Joseph Chihwatenha: Red Man Without a Cause

From 1542-1834, there were 117 martyrs who shed their blood for the Faith in the land that became the United States.  During those years all of them had been referred to Rome as candidates for canonization. Only the three of the Eight North American martyrs who died in what would be New York State, Isaac Jogues, Rene Goupil, and Jean de la Land have been canonized. All but two of these martyrs were either missionary priests, or brothers. Saints Rene Goupil and Jean de la Land, were donnés, lay volunteers who assisted the missionaries. I do not know how many Catholics shed their blood for the Faith in Canada, but the only ones to be canonized are the other five of the Eight North American Martyrs, all Jesuit priests: Saints Jean de Brebeuf, Noel Chabanel, Gabriel Lalemant, Charles Garnier, and Antoine Daniel. One other martyr has been beatified, the Ukrainian bishop, Blessed Vasyl Velychkovsky of Winnipeg, who died in 1973.  But there is another Canadian martyr, perhaps the nation’s protomartyr. His cause, as far as I could ascertain, was never introduced in Rome (or, if it was, it is presently dormant). He is the Huron, Joseph Chihwatenha.

Most of the American mission martyrs were Spanish Franciscans, the first being Father Juan Padilla, who was slain by the Indians in 1542, somewhere in the area that is now Kansas.  From then until 1834, in which year Father Antonio Diaz de Leon was martyred in Texas, there were eighty Spanish missionaries killed for the Faith in the territory that became the United States.

The Spanish were the first to send missionaries to the New World, 16,000 of them from 1492-1822. The early missioners had some success, but it wasn’t until Our Lady appeared in 1531 to Blessed Juan Diego, a Catholic Aztec, that a huge number of Indians converted en masse.  Within ten years after the great miracle of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is inseparable from the comforting words of the Blessed Mother that enshrined her miraculous image, ten million Mexican Indians had accepted the true Faith.

Introducing Joseph Chihwatenha

Unfortunately, other than Blessed Juan Diego and Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the names of Catholic Indians who practiced heroic sanctity have not made it into the annals of North American Church history. That is tragic, because there were many other Catholic Indians, to be sure, who were worthy of beatification and canonization.  One of them, a Huron, who converted after hearing a sermon of Saint Jean de Brebeuf, is Joseph Chihwatenha. Joseph was martyred in 1640, which is two years before any of the Eight North American martyrs died, and nine years before the death of Pere de Brebeuf, the great apostle to the Hurons.

Joseph was born about the year 1602 into an Huron Indian tribe, in Ossossanë, one of their forty or so villages, which were located in what is today southern Ontario, Canada. I have an excellent little booklet about Joseph, subtitled The Forgotten Martyr, by Clement Anthony Mulloy, Ph.D.  The source for much, if not all, of the material Mr. Mulloy provides about our martyr must have been the Jesuit Relations, since the black robes recorded daily the events they witnessed and anything else that was pertinent to their mission.

Who Were the Hurons?

Linguistic experts theorize that, on account of a similarity of language, the Hurons and their dreaded enemy, the Iroquois, had at one time been one nation.  This was not the case by the time Joseph was born.  Huron villages at that time, and for more than a century later, had to be constantly on the alert against Iroquois war parties.

When Saint Jean de Brebeuf arrived among the Hurons in 1634, he estimated that their population, scattered among twenty villages, was about thirty thousand.  They had been twice that size a half-century before. Their cabins, like those of the Iroquois, were made of long sheets of bark, with high walls arching at the top, something in design like an arbor. There were openings at the top to allow the smoke from their fires to escape. The lengths and widths of the cabins varied.  A large one might be seventy or eighty feet long and thirty or forty feet wide.  These would house up to twenty-four families, twelve fires, two families to a fire.  There were other Huron villages where single families lived in the more familiar circular wigwams. The Hurons did not have large families, nor were they monogamous. The greater percentage of the children died in infancy and many of the young braves died in their frequent battles with the Iroquois. They were a handsome, lean race, copper-skinned, statuesque, and muscular. When the men went on the hunt they didn’t walk, they jogged.

The Hurons had only a vague conception of an All-Powerful God.  They were wildly superstitious and believed in spirits that animated everything from animals, fish, and plants, to the inanimate rivers and lakes. But they worshipped nothing by way of offering any kind of regular, idolatrous sacrifices — not to the sun, nor the moon, nor any man-made idol.  The only thing that they did do that involved a calendar ritual was every ten years they dug up the graves of those who had died during the past decade and they reburied them in a common grave. This reburial freed the wandering spirits of the dead. Freed them unto what? No one really knew.  The ritual just released them from “wandering.” There certainly is no evidence that the Hurons believed in a “happy hunting ground” after death.  If the Huron can be said to believe in anything preternatural, it was the messages in their dreams.  The main job of the shamans, or medicine men, was the interpretation of dreams.  Once your dream was interpreted you were obligated to act upon it, however terrible that act might be, even to the shedding of blood.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the Hurons had any regular form of government, unless one would opt that an assembly of village chiefs, called as occasion necessitated, qualified as a type of federated government. Basically, the social unit the Hurons lived under was a practical cooperative.   The one thing, however, which totally astounded the missioners, was the oratorical skills of the chiefs who would address a convocation. The missioners had never seen the like.  It was unique not just to the Huron, but to the native Americans in general. Despite this effusion of brilliance that so typically characterized these pow-wows, the decisions emanating from the councils had no coercive force. If you killed another Huron for any cause, his relations could kill you, and that was that. Or, if you were a fearsome enough warrior, you would just get away with it.  But the guilty appeared before no court. It was the medicine men who were the highest authority. If they issued a sentence of life, death, or banishment, that sentence was carried out, either by themselves or some affected brave.

Much more can be said about the Huron way of life, but this is enough to give one some appreciation of the rugged world that Joseph Chihwatenha lived in. There was nothing extraordinary, exteriorly that is, with the future convert.  He was not born into any bloodline of privilege, although he had an uncle who was a chief of high influence. At times the young Chihwatenha would be invited by his uncle to sit in on a council. He had no reputation as a great warrior or hunter. It would be fair to surmise that he was just an average brave, who fished, hunted, and labored in the fields of corn, squash, and tobacco.

The Black Robes and the Smallpox Epidemic

The Jesuit missionaries, with their white skin, black robes, and beards, must have been a curious sight to behold for these children of the forest.  And they had these fascinating objects that they carried around: vessels for Mass, books, paintings, and — the most mesmerizing of all — mirrors and clocks. The Indians used to enter the Jesuits’ cabins — there was no such thing as privacy — squat down in front of the clock and just stare at it while they waited for the sound of the chime.  That totally fascinated them. In their minds the clock must have a spirit inside.

With the arrival of black robes came the arrival of something else: smallpox.  The source of what would become an epidemic between the years 1634-1640 is unknown.  But the fact that the Hurons, in particular, were quickly being decimated by the disease, while the foreigners living among them did not catch it, gave rise to suspicions of sorcery.  The bearded ones must be in league with evil forces and they have come to destroy our nation, they reasoned. Maybe, they thought, it was the clock, or the mirror, or even the strange paintings, one of which showed the suffering of the souls in hell, that was the origin of the foul sorcery. Yet, they feared to attack the Jesuits because their own shamans were powerless against the disease; and if they did kill the black robes, they might find themselves up against an evil power far superior than their own medicine men.

In the end, the chiefs decided that the source of the evil was nothing the strangers carried with them, it was the rite of baptism and the sign of the cross that the black robes were performing over their babies and over some of the adults who were dying, i.e. the catechumens.  The Jesuits exacted a long catechumenate before administering baptism on account of the proximity of powerful near occasions that would test even the most ardent converts.  With many of these catechumens contracting the smallpox, the missioners would immediately baptize them lest they die without the saving waters. When all of these died, and the un-baptized sick survived, suspicions turned into convictions.  Baptism was the kiss of death.

The first superior of the Jesuit mission in America, Father Jerome Lalemant, lamented: “It has been remarked more than a hundred times, that where we were most welcome, where we baptized the most people, there it was where they died the most: and in the cabins to which we were denied entrance, at the end of a few days one saw every person cured.”

By 1640 the Huron nation of thirty thousand had been cut in half.  Not surprisingly, as the death toll from the epidemic was mounting, there were no more catechumens.  It would have taken supernatual courage, knowing that certain death awaited, for anyone to ask for instruction in the Faith.  And it wasn’t just the fear of smallpox; it was fear of the tribe. Accepting the religion of the foreigners was now viewed as a traitorous act. You were bringing death to the nation. In 1636, de Brebeuf penned this assessment: “You might say that they are only waiting to see one of their number take the dreaded first step, and venture to run counter to the customs of the country.”

The Conversion of Chihwatenha

It was during this epidemic that Chihwatenha’s interest in the true religion was ignited.  It came by way of one of Father de Brebeuf sermons, which the saint delivered during the villagers’ “Feast of the Dead.” After hearing the sermon, the young brave began conversing about the afterlife with de Brebeuf, and the seed of Faith soon took root. Yet, no sooner had Chihwatenha enlisted as a catechumen, than he, too, contracted the smallpox.  That catechumenate would continue, but after his baptism.  Fearing a speedy death, Saint Jean de Brebeuf baptized the sick man, Joseph, on August 16, 1637. He was thirty-five years old. This time, the convert survived the worst throes of the disease, but he was not totally cured. Even in his debilitated condition, he absorbed the tenets of the Faith with eagerness and ease, and would prove to be an inestimable asset to the Huron mission.

Joseph was filled with joy after his baptism and his enthusiasm for the Faith soon won over his whole immediate family and his wife’s sister. These, however, were the only converts for Jean de Brebeuf, for a period of about ten months.  And they suffered for it in more ways than one.  Watching his sister-in-law sicken and die within forty-eight hours of her baptism was the first of heavy personal crosses. Ostracized and mocked by the rest of the village, Joseph and Maria lost every friend, and their clan was sarcastically dubbed “the family of Believers.”

Suffering in this way, and fearing worse, Joseph was, at first, repelled by the cross.  “My God,” he pleaded, “I pray you, do not make a trial of my faith; you know my most secret thoughts, you know that it is in earnest that I believe in you; alas! Do not afflict me.”

Joseph the Catechist

When the Jesuits traveled throughout Huronia, Joseph would gladly accompany them.  He was their interpreter. On one Christmas Eve, Joseph was asked to give a talk to the curious crowd that had gathered for the midnight Mass celebration. His wisdom was a marvel to behold.  The black robes recorded his words:

“Ah, my brothers  . . . what do these lights shining and sparkling in the midst of the night mean, if not that he whose memory we are now honoring, has through his birth dissipated the shadows and the ignorance of the world; having done this the first time so many centuries ago, he is about to grant us today, for the first time in these centuries, the same grace and mercy.  There are purposes and reasons, which can only be adored, for which he has not done this sooner; but it is a grace and a favor toward us, which cannot be sufficiently estimated or acknowledged, that his providence has arranged this blessing for our country while we are still living.”

Clarity in the communication of religious truths was extremely difficult for the missioners to achieve in a language devoid of the higher abstract concepts. How can you introduce the Trinity of Persons in one God when the simple people thought of God by only material images?  How do you explain Person and Nature and Infinite Spirit?  And, after these concepts are understood, one must reach for the right terminology to explain Creation from nothing; Original Sin and the Fall; the Incarnation, wherein was joined God and Man, two natures in the union of one Person, Omnipotence united with human fragility; Atonement, the Passion and Redemption; Grace; Sanctification; and Eternal Life.  As was the case with the early Church, the great mysteries of the Holy Eucharist and the Mystical Body were not revealed to neophytes until after their baptism.

Having understood all of the articles of the Catholic religion, Joseph was able to find the proper words to use in preaching to the Hurons — and not only to the Hurons, but to other tribes, like the Petuns, that shared a similar mother tongue.  He also had the gift of eloquence. One missionary noted: “His sole recreation is to converse about the things of God, which enables us to make great progress in the language, for he pronounces distinctly and uses good words.”

Then, too, Joseph would act as an interrogator with the missioners who liked to employ the dialogue method with potential converts.  The audiences were often held spellbound by these exchanges. “Joseph seems to have been the leaven of the Gospel that has made the whole lump of this new Church of the Hurons rise,” another missioner testified.

Joseph would often address the council when the chiefs of the various Huron villages would come together for discussions.  In one of these, Joseph spoke about what he had observed of the French on his trip to Quebec with Jesuit Father Le Mercier.  Thus far the Huron contact with the French, other than the missioners, was only with the fur traders, and they left no good impression.  So, when Joseph described to them the real culture of the Catholic settlers in Quebec, their churches, convents, schools, families, homes, and hospitals, they were amazed — especially about the hospitals and the sisters that serviced them. But, he won no converts at that time. He could not even convince his brother, Teondechoren, who was a hardened medicine man.

His Embrace of the Cross

From Joseph, the smallpox soon spread to his whole household, and with a more deadly potency.  Now he was being blamed for infecting his own wife, Maria Aonetta, and their children. The fact that he refused to call in the shamans, and let them chant their incantations to demons, caused the mockers to turn more threatening.  Even his relatives were infuriated at him.  He was in league with the black robes, who were killing them with their dark magic.

The more his people persecuted him, the stronger Joseph became.  His natural fears subsided, and the gift of fortitude began to forge in him a will of iron.  Suffering, for him, now meant something precious, something to be embraced, instead of something to be delivered from. As he stood gazing helplessly over his dying loved ones, a missioner heard him say: “I console myself in the belief that God sees everything which takes place in my family; I am not the head of it, God is; if he wills that all die, who can resist him?”  Having immersed himself in the will of the Almighty Father, Joseph feared not to present challenging truths as explanations to other parents who had lost their children in the epidemic: “God, foreseeing that a child will be bad if he becomes a man, anticipates him with death, by an effect of his goodness which men do not see.”

One by one Joseph’s family succumbed to the disease, while his own condition grew steadily better.  When his beloved son Thomas was dying, Joseph reminded the Jesuits of Abraham readily willing to obey God in the offering of Isaac.  “Thomas, my dear child,” he said, “we are not the Master of thy life; if God wishes thee to go to heaven, we cannot keep thee upon earth.”

The Trial of the Dreams

Joseph, alone, and without his family, continued to be mocked by the Hurons, but no one laid a hand on him. He even continued to go with the other braves on the hunt. But Joseph began having ominous dreams, one of which was recurrent. Dreams, as mentioned at the start of this article, were the voice of God to a Huron. In the recurrent dream, Joseph saw himself attacked by Iroquois braves, one of whom split his head open with a hatchet. This dream, oddly enough, was to be Joseph’s final trial of Faith. To understand why, one must appreciate the culture that gave such incredible importance to these rudderless dramas of slumber. Dreams foretold the future.  If you saw it in a dream, it would certainly come to pass. But, there was a way out for a dream such as Joseph’s.  Tradition had it that the dreamer had to sacrifice a dog to the dream weaver, and then he could escape the sentence.

It seems that the devil played upon Joseph’s mind concerning this dream, tormenting him, especially by way of other dreams, which prodded him to make the sacrifice as required. In resisting this temptation, Joseph was shedding one final, diabolical custom that had had such a powerful influence on his people.

The Martyr Dies Alone

From the beginning of his conversion Joseph had a premonition that he would suffer violently for Christ. In an eerie way, the dream about the head-splitting did predict what God had in store for him.  That was more than a violent death however; it was a martyrdom. On August 2, 1640, Joseph Chihwatenha was attacked while he was cutting wood in the fields.  His head was split open by someone’s battle-axe. The Huron chiefs held a council and decided that the deed was done by the Iroquois.  Upon further inquiry, the Jesuits were later convinced that, in fact, he had been killed by his fellow braves. The accusation of sorcery always hung over his head. The punishment the shamans laid down for this crime was to split open the skull of the sorcerer.

Furthermore, if the Iroquois were in the area, it would have been a war party. It was not their modus operandi to just slay one brave and leave no trace.  They would have attacked the village or, at least, a hunting party.  Too, if it were the deed of the Huron enemy, it would have been more likely for them to have taken Joseph prisoner, or, at least, to have scalped him, so to have a trophy.

When one considers the courage it took for Joseph Chihwateha to embrace the Faith, and persevere in it unto death, it could be argued that his fortitude was even greater than the missionaries who brought him the Gospel.  I do not say this because of the difficult obstacles of the primitive paganism and the animistic customs of the Huron world, for grace can conquer the grossest obstacles.  I say this because, rather than witnessing miracles from a saintly apostle, as did the pagan Irish and many other races, he witnessed what appeared to be a death sentence for anyone who believed in the words of his apostle, Jean de Brebeuf, a man who worked no miracles and who had to learn their language like a child.  And that sentence of death, as to its first cause, was not from some crazed medicine man, but, to all appearances, from a disease.  Joseph converted in the fire of affliction, with the truth itself of our holy religion offering the attracting grace.

After Joseph’s martyrdom, the epidemic died, too, and so did much of the mistrust and suspicion that the Hurons harbored against the French.  His blood was the seed for one immediate conversion, Teondechoren.  The reluctant shaman became one of the most distinguished Huron converts.  In honor of his brother, he was baptized Joseph.

If anyone wishes to learn more about Joseph Chihwatenha, you can contact a devout Catholic artist who has sculptured a statue of the martyr. His name and address: Gregory F. Tardiff, P.O. Box 635, Sylvan Beach, NY, 13157-0635. If I, myself, come across more information, I will post it on this website.

I saw a pavilion, or a dome, descend from heaven and rest on the grave of our Christian [Joseph Chihwatenha]. Then it seemed to me that someone picked up the two ends of the pavilion, drawing it upwards, as if to take it to heaven.  . . . The vision continued a very long time.  I felt, at the time, that God wished me to understand the state of the soul of that good Christian. (Saint Jean de Brebeuf, S.J.)

Joseph Chihwatenha, martyr, pray for us.