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The Death of Jean de Brébeuf

For the week of Monday March 13, 2000

On March 16, 1649, French Jesuit missionary Father Jean de Brébeuf died at Saint-Ignace in central Ontario. Iroquois warriors attacked the Jesuit mission at Saint-Louis, captured Brébeuf and took him to Saint-Ignace, where he was tortured and killed.

Jean de Brébeuf

Jean de Brébeuf
© LAC / C-001190

Jesuit missionaries began coming to Canada in 1625 to convert the Aboriginal people to Christianity. One missionary, Jean de Brébeuf, arrived in Quebec in June 1625 and entered Wendake, the Huron-Wendat people's homeland, known by the Europeans as Huronia, one year later. He resolved to convert the Native population to Christianity. To this end, Brébeuf mastered the Wendat language and customs, translated the Jesuit catechism and prepared a Wendat grammar and dictionary. In 1639, he helped found the Sainte-Marie mission, which became the Jesuit missionary headquarters until it was destroyed in 1649.

Despite Brébeuf's attempts to Christianize the Huron-Wendat, many were determined to hold on to their traditional religious beliefs and feared that Roman Catholic rituals were signs of witchcraft. In 1640, following three disastrous smallpox epidemics, the Huron-Wendat blamed Brébeuf and other French missionaries for spreading the disease and attacked their mission.

While in Canada, Brébeuf travelled widely, spending several years in Quebec. In 1644, he returned to Wendake and founded the Saint-Louis mission. Meanwhile, hostilities had intensified between the Huron-Wendat and Iroquois populations. The Iroquois, traditional rivals to the Huron-Wendat, sought to eliminate their enemies, and repeatedly attacked outposts and missions that were allied to them. Brébeuf's mission at Saint-Louis was targeted. In 1649, the Iroquois swept in and destroyed it. They captured Brébeuf and another Jesuit priest, Gabriel Lalemant, and took them to Saint-Ignace, where they were tortured and killed.

<I>Huronia</I>

Huronia
© Lysandre Derry / Marianne Mitchell

Brébeuf accomplished much before his death. He compiled The Jesuit Relations of 1635 and 1636, chronicles that served as guides to other missionaries. He also composed the first Canadian Christmas carol, known as The Huron Carol or Twas In The Moon Of Winter Time, in the Wendat language as a gift to the Huron-Wendat.

The Jesuit Fathers have been nationally commemorated for their work as missionaries in Canada since 1625. Jean de Brébeuf was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1930 and was declared a secondary patron saint of Canada in 1940. His bones are kept as relics at the Martyr's Shrine near Midland, Ontario. Sainte-Marie-Among-the-Hurons (re-created on the site of the original Sainte-Marie mission) and Saint-Louis Mission have been designated as National Historic Sites.

For further information visit the Cartier-Brébeuf National Historic Site.

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