The American Martyrs
Pope Pius XI canonized “The North American Martyrs” – eight Jesuit missionaries who heroically gave up their lives in order to preach the Gospel to the North American Indians - on June 29, 1930. That same year, a small parish of some 40 families was established in the seaside community of Manhattan Beach. In honor of the Catholic Church’s newest saints, it was called American Martyrs Church.
The saga of the French Jesuit Martyrs is one of the greatest contests of good and evil the human race has experienced. The eight saints left comfortable middle class lives in Renaissance France for the deep, lush forests of the “New World” nearly 400 years ago. Father John de Brebeuf, a giant man in both stature and holiness, was one of the first to arrive. He was followed by Fathers Charles Garnier, Isaac Jogues, Gabriel Lalemant, Anthony Daniel, and Noel Chabanel. Two Jesuit Brothers, Rene Goupil and John de la lande, joined the French priests in their efforts to convert the Native Americans.
The “Blackrobes” were zealous missionaries. They lived among the Native Americans, learned their language and customs, and endured incredible hardships in order to save souls for Christ through Baptism. Writing in 1657, the missionaries described the Iroquois Indians they ministered to as “warlike and cruel,” a people who exposed their children from birth to “the most atrocious carnage and the most barbarous spectacles.” The Jesuits were undaunted. After christening a dying child, Saint Jean de Brebeuf, once exclaimed: “For this one single occasion I would travel all the way from France; I would cross the great ocean to win one little soul for Our Lord!”
Father de Brebeuf and his fellow Jesuits met their deaths between the years 1642 and 1649. Most were tortured mercilessly. Many – like Father Jogues and Brother Goupil—were forced to “run the gauntlet,” a ritual in which captives were beaten as they ran between two lines of braves armed with clubs and thorny rods. All the martyrs followed the example Jesus set as he endured his own death on the cross. They suffered in virtual silence and died with a sense of serenity which dumbfounded their executioners.
The power of the Jesuits’ teaching and the love they felt for the American Natives was inspirational. Many of the Indians they converted also suffering martyrdom. A passage in “Relation,” the reports the Jesuits sent back to their Superior General., noted the resolve with which the Native American converts met their own brutal deaths. One Huron Indian who was burned at the stake declared: “…I die a Christian… the tortures frighten me not because they cannot take from me the hope of Paradise…” Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, a young Indian girl who was baptized by the Blackrobes, led such a devoted Christian life that she was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980 and received sainthood in 2012. She was known as Lily of the Mohawks and became the first Native American Saint. Today, one of the meeting rooms at American Martyrs is named in her memory.
Though the American Martyrs lived and died nearly four centuries ago, the message which they brought to the New World – the message of the transforming power of Christ’s love – lives on today in the parish which bears their name.