The first Catholic priest to visit what is now known as Manhattan was a severely beaten man who had pretty much been through hell.
The New York visit was a brief respite in the midst of trials and tribulations for French Jesuit Isaac Jogues. The 36-year-old missionary had spent his entire priesthood in a constant attempt to bring the Gospel to the native peoples of New France. In the end, he paid for that quest with his life.
Jogues was born in Orleans, France, in 1607 and entered the Society of Jesus in 1624. He was sent as a missionary to Canada in 1636, and from Quebec he went to the regions around the Great Lakes, where the priest Jean de Brébeuf and others were missioning. Jogues’ six years there were a time of constant danger for him, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Jogues desired to evangelize the indigenous peoples of Lake Superior and the Sioux who lived at the head waters of the Mississippi, but in 1642 he was captured near Three Rivers returning from Quebec. He was tortured and carried to the Indian village of Ossernenon, now Auriesville, New York, about 40 miles from Fort Orange, the present state capital, Albany.
The torture was gruesome: the Mohawks beat Jogues with sticks, tore out his fingernails, then gnawed the ends of his fingers until bones were visible.
After 13 months of such treatment, the efforts of Dutch Calvinists at Fort Orange to win his release finally succeeded. They took him in a boat down the Hudson River to what was then called New Amsterdam, now Manhattan.
Msgr. Florence Cohalan wrote in his Popular History of the Archdiocese of New York that Jogues found only two Catholics in the city, which was predominantly Dutch Calvinist. One was a transient young Irishman from Maryland, the other an old Portuguese woman. “The governor told him that 18 languages were spoken in or near New Amsterdam, and Jogues replied that it had already acquired ‘the arrogance of Babel,’” the late Church historian wrote.
An entry on the website of the New York Archdiocesan archives suggests that Jogues offered the very first Catholic Mass in what is now New York City. That might be the case, but, according to Church law, men who lacked the use of their thumb and forefinger—essential for holding the Eucharistic bread as they pronounced the words of consecration—could not be ordained, and any priest who lost those fingers would lose his faculties to celebrate Mass. That would have been the case with Jogues.
But after sailing back to France, Jogues received a rare papal dispensation to celebrate Mass. In granting the permission, Pope Urban VII called the heroic priest “a martyr of Christ.” In time, Jogues would live up to that designation in full.
Jogues probably could have also received permission to remain in France. But in the spring of 1644 he willingly returned to Canada, and in 1646 was sent to negotiate peace with the Iroquois. Traveling through the same area of New York, he came upon a great lake, which he called the Lake of the Blessed Sacrament. It is now known as Lake George. Back in the village of Ossernenon, he was well received by his former captors, who signed a peace treaty with him. He also returned to Quebec, where his superiors reluctantly granted his request to be sent back to the Iroquois as a missionary.
The Catholic Encyclopedia continues the saga:
On 27 September he began his third and last journey to the Mohawk. In the interim sickness had broken out in the tribe and a blight had fallen on the crops. This double calamity was ascribed to Jogues whom the Indians always regarded as a sorcerer. They were determined to wreak vengeance on him for the spell he had cast on the place, and warriors were sent out to capture him. The news of this change of sentiment spread rapidly, and though fully aware of the danger Jogues continued on his way to Ossernenon, though all the Hurons and others who were with him fled except [Jean] Lalande. The Iroquois met him near Lake George, stripped him naked, slashed him with their knives, beat him and then led him to the village. On 18 October, 1646, when entering a cabin he was struck with a tomahawk and afterwards decapitated. The head was fixed on the Palisades and the body thrown into the Mohawk.
Pope Pius XI, the successor of the pope who had called Jogues a martyr of Christ, canonized the missionary, along with seven other North American martyrs, in 1930. Their feast day is October 19.