Joseph Chihwatenha

The Forgotten Martyr


Clement Anthony Mulloy, Ph.D.

+ Ad majorem Dei gloriam!+

© Copyright 2001 Clement Anthony Mulloy, Ph.D.
421 East Prospect Street
Fayetteville, AR 72701

[Reprinted here with permission of author.]

“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.”

St. Jean de Brèbeuf, SJ

In obedience to the decrees of Pope Urban VIII and the other Sovereign Pontiffs the author declares that all the graces and other supernatural facts related in this volume rest upon human authority alone, and that in regard to such, as in the use of all terms and in the opinions expressed, he submits himself without reserve to the infallible judgement of the Holy Apostolic See.

One of the most famous chapters in Church history is the heroic martyrdom of the French Jesuit missionaries to North America. Saints like Jean de Brèbeuf and Isaac Jogues continue to inspire people centuries later. But a story rarely told is that before the Jesuit martyrs there was an Indian martyr. His name was Joseph Chihwatenha. Working among an obscure tribe known as the Huron the Jesuits found their greatest convert. A man who was to become the cornerstone of the Huron Christian Church. He was a brave man who was persecuted for his beliefs, but one who has been forgotten by history and by the Church for which he died. When Joseph’s conversion and martyrdom are set in their historical context then the sacrifices he made in order to live openly as a Christian can be better understood.

At first the Jesuit missionaries were greeted by the Hurons with a mixture of emotions; fear, curiosity, awe, and, to some, love. But these initial reactions soon yielded to another, suspicion. For the Hurons’ perception of the Jesuits was influenced by another strange arrival: a deadly and highly contagious disease. This disease, which some have identified as smallpox, swept through the Huron villages in a series of epidemics between 1634 and 1640. The Huron looked on in horror, helpless as his friends and family died a slow and painful death. At the end of these six years over fifteen thousand people, approximately half the Huron population, was dead.

The Hurons naturally began to question who or what was the cause of this strange disease. If the disease was due to natural causes the Huron believed a prescription of natural remedies would always produce a cure. But if the illness persisted then the illness must be of another more sinister origin.

The natural remedies the Huron concocted could not stop the disease, thousands continued to die. It spread despite the time-honored treatments of their most powerful medicine men. Having found no cure the Huron concluded there could be only one cause. It was the cause that the Huron feared the most; the disease must be the result of a powerful and malignant witchcraft. Due to the nature of the disease, which was so widespread and deadly, and due to the ineffectiveness of their treatments, this was the only conclusion the Huron could make.

The natural suspects were the newly arrived Jesuits. The Hurons asked one simple question: “Why would these men so strongly desire to live with us?” The Jesuits had endured great hardships just to reach their land. What could be the purpose of such a vast undertaking? The Hurons concluded that the Jesuits could have only one motivation; the majority became convinced the Jesuits were practicing a powerful witchcraft with which they intended to wipe out the entire Huron population. One of the missionaries, Jerome Lalemant, wrote of this fear,

The climax of it is, that the most intelligent among these poor Barbarians, not being able to comprehend the object and motive that have caused us to leave France and come so far, with so much difficulty and labor, and not seeing us claim any profit or advantage from our residence among them, conclude that we must, therefore, desire their ruin, since we can only aim at some object of great importance in such resolution.

The idea that the disease was the result of a deadly witchcraft inflicted by the Jesuits was encouraged by the leaders of Huron society. The medicine men, in particular, knew they were losing credibility since they were powerless to stop the spread of the disease. These shamans were held in great awe for their supernatural powers and they were fearful the Jesuits would undermine both their prestige and profitable position. The medicine men were in a lucrative profession since the services they rendered, whether healing the sick or predicting the weather, were not for free. Many of the sick and suffering sacrificed all their possessions to the medicine men in a desperate attempt to save their lives. The Jesuits threatened to take over the leading roles in the community. They led a revolution, a change in lifestyle, which threatened to displace both the medicine men and the chiefs as the cultural leaders of Huron society. Therefore, both the medicine men and the chiefs were allied in spreading lies and misrepresentations about the Jesuits throughout the Huron community.

Incriminating evidence quickly accumulated against the Jesuits. The onset of the disease seemed to coincide with the Jesuits’ arrival. And wherever the Jesuits went, the disease followed. Father Lalemant was forced to admit, “It has been remarked more than a hundred times, that where we were most welcome, where we baptized 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.” Even more incriminating, the Jesuits did not succumb to the disease. While the Hurons were dying by the thousands not one missionary died. Le Mercier remarked the Hurons did not fail to notice this and “were astonished at it, and are still astonished every day, saying in reference to us, ‘Those people are not men, they are demons.’” In these circumstances it was easy to spread the rumor that the Jesuits exercised control over the disease.

To defend themselves against the “black magic” of the Jesuits, the Hurons carefully watched the missionaries to discover what methods they used to spread the pestilence. This gave rise to many theories. Many believed the Jesuits kept a corpse in the chapel tabernacle and it was this corpse which caused their people to die. Some said the life-sized paintings the Jesuits had of Christ and the Virgin Mary were real people and by merely looking at them one could catch the disease. Others thought the sugar that the Jesuits gave to the sick was a way of poisoning their victims.

Eventually, everything associated with the Jesuits was thought to have a connection with the plague. Even a clock the Jesuits brought with them from France to try to impress the Hurons of their superior knowledge became a source of suspicion. Initially, the clock was looked upon with great wonder and curiosity. Many would come to the Jesuits’ cabin and silently sit staring at the clock for much of the day just to hear it chime on the hour. Now this “Demon of death” was thoughtto spew forth the disease with every chime.

The paranoia concerning the Jesuits reached such heights that Le Mercier wrote they did not “dare to do any act — not even the most holy ones —which is not suspected and mistaken for enchantments. If we would either kneel down or say our office by the light of five or six coals, those were precisely the acts of black magic by which we were causing them all to die.” The paintings the Jesuits had showing the torments of those damned to hell “represented to them nothing more than what was happening to their sick people.” The Jesuits were constantly watched, Le Mercier wrote, “Merely to see us walk about, they thought we were engaged in some witchcraft.” One missionary commented “even our slightest gestures and motions” were suspected of witchcraft.

Ultimately, one theory above all others gained prominence. The Hurons concluded the primary way the Jesuits spread the disease was through the sacrament of baptism. In a sense, the Jesuits became victims of their own cautious methods. Generally the Jesuits were reluctant to administer this sacrament, especially to healthy adults. They feared apostasy and backsliding and wanted only sincere and authentic conversions. As a result, the missionaries were very scrupulous in administering this sacrament, sometimes requiring a trial period of several years before allowing a convert to receive it. The potential convert had to prove himself over a prolonged period of time before he was accepted into the Church.

But this cautious attitude was abandoned when it came to those near death. Under these conditions, which were common during the years of the epidemic, there could be no fear of backsliding. Moreover, the Church teaches that baptism not only washes away original sin but all sin, and that the baptized person is freed from the punishment of sin. Consequently, the Jesuits believed that a newly baptized person who died soon after would immediately go to heaven. The Jesuits who were reluctant to baptize a vigorous healthy adult, were willing, even eager to baptize those on the verge of death. In the beginning the Hurons considered baptism to be similar to one of their rituals to heal the sick. But this positive view quickly faded. Because so many of those baptized soon died, the Indians began to see baptism as the kiss of death. The Jesuits added to these fears by baptizing children in particular without their parents’ permission. The parents, not realizing the Jesuits’ intentions, concluded the Jesuits must have some sinister motive. Baptism, far from being the gateway to the eternal life, came to be viewed as the chief means by which the Jesuits sought to destroy the Huron nation.

In these circumstances, any Huron who desired to become a Christian and receive baptism had to overcome two major obstacles. First, he had to demonstrate his sincerity to the Jesuits over a prolonged period of time before he would be accepted into the Church. Second, he underwent a rite that his own culture considered fatal. To undergo such a rite meant certain death. This was enough to test the conviction of any potential convert.

But the potential convert was faced with other obstacles. The Indians called upon supernatural powers to defend themselves against the disease. These powers were summoned by shamans or by the ceremonies performed by their curing societies. All these efforts were condemned by the Jesuits. The shamans were branded as “imps of Satan” and the healing ceremonies were denounced as sinful attempts to invoke demonic spirits. This opposition was seen by the Hurons as another element in the Jesuits’ evil plot to destroy the Huron people.

The condemnation of traditional medicine left the convert to the new religion in a difficult situation. He was cut off from the customary ways his society had devised to heal and cure the afflicted. He felt defenseless against the disease’s onslaught as his friends and family died of an inexplicable disease. Though the curing ceremonies seem futile, they gave the Hurons a sense of security. He was also attacked by his own community, many times his own family, for failing to take action against the deadly disease. Failure to perform the traditional ceremonies was perceived to guarantee its spread. A convert was viewed by society as allied with the Jesuits and taking an active part in “killing” his countrymen. He was a traitor who was committing the most heinous of crimes.

It is this historical background that the precarious position of the Christian converts must be considered. In short, the Jesuits were believed to be mass murderers and any converts to the new religion were their accomplices. To break with his culture the convert needed a courage and dedication of heroic proportions. It would not be too much to say that this heroism matched even that of the Jesuits themselves.

Father Jean de Brebeuf, who more than anyone understood the Huron mind, wrote in 1636, “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 grip of Huron culture was strong and the Christian way of life was thought to be too demanding. A Huron chief told Brèbeuf, “My nephew, we have been greatly deceived. We thought the Great Spirit would be satisfied with a house. According to what I have heard, He asks a great deal more.”

A breakthrough finally occurred with a man of great courage, willing even to sacrifice his life for his newfound beliefs. His name was Joseph Chihwatenha. He was about thirty-five years old at the time of his conversion. He was not a wealthy man nor one of the chiefs of his community but he would soon become the Jesuits’ greatest asset.

Joseph’s desire to convert was sparked after hearing Father Brèbeuf’s sermon to the Hurons during their great “Feast of the Dead.” Thereafter, Joseph became increasingly interested in Christianity and his instruction soon began. Eventually, Joseph fell ill to the epidemic. Fearing his death the Jesuits asked if he wished to be baptized. Joyfully consenting, Joseph was baptized on August 16, 1637.

For a period of about ten months he and later his family were the only converts of his village. He maintained the practice of the faith despite the climate of suspicion and persecution in which he lived and the ostracism and loneliness he endured. He and his family were openly mocked as the“family of Believers.” Despite this he was the man who dared to take the “dreaded first step.”

Just after his conversion Joseph had a premonition of the trials he would undergo. The missionaries taught that the Lord was accustomed to try his most faithful servants through suffering. This caused great fear and puzzlement in Joseph. Pleading with God, after reading the Book of Job which he found most disturbing, Joseph said, “My God, I pray you, do not make a trial of my faith; you know my most secret thoughts, you know that it is in earnest I believe in you; alas! Do not afflict me.”

The Jesuits found Joseph to be more than just a simple convert. He helped them in every way he could, traveling throughout the length of his country promoting Christianity and closely identifying himself with the Jesuits despite the likelihood that he could be linked to their nefarious activities. Joseph would often accompany the Jesuits and give inspiring speeches urging his countrymen to convert. On one such occasion Joseph gave a talk at the Christmas midnight Mass. He spoke of how fortunate the Hurons were to be chosen by God to receive his message at this moment in history,

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.

Joseph fulfilled the role of lay preacher as was common in the Middle Ages. Christians and non-believers alike never seemed to tire of his oratory. This was important in an oral culture such as the Huron for only with great effort could the Jesuits reach the point where they could converse in the Huron language, but it was still difficult for them to achieve the eloquence and delivery which was necessary to keep the Hurons’ attention and persuade them to be Christians. For the Jesuits’ purposes the native language was limited because it lacked the words and terminology to adequately describe Christianity. In this regard, Joseph helped the Jesuits make progress. One of the missionaries 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.”

Joseph was also invaluable at the regular meetings the Jesuits formed to give instruction. These meetings were question and answer sessions carried out in dialogue form between Joseph and one of the missionaries. In these dialogues Joseph played many different roles. One missionary observed that “Joseph acts sometimes as objector, sometimes as ignoramus, and sometimes the Doctor, he gives opportunity to our Catechist to explain by Dialogue, and with more clearness, what otherwise would be only half understood.” It was clear the Jesuits credit the flowering of the Huron Church to Joseph,

Joseph seems to have been the leaven of the Gospel that has made the whole lump of this new Church of the Hurons rise ... he having been everywhere present on the most suitable occasions, to make public profession and to render an account of his faith and his conversion.

As Joseph had feared his faith was soon put to the test. A short time after his baptism the dreaded disease invaded his household. Many suspected a link between his conversion and his diseased family. Normally, a shaman would be invited and, it was believed, by chanting incantations and wielding mystical powers a cure would be possible. But Joseph refused to allow his family the benefits of Huron medicine. To those who saw a connection between Joseph’s conversion and the disease this refusal confirmed their initial impression. He was deliberately causing the deaths of his closest relatives. Many from around the village and even some in his own family attempted to force Joseph to abandon his faith and permit these healing ceremonies. Despite the pressure, Joseph held firm.

Joseph’s conversion not only meant a rejection of Huron medicine but also brought about a change in his attitude toward death and suffering. It was one that was far removed from the traditional Huron outlook. One missionary heard him say as his family lay ill, “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 will that all die, who can resist him?” His changed viewpoint gave him an explanation for the seemingly senseless deaths to the young and innocent; “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.” Joseph’s new perspective was a distinct break with his native culture that had no belief in an eternal life in paradise. The traditionalists of Huron society, those who had rejected Christianity and clung to their customs, feared death and willingly sacrificed all their possessions in payment to their medicine men in a vain attempt to escape the inevitable. As one Huron admitted to Brèbeuf during the height of the epidemic, “My nephew, we do not know what we are doing. There is nothing we would not do to preserve our lives.” Joseph began to realize that to the Christian this life was a test, a temporary time of suffering to be endured before the final reward. Compared to eternity this life was like the blink of an eye.

When death came to his family, especially to his beloved son Thomas, Joseph’s faith did not falter. The Jesuits compared Joseph to Abraham offering up his son Isaac. Joseph was overheard saying to his son, “Thomas, mydear child, we are not the Master of thy life; if God wish thee to go to Heaven, we cannot keep thee upon earth.” Despite the death of his own son and the pressure brought against him by his community Joseph never abandoned his faith.

The difficulty of breaking with the mentality of his culture extended into other areas as well. This was especially evident in the realm of dreams. In Huron society dreams occupied a place of spiritual authority. Dreams were thought to reflect hidden desires and failure to fulfill these “desires of the soul” meant hardship and even death. The Jesuits described dreams as the “God of the Huron” and as an oracle that predicted future events. To run counter to the commands of one’s dreams required a dedication that few Hurons were willing to risk. To the modern the mystical world of the Huron can be difficult to comprehend, but one must realize the powerful hold it had on the Huron mind if one is to fully comprehend the difficulty of conversion.

Because of their perceived power, dreams were consulted for success in many endeavors. For example, many Hurons looked for signs in their dreams to help them in the hunt. “Those who have the best dreams here, ”one missionary observed, “and believe what they dream, pass for superior hunters.” In one hunting expedition Joseph ignored the directives of his dreams. He came back empty-handed while the others were successful. They attributed their success to the influence of their dreams. The Jesuits record that Joseph had to endure “considerable occasion for patience because his companions indulged in cutting sneers about his belief.”

Success in hunting can be considered a minor affair. But the Huron belief in the power of dreams could lead to even greater coercion to abandon Christianity and follow Huron traditions. Several years after his conversion Joseph had a vivid dream in which he was attacked by several Iroquois, the hated enemy of the Hurons. His dream foretold a grisly death. He was to be scalped and his head split open. For death to be averted tradition demanded a sacrifice in which a dog was offered as a replacement. To disobey this warning from the spiritual world, Joseph risked death. These warnings became frequent. The Jesuits record Joseph originally had this dream a year before his death and that it was a recurring one. On several occasions Joseph was heard upon suddenly awaking as if responding to the threat on his life, “Art thou the master of it? No, no it is only God who shall depose of it.” The Jesuits believed Joseph was being tempted by the Devil to perform a diabolical sacrifice to save his life and thereby subvert his faith. Joseph was making a break with his culture that may seem minor but from within his behavorial world he was putting his life in great risk.

Joseph’s dream eerily predicted his ultimate fate. On August 2, 1640 Joseph was murdered while working in the fields. Though the Huron chiefs claimed Joseph had been killed by the Iroquois, modern scholars agree that the evidence indicates Joseph was executed by his own people as a “sorcerer.” The Hurons took his death as proof of the power of dreams and, henceforth, conversions became more difficult.

Even without warnings from the spiritual world Joseph was aware his life was in great danger. He knew how his people dealt with those who were suspected of practicing witchcraft. It was a widespread belief that Joseph was in league with the Jesuits to destroy the country. His activities on their behalf over the years could only further and deepen this belief. The Jesuits quote him in 1637 saying defiantly, “Let them come, let them come, let them burn me, and let them see if it is in good earnest that I believe, or if it is only with my lips.” Despite the threats, Joseph still lived openly as a Christian. In a council held in 1640 Joseph boldly declared,

I hear that they speak of me as of a man who is in league with the black gowns. I wish them to know that I am allied with them, not to ruin the country ... but to maintain the truths which they have come to announce to us. I shall be happy to die for this reason; I am quite ready to be burned for this cause.

Further evidence that Joseph knew how his countrymen perceived him came during an unsuccessful effort to convert his brother. Joseph said to him, “the dread of death will never close my lips.” He was fully aware of the danger he was in, saying to his brother, “The worst that can happen to me, in your opinion, is that they may split my head, as they do to the sorcerers of the country ... I should account myself too happy to give my life for the one who has loved us so much.”

After Joseph’s martyrdom, Jean de Brebeuf, who presided over the funeral Mass and was Joseph’s close friend and confidant, had a vision which seemed to confirm the state of Joseph’s soul. Brèbeuf wrote, “I saw a pavilion or a dome descend from heaven and rest on the grave of our Christian. 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.”

Joseph was the first martyr of the Huron Christian Church. He is a forgotten man now. After his death the Jesuits rarely mentioned him. What is most unfortunate is that this model convert who “preferred losing life to losing the liberty of living openly like a Christian” has never been recognized by the Church he died for.

Joseph’s life was an example to all Christians. He faced persecution for his conversion and was held personally responsible for the deaths in his family and throughout his community. He was branded as a traitor and a murderer. His conversion put him at odds with the spiritual world in which he had been raised. He had no access to the healing ceremonies of his people and he resisted the temptations of his dreams. The hold of Huron traditions was strong and few had the courage to break free. Given his background, the heroism of Joseph might even have exceeded that of the Jesuits themselves. In order to live as a Christian -- whether a seventeenth century Huron or a twentieth century American -- means to resist the values of theworld. Each human society has its own commonly accepted “self evident truths” that few question. Christianity frequently runs against these truths. To run counter to the climate of public opinion one risks criticism. This frequently makes the Christian an outcast and one who is despised. Joseph Chihwatenha by living his life against the dominant values of his society set an example that all can learn by.

A devout Catholic and accomplished artist has sculpted, in clay, an exquisite representation of the Servant of God Joseph Chihwatenha. For information contact the artist, Gregory F. Tardiff, P.O. Box 635, Sylvan Beach, NY 13157-0635

Joseph Chihwatenha

The Forgotten Martyr

Clement Anthony Mulloy, Ph.D.

© Copyright 2001 Clement Anthony Mulloy, Ph.D.

421 East Prospect Street

Fayetteville, AR 72701

We ask all who read this to pray for the eventual canonization of this brave Huron Christian warrior.

Reprinted here with permission of the author by:

Pilgrimage for Restoration

c/o National Coalition of Clergy & Laity

621 Jordan Circle Whitehall, PA 18052-7119

tel 610/435-2634

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Last Updated: May 14, 2013  21:25 by gpl
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