A Pilgrimage to the Martyrs’ Shrine

It was several years ago when I first read Fr. Myles Gaffney’s book Witness to Faith: An Introduction to the Life of Joseph Chiwatenhwa. This book tells the story of an Indigenous Catholic convert who was considered by the Jesuit missionaries to be “the Christian par excellence” and “the pearl of our Christians.” About Joseph, the Jesuits said, “It was in this Christian that we had our hope after God.”

More recently, I took another look at this book about this Huron saint and found this photo accompanied by my prayerful marginalia about hoping to visit the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ontario one day.

It was a joy, therefore, to make the pilgrimage there today with two friends to receive a tour by Fr. Robert Foliot, SJ.

Fr. Bert began by telling us about the church in which we sat that had been built 95 years ago in commemoration of St. Jean de Brébeuf’s arrival to Canada from France 395 years ago. The site was chosen because these are the grounds of the eight Jesuit missionaries who were martyred here in the 17th century.

We heard that Jean de Brébeuf came in 1625 and he fell in love with the Huron-Wendat people. He found them intelligent, good humoured, and hospitable. The Huron-Wendat people were also more apt to remain in one place compared to other tribes that were more nomadic. Fr. Jean de Brébeuf learned the Huron language to the extent of being able to write an entire dictionary of the language as well as translate the catechism and other liturgical texts into it.

Fr. Bert told us that, in Brébeuf’s time, the Jesuits wanted to be totally inculturated with the indigenous peoples they sought to evangelize, and that the approach in the 16th and 17th centuries was vastly different from the approach in the 18th and 19th centuries. He said that, in the former centuries, the Jesuits came with the primary mission of baptism. Then, in later centuries, there were increasingly colonial objectives of governments.

Fr. Robert Foliot, SJ stands before a painting of the eight Canadian martyrs and points out the reliquary containing half of St. Jean de Brébeuf’s skull. The crutches are signs of miraculous healings attributed to the intercession of the martyrs.
Fr. Bert celebrated mass and then prayed a blessing over us with the relics of the martyrs
“Prior to his conversion, Joseph was already outstanding. He obeyed the “natural law” inscribed by God in every human heart with a perfection unique in all Huronia, but seldom found even in a Christian nation. If he loved father, mother, relatives, his people, his nation, he was singularly detached from all distortion or corruption of the natural law, whence love derives. The natural law alone speaks in him, the result of a special grace; it reigns in him like a queen; it is his rule of life.” – Leon Pouliot, S.J., Chihouatenhoua: Huron Apostle
“A young woman of Alonquin and Mohawk ancestry also deserves special recognition today: Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. Who has not heard of her outstanding witness of purity and holiness of life? It was my personal joy, only four years ago, to beatify this woman of great courage and faith, who is known by many as the “Lily of the Mohawks”. To those who came to Rome for her beatification I said: “Blessed Kateri stands before us as a symbol of the best of the heritage that is yours as North American Indians.” – Homily of Pope John Paul II, Martyrs’ Shrine (Huronia), September 15, 1984
“Less than a year following his baptism, Chiwatenhwa’s biographers were carefully recording his virtues in the Relation for 1638. He is the only figure of whom this is done to such an extent in the Relations for New France. The only parallel was the recording of the virtues of the Iroquois saint, Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), in the biographies written after her death by the Jesuit priests who knew her.”
– Fr. Myles Gaffney
from Witness to Faith: An Introduction to the Life of Joseph Chiwatenhwa
“Finally, the worst that can happen to me, from your point of view, is that they may split my head, as they do to the sorcerers of the nation. But I would have you know, indeed, that I should account myself only too happy to give my life for the One who has loved us so much. Do not fear that our family will be marked by an infamy thereby; if God does the favor to our nation to have it embrace the Faith, my memory will be honourable to all posterity, and it will be said forever that I had been the first to prefer losing life to losing the liberty of living openly like a Christian.” – Joseph Chiwatenhwa to Pierre Saoehouata as recorded in the 1640 Jesuit Relation
“Joseph is remembered in a statue erected at the Martyrs Shrine: Joseph stands with an arm outstretched holding a feather in his hand – the feather is a pen. He was the first aboriginal Canadian to learn to read and write his own language. The Jesuits can be credited with doing amazing work among the natives. Joseph was very grateful to the missionaries for bringing the Good News to his people. Joseph and his wife Aonetta lived the faith beautifully. They both deserve to be raised to our altars. He may have died for his faith and was possibly a martyr. He and Aonetta certainly have already earned a place among the saints in heaven, and now we have to have them sanctified on earth.” – Archbishop Emeritus of Ottawa Marcel Gervais from the forward to Witness to Faith: An Introduction to the Life of Joseph Chiwatenhwa
“He also had his intellectual gifts, and it did not take him long to learn to read and write the Huron-Wendat language using European characters. Chiwatenhwa wrote with a goose-quill on birch-bark in order to translate prayers, liturgical texts and hymns. He also taught newly arrived Jesuits this language.” – Fr. Myles Gaffney, from Witness to Faith: An Introduction to the Life of Joseph Chiwatenhwa
“Thus the one faith is expressed in different ways. There can be no question of adulterating the word of God or of emptying the Cross of its power, but rather of Christ animating the very centre of all culture. Thus, not only is Christianity relevant to the Indian people, but Christ, in the members of his Body, is himself Indian.” – Homily of Pope John Paul II, Martyrs’ Shrine (Huronia), September 15, 1984 
“War, famine, persecutions, all these storms that seemed more likely than ever to overwhelm Christianity, have instead greatly strengthened it.” – Fr. Jerome Lalement, 1644

It was great to explore the Martyrs’ Shrine, particularly after setting my heart on it so many years ago because of reading the Chiwatenwa book. The extensive volumes in the Jesuit Relations chronicle much about Indigenous-Catholic relations that is worth learning and exploring. It is wonderful to have a Shrine commemorating lives of heroic virtue so that new generations can make contact with what is most edifying and exemplary in the lives of saints and martyrs.

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