For the past few years, October 19 – which, of course, is today – has been in the Church the feast day of the North American Martyrs. For decades previous this same feast had been celebrated on September 26, a day of no small solemnity in Jesuit houses. When the date was changed, this came as something of a wrench, like changing the feast of St. Thomas from March 7 to January 28. It strikes us as almost a violation of the natural law.
The Collect prayer of yesterday’s Mass mentions the North American martyrs simply as Isaac, John, and their companions, or if you happen to be in Canada, then John, Isaac, and their companions. The liturgy makes no mention, as it has no reason to, that they were French by birth and nationality; that they were eight in number, that six were Jesuit priests and the other two, at the time of their deaths, brothers in this same least Society.
The Collect prayer mentions North America as the place where these saints labored and died. It defines the locale no more precisely than that. Actually, what is now central New York State was the site of Father Jogues’ labors and death, his and the two Brothers René Goupil and John Lalande. The western sector of the present Canadian province of Ontario, along the eastern shore of Lake Huron around the present town of Midland, is where Brébeuf and Lalemant, Daniel, Garnier, and Chabanel labored and died.
In New York State, about forty miles west of the state capital, along the south bank of the Mohawk River in the wide valley that divides the Catskill mountains to the south from the Adirondacks to the north, is the small village, not much more than a post office, of Auriesville. A few miles to the east, sloping upward from the south bank of the river, are several acres that the Jesuits have owned now for many decades. They call it the Auriesville Shrine, and it is a pilgrimage center for Catholics of the Northeast. The Jesuits built a shrine there, a large dodecahedron with seventy-two doors, a bit of a monstrosity in fact. But it really doesn’t matter much. It is not the building that sanctifies that portion of real estate; what Father Jogues suffered and did there hallowed that spot far beyond the power of future generations to add or subtract.
One walks the paths among the trees there even today and one has the sense of being in a sanctuary or walking on sacred ground, ground hallowed some three hundred and forty years ago by the priest who spent thirteen months there as a captive of the Mohawk Indians, literally a slave of the savages. It is ground sanctified, more precisely, by the patience and privation there, by the quiet persistent energy with which he went about doing what he could for the salvation of souls, by the love of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, which motivated it all.