Jean de Brébeuf

Jean de Brébeuf (1593-1649), a French missionary to Canada, was a Jesuit priest who suffered martyrdom in North America.

Jean de Brébeuf was born on March 25, 1593, in Condésur-Vire, Normandy, where his family belonged to the petty landed aristocracy. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1617 and was ordained in 1622. For the next 3 years he was treasurer at the Jesuit secondary school in Rouen. In 1625, at his own request, he went to the newly opened Jesuit mission in New France.

In order to master the native tongue, Brébeuf left Quebec in October 1625 and lived for 5 months among the Montagnais, who belonged to the Algonquin nation. His missionary labors concentrated on the conversion of the Huron in southeastern Ontario.

Brébeuf was the first apostle to contact the Hurons, and evangelization involved the severest physical hardships, augmented by surroundings revolting to Christian norms of morality and European sensibilities. Added to this were the insults and calumnies heaped on him by jealous native sorcerers, who blamed the Jesuits for the periodic plagues, famines, and wars and who associated them with the shortcomings of the French colonists. During his initial stay, lasting 3 years, Father Brébeuf familiarized himself with Huron ways and translated the catechism into Huron, but he made no converts.

The English occupation of Quebec in 1629 necessitated Brébeuf's return to France. There he reverted to his former work as treasurer at the school in Rouen. When France and England signed a peace treaty in 1633, he returned to Quebec in company with its founder and his friend, the explorer Samuel de Champlain.

Brébeuf's second journey to Huronia was more successful. The natives were in awe of his unusual height, strength, and fortitude. Like his fellow Jesuits, they admired his nobility of character, leadership qualities, patience and prudence, and fluency in the local dialect. He found the Huron more receptive to the Gospel and baptized numerous dying infants and adults, along with a small number of healthy adults. Yet the Huron condemned the missionaries to death for causing the epidemic in 1636-1637, and only the subsidence of the plague saved their lives.

Brébeuf was head of the Mission of St. Joseph, a community of Christian Native Americans at Sillery near Quebec, from 1641 to 1644, when he left for his third and final stay in Huronia. A rapid increase in conversions greatly strengthened his hopes for Christianizing the entire people. But on March 16, 1649, Iroquois braves—implacable enemies of the Huron, the French, and the missionaries— captured Fathers Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalemant at the mission station of St. Louis, dragged them a short distance to St. Ignace Mission, and tortured them for hours before killing them. These two, along with four other priests and two lay assistants, known collectively as the North American Martyrs, were beatified in 1925 and canonized in 1930.

Further Reading on Jean de Brébeuf

Brébeuf's own narratives are collected in the monumental Jesuit Relations, edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites (73 vols., 1893-1901). Letters of Brébeuf and a report of his death, selected from the Jesuit Relations, are in Edna Kenton, ed., The Indians of North America (2 vols., 1927). Francis Xavier Talbot, Saint among the Hurons (1949), is a biography of Brébeuf. Recommended for general background is W. J. Eccles, The Canadian Frontier, 1534-1760 (1969), which includes an extensive bibliography.

Additional Biography Sources

Donnelly, Joseph Peter, Jean de Brébeuf, 1593-1649, Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1975.

Latourelle, René, Jean de Brébeuf, Saint-Laurent, Canada: Bellarmin, 1993.

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