Jean de Brebeuf

Jean de Brebeuf

(1593-1649)

Best known as one of the eight “North American Martyrs,” Jean de Brebeuf was born at Conde-sur-Vire in Normandy, France in 1593. He entered the Jesuit order in 1617 and was ordained a priest at Rouen in 1622. Three years later, his order sent him to the struggling colony of New France to win converts to the Catholic faith.

Brebeuf arrived at Quebec and spent five months with the Montagnais Indians, learning their language. In 1626, he embarked on an 800-mile canoe trip to the Huron country— in what is now Ontario—where he chose to live with the Bear Tribe. While he was there, he translated the teachings of the Catholic church into the Huron language.

Brebeuf returned to Quebec and then spent time in France before he traveled with three companions to live again among the Hurons. His work was difficult and slow. The first adult Huron to convert did so in 1637, and four years later there was still only a total of 60 converts among the tribe.

Brebeuf s worst years among the Indians came in 1636 and 1637 when the Huron were struck by sickness. The Hurons turned against Brebeuf for a time, but he managed to win their trust yet again. After he suffered a bad fall on the ice, Brebeuf returned to Quebec where he managed another Indian mission at the town of Sillery.

However, his heart was still closest to the mission that was farthest away, that of the Huron. Therefore he returned to their country in 1644 and renewed his work among them.Brebeuf’s return coincided with the start of a war between the Huron and the people of the Five Nations of Iroquois.

The war was sparked by rivalry over the beaver trade, and the Iroquois launched ferocious assaults on the Huron towns. Brebeuf and his fellow missionaries found themselves caught in the middle of this struggle. Brebeuf felt the Huron were his spiritual charges and he could not abandon them in the time of their greatest need.

On March 16, 1649, Brebeuf and Father Gabriel Lalement left Fort St. Marie at Midland in modern-day Ontario. They were seized by Iroquois and brought to St. Ignace where the two men were tortured and put to death.

The Huron mission died with Brebeuf, but the scattered Huron who escaped from the Iroquois turned in greater numbers to the Catholic faith.Brebeuf, Lalement, and six other priests were named saints in 1930. Known as the “North American Martyrs,” these men were recognized in 1 940 as the patron saints of Canada.