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The 17th century saint who converted North American tribesmen

A statue of St Jean de Brébeuf

The 32-year-old French Jesuit Jean de Brébeuf travelled to New France in North America in 1625. He worked with the Huron, an Iroquoian tribe famous for their ferocity, with whom the French settlers traded.

Brébeuf was raised in Normandy and joined the Jesuits at the 24, becoming a teacher in Rouen and surviving tuberculosis. Although not the best student, he was a talented linguist. Along with Fr Charles Lalemant and Fr Énemond Massé, and the lay brothers Francois Charton and Gilbert Bure, Brébeuf arrived in North America. They first stayed with the Montagnais and then the Huron and the Bear Tribe.

Recalled to France in 1629, he remained there for four years before leaving for good. Along with other Jesuits he returned to the Huron, who were now suffering from European epidemics from which they had no immunity and for which they blamed the Europeans.

Brébeuf had an ambivalent relationship with the Huron. He taught and cared for them, and learned their language, which he taught to other missionaries and colonists. He compiled a dictionary of Huron words, focusing on phrases that appeared in prayers and the Bible. He was also an astute student of Huron culture, as his detailed account of the Huron feast of the dead, a mass reburial that took place when the nomadic tribe moved, shows. His observations were confirmed by 20th-century archaeological expeditions. The Huron believed Brébeuf was a shaman, with the ability to make it rain. But though he tried to find parallels between the Huron religion and Christianity, he upset many Huron by describing their beliefs as “foolish delusions”.

It took him more than a decade to convert his first Huron, but within a couple of years he had over 100. Moving around New France from 1638 to 1644, he returned to Huron Country until his death. In 1649 the Iroquois raided the village in which he was based. Along with fellow Jesuits Antoine Daniel, Charles Lalement, Charles Garnier and Noël Chabanel, and eight Huron captives, he was ritually tortured and killed.

Fr Isaac Jogues, a 39-year-old missionary, was killed by Mohawks in what is now New York state in 1646. His body was thrown into the St Lawrence river.
The North American martyrs were beatified in 1925 and canonised in 1930.