Gabriel Lalemant / l6lO - 1649


Three Lalemants made their mark as Jesuit blackrobes in 17th century Canada. There was Charles, the first to come, brother of Jerome and uncle of Gabriel. Charles landed at Quebec with Brebeuf in 1625. After his enforced return to France in 1629 and after the restoration of New France in 1632, Charles continued his missionary role by acting as procurator for the mission of Canada.

His brother, Jerome, a very illustrious Jesuit in 17th century Que-bec, followed in Charles' footsteps and arrived in Canada in 1638. He immediately set out for Huronia and replaced the wonderful Jean de Brebeuf as superior of the Huron mission. To him fell the task of building Sainte-Marie, the ambitious central mission residence, and it was he who, in great measure, systematized the evangelization of the growing mission to the Hurons and their neighbors the Tobaccos and the Nipis sings.

Jerome went to Quebec in 1645 to assume control of the whole Canadian mission and so was at the helm during the difficult days of Iroquois attacks and the eventual destruction of the Hurons and their flourishing mission.

A truly eminent Jesuit in his time, Jerome was the advisor of gover-nors, Bishop Lava' and the other leaders of New France; he was a talented and devoted superior; a gifted director of souls, and a man much esteemed for his wisdom, prudence and charity. He served the Canadian mission long and well and has left us some of the finest Rela-tions, especially those of 1646-49 and 1660-64.

Gabriel, the nephew of Charles and Jerome, arrived in Quebec only many years after his uncles, but his martyrdom at the hands of the Iroquois in March 1649 has given him the place of honor among these splendid 17th century Lalemants.

Our martyr was born in Paris, October 31, 1610. He was the son of an able French jurist and the third of six children, five of whom entered the religious life. His older brother Bruno became a Carthusian monk, three sisters became nuns, and Gabriel entered the Jesuit Order on March 24, 1630, at the age of nineteen. The youngest child, a boy, grew up to be, like his father, a successful lawyer and an admirable Christian.

His family must have been surely a deeply christian one, for Gabriel's mother was left a widow with young children and brought them up well and with a profound sense of dedication. She herself, after her children had reached maturity and after the martyrdom of her son Gabriel, joined the Recollectines and ended her days in seclusion and prayer.

Gabriel, after his novitiate, taught for several years in various Jesuit colleges. He then made his theological studies at Bourges and was ordained a priest in that city in 1638. After the priesthood he con-tinued to teach, being professor of philosophy at Moulins, and later was "prefect" at the famous college of La Fleche. But ever since his ordination Gabriel had begged his superiors to send him to the mis sion of New France. The example of his exemplary uncles spurred him on.

We know that Gabriel was not very robust. Indeed, Father Bressani, a fellow missionary in New France and among the Hurons, referred to him as a man of extremely frail constitution. This, no doubt, was the main reason for deferring his departure for Quebec. However, his obvious goodness, generosity and insistence overcame all obstacles in 1646.

His uncle Jerome welcomed him to Quebec but hesitated to send him up to Huronia. He knew from his own experience the difficulties and rigors of that mission. So for the first two years he applied Gabriel to priestly ministry in and around Quebec and at Three Rivers, the great trading centre. In 1648 he had even decided to send him among the Algonkian Montagnais who were not too far from Quebec.

However, circumstances changed and the uncle finally allowed him to leave for Huronia along with Fathers Bressani, Bonin, Daran and Greslon and a large party of Frenchmen and Hurons. After all, the Iroquois menace was a real one and both French and Hurons had to travel in large numbers for their own safety and protection. They reached Huronia in August 1648.

The new missionary among the Hurons, now thirty-eight years of age, seemed right in his element. He studied the difficult Huron language at the village of Ossossane under the direction of the able Father Chau-monot. The experienced missionary marvelled at his pupil's rapid pro-gress in the language and later remarked to Jerome Lalemant how seriously and successfully his nephew had applied himself to this task.

When Gabriel was deemed ready for more active missionary work he was sent by the superior, Father Paul Ragueneau, to assist the great veteran Jean de Brebeuf. In February 1649 he relieved Father Noel Chabanel who then left for the more distant mission of Saint-Jean among the Tobaccos. It was an eventful change for both of them!

Little did Gabriel know, but he would have only a month of active apostolic labor at the side of the admirable Brebeuf. Both were ex-tremely good and zealous priests, so we can well imagine how content they must have been making the rounds of their mission that comprised five villages to the east of Sainte-Marie. St. Ignace and St. Louis are the two we remember best.

As the frontiers of Huronia had shrunk under the incessant incur-sions by the Iroquois, villages like St. Ignace and St. Louis suddenly became alarmingly exposed to the attacks of the enemy. Indeed in March 1649, most of the Huron warriors from the villages were scour-ing the woods to discover the whereabouts of the enemy - but in vain! The crafty Iroquois - 1200 strong and well armed - had outwitted the Hurons and had arrived in the vicinity of St. Ignace completely un-detected.

Early in the morning of March 16, 1649, as the light of day was breaking, they found the one weak and unprotected spot in the pali-saded village and swiftly broke in and overran the place. Five hundred Hurons, mostly older people, women and children, were quickly sub-dued. Some were killed instantly but most were taken prisoner. Only three managed to escape to warn St. Louis of this disaster and of what was to come.

It was like a death blow to an already staggering Huronia.

At St. Louis, the old people, the sick, the women and children im-mediately fled off to other Huron villages. Only eighty warriors were left and these were resolved to fight the enemy and gain valuable time for the fleeing villagers. And with these eighty stayed the two mission-aries Brebeuf and Lalemant. Despite the pleas of the Hurons that they escape while there was time, the two fathers preferred to remain in this hour of crisis. As Ragueneau, their friend, would say later: "the salvation of their flock was dearer to them than life itself."

About an hour later the Iroquois surrounded St. Louis and pressed their attack. The eighty Hurons fought desperately to keep them at bay. And all the while Brebeuf and Lalemant, amid the din and shouting, busied themselves with encouragement, confessions and baptisms.

When one pagan Huron, dismayed at the sight of so many Iroquois attackers, wished to run away, Stephen Annaotaha, a Christian and outstanding warrior, rebuked him sharply with "What, could we for-sake these two good fathers who have exposed their lives for us? Their love of our salvation will be the cause of their death. They cannot escape now over the snow, so let us die with them and we shall go to heaven with them."

On the third assault the village fell into the hands of the Iroquois. The few remaining Hurons and the two blackrobes were seized and led off in triumph. They would provide the victors with much sport!

"As soon as they were taken captive," wrote Ragueneau, "the Iroquois stripped them of their clothes and tore off some of their nails. When they reached the village of St. Ignace, they were welcomed with a hail-storm of blows on the shoulders, the back, the legs, the stomach, the chest and the face, until there did not remain a single part of their bodies without pain."

Then the two fathers were dragged into the centre of the village and fastened to stakes. Now the torture became deliberate and fiendish. They were burned with firebrands, their flesh was pierced with sharp awls, collars of red-hot hatchets were strung around their necks, their flesh was ripped and torn away, and belts of burning pitch were fasten-ed to their bodies. Cruelty was heaped upon cruelty.

At the height of these dreadful torments, Father Gabriel, we are told by Huron witnesses, lifted his eyes to heaven, joined his hands from time to time, and, breathing a sigh to God, invoked His help.

Later the aroused executioners gouged out his eyes and put burning coals in the sockets, and then, in mockery of the baptisms he had per-formed so recently at St. Louis, they poured scalding hot water over him in order, they jeered, to send him the more quickly to heaven.

Gabriel's companion, Brebeuf, died from his tortures about 4 p.m., that March 16th. Gabriel, frail though he was, endured his dreadful sufferings all that day and throughout the night, dying only, after a hatchet blow over his left ear, at 9 a.m. the following day. As a final gesture the Iroquois tore out his heart and devoured it in order to imbibe some of his courage!

After the sudden withdrawal of the Iroquois war party from the area on March 19th, seven Frenchmen went to St. Ignace to carry the bodies of the two fathers to Sainte-Marie. There, on Sunday, March 21st, their bodies - "precious relics" - were buried.

Ragueneau, the superior at Sainte-Marie, recalled the scene: "All who assisted at their obsequies were filled with such consolation and tender devotion that, far from being afraid, they hoped for a similar death for themselves."

And thus it was that the last to enter the lists of Huronia was one of the first to win the crown. He had spent only six months in the land of martyrs. But for him it had been an intense period of accomplishing much in a short time.

For so long he had wished to give up everything for the salvation of souls. In his diary he spoke of his readiness to be a holocaust in the service of God and of his desire to make amends for any offences in his life by extraordinary suffering. And he had prayed that his missionary work and sufferings would bring blessings upon his beloved mother and the family to whom he was so indebted.

A Jesuit for nineteen years, Gabriel showed forth remarkable purity of conscience, unmistakable union with God, and a sincere love of others. Serious, reserved and gentle he was much beloved by all who knew him. Even in the few months he lived among the Hurons he had endeared himself to them by his ministrations. They called him Ati-ronta, the name of a Huron chief.

Ragneneau, his first biographer, wrote that Gabriel had died for the cause of God and had found in Huronia the cross of Christ which he had sought.

His uncle, Jerome Lalemant, had to break the news of his death to the family in France. He wrote to his niece - Gabriel's sister - the carmelite nun in typical Lalemant fashion: "What happiness for our family . . . it seems to me the news should help you raise your heart and mind to God."

Gabriel Lalemant, the martyr, was officially recognized and pro-claimed as such by Pope Pius XI on June 29th, 1930. In popular devo-tion his memory is always linked with that of Jean de Brebeuf with whom he labored and died.