Had Chabanel, ecstatic with success,
Not named one fort the Village of Believers?
Brebeuf was writing to his General
‘Peace, union and tranquillity are here
Between the members of our Order. We need
More workers for the apostolic field,
Which more than ever whitens for the harvest.’
And to this call came Gabriel Lalemant,
Bonin, Daran, Greslon, besides a score
Of labourers and soldiers. In one year
Twelve hundred converts, churches over-crowded,
With Mass conducted in the open air!
And so the seasons passed. When the wild ducks
Forsook the Huron marshes for the south,
It was the signal for the priests to pack
Their blankets. Not until the juncos came,
And flickers tapped the crevices of bark,
And the bloodroot was pushing through the leaf-mould,
Would they reset their faces towards their home.
While Ragueneau’s Relations were being sent
Homeward, picturing the promise of the west,
The thunder clouds were massing in the east
Under the pounding drums. The treaty signed
Between the Iroquois and Montmagny
Was broken by the murder of Lalande
And Jogues. The news had drifted to the fort
The prelude only to the heavier blows
And deeper treachery. The Iroquois,
Infesting lake and stream, forest and shore,
Were trapping soldiers, traders, Huron guides:
The whole confederacy was on the march.
Both waterways were blocked, the quicker route
St. Lawrence, and the arduous Ottawa.
They caught the Hurons at their camps, surprised
Canoe-fleets from the reeds and river bends
And robbed them, killed them on the portages.
So widespread were their forays, they encountered
Bands of Algonquins on the hunt, slew them,
Dispersed them from their villages and sent
Survivors to the northern wilderness.
So keen their lust for slaughter, they enticed
The Huron chieftains under pledge of truce
And closed negotiations with their scalps.
As the months passed the pressure of attack
Moved grimly towards the west, making complete
The isolation of Huronia.
No commerce with Quebec – no traveller
For a whole year came to the Residence.
But constant was the stream of fugitives
From smaller undefended villages,
Fleeing west and ever west. The larger towns,
The deluge breaking down their walls, drove on
The surplus to their neighbours which, in turn,
Urged on the panic herd to Sainte Marie.
This mother of the missions felt the strain
As one by one the buffers were destroyed,
And the flocks came nearer for their pasturage.
There could be only one conclusion when
The priests saw the migration of the missions
That of St. Jean four times abandoning
Its stations and four times establishing
New centres with a more improved defence:
That of St. Ignace where a double raid
That slaughtered hundreds, lifted bodily
Both town and mission, driving to their last
Refuge the ragged remnants. Yet Ragueneau
Was writing – ‘We are here as yet intact
But all determined to shed blood and life
If need be. In this Residence still reigns
The peace and love of Heaven. Here the sick
Will find a hospital, the travellers
A place of rest. the fugitives, asylum.
During the year more than three thousand persons
Have sought and found shelter under our roof.
We have dispensed the Bread of Life to all
And we have fed their bodies, though our fare
Is down to one food only, crushed corn boiled
And seasoned with the powder of smoked fish.’
Despite the perils, Sainte Marie was sending
Her missionaries afield, revisiting
The alder sites, establishing the new,
With that same measure of success and failure
Which tested courage or confirmed a faith.
Garreau, sick and expecting death, was brought
By Pijart and a French assistant back
From the Algonquin wastes, for thirteen days
Borne by a canoe and by his comrades’ shoulders.
Recovering even after the last rites
Had been administered, he faced the task
Again. Fresh visits to the Petun tribes
Had little yield but cold and starving days,
Unsheltered nights, the same fare at the doors,
Savoured by Jogues and Garnier seven years
Before. And everywhere the labourers worked
Under a double threat – the Iroquois,
And the Huron curse inspired by sorcerers
Who saw black magic in the Jesuit robes
And linked disaster with their ritual.
Between the hammer and the anvil now
Huronia was laid and the first priest
To take the blow was Daniel.
This priest had laboured at the Huron mission.
Following a week of rest at Sainte Marie
He had returned to his last post, St. Joseph,
Where he had built his church and for the year
Just gone had added to his charge the hundreds
Swarming from villages stormed by the foe.
And now in that inexorable order,
Station by station, town by town, it was
St. Joseph’s turn. Aware that the main force
Of Huron warriors had left the town,
The Iroquois had breached the palisade
And, overwhelming the defenders, sacked
And burned the cabins. Mass had just been offered
When the war yells were heard and Daniel came
Outside. Seeing the panic, fully knowing
Extinction faced the town with this invasion,
And that ten precious minutes of delay
Might give his flock the refuge of the woods,
He faced the vanguard of the Iroquois,
And walked with firm selective dignity
As in the manner of a parley. Fear
And wonder checked the Indians at the sight
Of a single dark-robed unarmed challenger
Against arrows, muskets, spears and tomahawks.
That momentary pause had saved the lives
Of hundreds as they fled into the forest,
But not the life of Daniel. Though afraid
At first to cross a charmed circumference
To take a struggle hand-to-hand, they drove
Their arrows through him, then in frenzied rush
Mastering their awe, they hurled themselves upon
The body, stripped it of its clothes and flung it
Into the burning church. By noon nothing
Remained but ashes of the town, the fort,
The cabins and their seven hundred dead.
Ragueneau was distraught. He was shepherd-priest.
Daniel was first to die under his care,
And nigh a score of missionaries were lost
In unprotected towns. Besides, he knew
He could not, if he would, resist that mob
That clamoured at the stockades, day by day.
His moral supervision was bound up
With charity that fed and warmed and healed.
And through the winter following Daniel’s death
Six thousand Indians sought shelter there.
The season’s crops to the last grain were garnered
And shared. ‘Through the kind Providence of God,
We managed, as it were, to draw both oil
And honey from the very stones around us.
The obedience, patience of our missionaries
Excel reward – all with one heart and soul
Infused with the high spirit of our Order,
The servants, boys, and soldiers day and night
Working beyond their strength! Here is the service
Of joy, that we will take whatever God
Ordains for us whether it be life or death.’
The challenge was accepted, for the spring
Opened upon the hardest tragic blows
The iron in the human soul could stand.
Louis and St. Ignace still remained
The flying buttresses of Sainte Marie.
From them the Residence received reports
Daily of movements of the Iroquois.
Much labour had been spent on their defence.
Ramparts of pine fifteen feet high enclosed
St. Louis. On three sides a steep ravine
Topped by the stakes made nigh impregnable
St. Ignace; then the palisaded fourth,
Subject alone to a surprise assault,
Could rally the main body of defenders.
The Iroquois, alert as eagles, knew
The weakness of the Hurons, the effect
On the morale of unexpected raids
Committing towns to fire and pushing back
The eastern ramparts. Piece by piece, the rim
Was being cracked and fissures driven down
The bowl: and stroke by stroke the strategy
Pointed to Sainte Marie. Were once the fort
Now garrisoned by forty Frenchmen taken,
No power predicted from Quebec could save
The Huron nation from its doom. St. Ignace
Lay in the path but during the eight months
After St. Joseph’s fall the enemy
Had leisurely prepared their plans. Their scouts
Reported that one-half of the town’s strength
Was lost by flight and that an apathy,
In spite of all the priests could do to stem it,
Had seized the invaded tribes. They knew that when
The warriors were hunting in the forest
This weaker palisade was scalable.
And the day came in March when the whole fate
That overtook St. Joseph in July
Swept on St. Ignace – sudden and complete.
The Mohawks and the Senecas uniting,
A thousand strong, the town bereft of fighters,
Four hundred old and young inside the stakes,
The assault was made two hours before the dawn.
But half-aroused from sleep, many were killed
Within their cabins. Of the four hundred three
Alone managed to reach the woods to scream
The alarm to the drowsed village of St. Louis.
At nine o’clock that morning – such the speed
Of the pursuit – a guard upon the hill
Behind the Residence was watching whiffs
Of smoke to the south, but a league away.
Bush fires? Not with this season’s depth of snow.
The Huron bivouacs? The settlements
Too close for that. Camps of the Iroquois?
Not while cunning and stealth controlled their tactics.
The smoke was in the town. The morning air,
Clearing, could leave no doubt of that, and just
As little that the darkening pall could spring
Out of the vent-holes from the cabin roofs.
Ragueneau rushed to the hill at the guard’s call:
Summoned Bressani; sheets and tongues of flame
Leaping some fifty feet above the smoke
Meant to their eyes the capture and the torch –
St. Louis with Brebeuf and Lalemant!
Less than two hours it took the Iroquois
To capture, sack and garrison St. Ignace,
And start then for St. Louis. The alarm
Sounded, five hundred of the natives fled
To the mother fort only to be pursued
And massacred in the snow. The eighty braves
That manned the stockades perished at the breaches:
And what was seen by Ragueneau and the guard
Was smoke massed the massed fire of cabin bark.
Brebeuf and Lalemant were not numbered
In the five hundred of the fugitives.
They had remained, infusing nerve and will
In the defenders, rushing through the cabins
Baptizing and absolving those who were
Too old, too young, too sick to join the flight.
And when, resistance crushed, the Iroquois
Took all they had not slain back to St. Ignace,
The vanguard of the prisoners were the priests.
MARCH 16, 1649
Three miles from town to town over the snow,
Naked, laden with pillage from the lodges,
The captives filed like wounded beasts of burden,
Three hours on the march, and those that fell
Or slowed their steps were killed.
Three days before
Brebeuf had celebrated his last mass.
And he had known it was to be the last.
There was prophetic meaning as he took
The cord and tied the alb around his waist,
Attached the maniple to his left arm
And drew the seamless purple chasuble
With the large cross over his head and shoulders
Draping his body: every vestment held
An immediate holy symbol as he whispered –
‘Upon my head the helmet of Salvation.
So purify my heart and make me white;
With this cincture of purity gird me.
May I deserve this maniple
Of sorrow and of penance.
Restore the stole of immortality.
My yoke is sweet, my burden light.
I may so bear it as to win Thy grace.’
Entering, he knelt before as rude an altar
As ever was reared within a sanctuary,
But hallowed as that chancel where the notes
Of Palestrina’s score had often pealed
The Assumpta est Maria through Saint Peter’s.
For, covered in the centre of the table.
Recessed and sealed, a hollowed stone contained
A relic of a charred or broken body
Which perhaps a thousand years ago or more
Was offered as a sacrifice to Him
Whose crucifix stood there between the candles.
And on the morrow would this prayer be answered –
‘Eternal Father, I unite myself
With the affections and the purposes
Of Our Lady of Sorrows on Calvary.
And now I offer Thee the sacrifice
Which Thy Beloved Son made of Himself
Upon the Cross and now renews on this,
His holy altar . . .
My life for His life as he gave His life
For mine . . .
This is my body.
In like manner . . .
Take ye and drink – the chalice of my blood.’
No doubt in the mind of Brebeuf that this was the last
Journey – three miles over the snow. He knew
That the margins as thin as they were by which he escaped
From death through the eighteen years of mission toil
Did not belong to this chapter: not by his pen
Would this be told. He knew his place in the line,
For the blaze of the trail that was cut on the bark by Jogues
Shone still. He had heard the story as told by writ
And word of survivors – of how a captive slave
Of the hunters, the skin of his thighs cracked with the frost,
He would steal from the tents to the birches, make a rough cross
From two branches, set it in snow and an the peel
Inscribe his vows and dedicate to the Name
In ‘litanies of love’ what fragments were left
From the wrack of his flesh; of his escape from the tribes;
Of his journey to France where he knocked at the door of the College
Of Rennes, was gathered in as a mendicant friar,
Nameless, unknown, till he save for proof to the priest
His scarred credentials of faith, the nail-less hands
And withered arms the signs of the Mohawk fury.
Nor yet was the story finished – he had come again
Back to his mission to get the second death.
And the comrades of Jogues – Goupil, Eustache and Couture
Had been stripped and made to run the double files
And take the blows – one hundred clubs to each line
And this as the prelude to torture, leisured, minute,
Where thorns on the quick, scallop shells to the joints of the thumbs. Provided the sport for children and squaws till the end.
And adding salt to the blood of Brebeuf was the thought
Of Daniel – was it months or a week ago?
So far, so near, it seemed in time. so close
In leagues – just over there to the south it was
He faced the arrows and died in front of his church.
But winding into the greater artery
Of thought that bore upon the coming passion
Were little tributaries of wayward wish
And reminiscence. Paris with its vespers
Was folded in the mind of Lalemant
And the soft Gothic lights and traceries
Were shading down the ridges of his vows.
But two years past at Bourges he had walked the cloisters,
Companioned by Saint Augustine and Francis,
And wrapped in quiet holy mists. Brebeuf,
His mind a moment throwing back the curtain
Of eighteen years, could see the orchard lands,
The cidreries, the peasants at the Fairs,
The undulating miles of wheat and barley,
Gardens and pastures rolling like a sea
From Lisieux to Le Havre. Just now the surf
Was pounding on the limestone Norman beaches
And on the reefs of Calvados. Had dawn
This very day not flung her surplices
Around the headlands and with golden fire
Consumed the silken argosies that made
For Rouen from the estuary of the Seine?
A moment only for that veil to lift –
A moment only for those bells to die
That rang their matins at Conde-sur-Vire.
By noon St. Ignace! The arrival there
The signal for the battle cries of triumph,
The gauntlet of the clubs. The stakes were set
And the ordeal of Jogues was re-enacted
Upon the priests – even with wilder fury,
For here at last was trapped their greatest victim,
Echon. The Iroquois had waited long
For this event. Their hatred for the Hurons
Fused with their hatred for the French and priests
Was to be vented on this sacrifice,
And to that camp had come apostate Hurons,
United with their foes in common hate
To settle up their reckoning with Echon.
* * * *
Now three o’clock, and capping the height of the passion,
Confusing the sacraments under the pines of the forest,
Under the incense of balsam, under the smoke
Of the pitch, was offered the rite of the font. On the head,
The breast, the loins and the legs, the boiling water
While the mocking paraphrase of the symbols was hurled
At their faces like shards of flint from the arrow heads –
‘We baptize thee with water . . .
That thou mayest be led
To Heaven . . .
To that end we do anoint thee.
We treat thee as a friend: we are the cause
Of thy happiness: we are thy priests; the more
Thou sufferest, the more thy God will reward thee,
So give us thanks for our kind of offices. ‘
The fury of taunt was followed by fury of blow.
Why did not the flesh of Brebeuf cringe to the scourge,
Respond to the heat, for rarely the Iroquois found
A victim that would not cry out in such pain – yet here
The fire was on the wrong fuel. Whenever he spoke
It was to rally the soul of his friend whose turn
Was to come through the night while the eyes were uplifted in prayer, Imploring the Lady of Sorrows, the mother of Christ,
As pain brimmed over the cup and the will was called
To stand the test of the coals. And sometimes the speech
Of Brebeuf struck out, thundering reproof to his foes,
Half-rebuke, half-defiance, giving them roar for roar.
Was it because the chancel became the arena,
Brebeuf a lion at bay, not a lamb on the altar,
As if the might of a Roman were joined to the cause
Of Judaea. Speech they could stop for they girdled his lips,
But never a moan could they get. Where was the source
Of his strength, the home of his courage that toppled the best
Of their braves and even out-fabled the lore of their legends?
In the bunch of his shoulders which often had earned a load
Extorting the envy of guides at an Ottawa portage?
The heat of the hatchets was finding a path to that source.
In the thews of his thighs which had mastered the trails of the Neutrals? They would gash and beribbon those muscles. Was it the blood?
They would draw it fresh from its fountain. Was it the heart?
They dug for it, fought for the scraps in the way of the wolves.
But not in these was the valour or stamina lodged;
Nor in the symbol of Richelieu’s robes or the seals
Of Mazarin’s charters, nor in the stir of the lilies
Upon the imperial folds; nor yet in the words
Loyola wrote on a table of lava-stone
In the cave of Manresa – not in these the source
But in the sound of invisible trumpets blowing
Around two slabs of board, right-angled, hammered
By Roman nails and hung on a Jewish hill.
The wheel had come full circle with the visions
In France of Brebeuf poured through the mould of St. Ignace.
Lalemant died in the morning at nine, in the flame
Of the pitch belts. Flushed with the sight of the bodies, the foes
Gathered their clans and moved back to the north and west
To join in the fight against the tribes of the Petuns.
Where was nothing now that could stem the Iroquois blast.
However undaunted the souls of the priests who were left,
However fierce the sporadic counter attacks
Of the Hurons striking in roving bands from the ambush,
Or smashing out at their foes in garrison raids,
The villages fell before a blizzard of axes
And arrows and spears, and then were put to the torch.
The days were dark at the fort and heavier grew
The burdens on Ragueneau’s shoulders, Decision was his.
No word from the east could arrive in time to shape
The step he must take. To and fro – from altar to hill,
From hill to altar, he walked and prayed and watched.
As governing priest of the Mission he felt the pride
Of his Order whipping his pulse, for was not St. Ignace
The highest test of the Faith? And all that torture
And death could do to the body was done. The Will
And the Cause in their triumph survived. Loyola’s mountains,
Sublime at their summits, were scaled to the uttermost peak.
Ragueneau, the Shepherd, now looked on a battered fold.
In a whirlwind of fire. St. Jean, like St. Joseph, crashed
Under the Iroquois impact. Firm at his post,
Garnier suffered the fate of Daniel. And now
Chabanel, last in the roll of the martyrs, entrapped
On his knees in the woods met death at apostate hands.
The drama was drawing close to its end. It fell
To Ragueneau’s lot to perform a final rite –
To offer the fort in sacrificial fire!
He applied the torch himself. ‘Inside an hour,’
He wrote, ‘we saw the fruit of ten years’ labour
Ascend in smoke, – then looked our last at the fields.
Put altar-vessels and food on a raft of logs,
And made our way to the island of St. Joseph.’
But even from there was the old tale retold
Of hunger and the search for roots and acorns
Of cold and persecution unto death
By the Iroquois; of Jesuit will and courage
As the shepherd-priest with Chaumonot led back
The remnant of a nation to Quebec.
(THE MARTYRS’ SHRINE)
Three hundred years have passed, and the winds of God
Which blew over France are blowing once more through the pines
That bulwark the shores of the great Fresh Water Sea.
Over the wastes abandoned by human tread,
Where only the bittern’s cry was heard at dusk;
Over the lakes where the wild ducks built their nests,
The skies that had banked their fires are shining again
With the stars that guided the feet of Jogues and Brebeuf.
The years as they turned have ripened the martyrs’ seed,
And the ashes of St. Ignace are glowing afresh.
The trails, having frayed the threads of the cassocks, sank
Under the mould of the centuries, under fern
And brier and fungus – there in due time to blossom
Into the highways that lead to the crest of the hill
Which havened both shepherd and flock in the days of their trial.
For out of the torch of Ragueneau’s ruins the candles
Are burning today in the chancel of Sainte Marie.
The Mission sites have returned to the fold of the Order.
Near to the ground where the cross broke under the hatchet,
And went with it into the soil to come back at the turn
Of the spade with the carbon and calcium char of the bodies,
The shrines and altars are built anew; the Aves
And prayers ascend, and the Holy Bread is broken.