The Escape of St. Jogues

Author: Francis Talbot


Francis Talbot

The Jesuit Relations (reports of missionary activities among the North American Indians) are full of fascinating tales and examples of great heroism. Although the efforts of the Fathers were not attended by any lasting success, this was not owing to any fault of theirs. Father Isaac Jogues (1607-1646) was captured by the Mohawks on August 3, 1642 and taken to the Indian village of Ossernenon (now Auriesville, N.Y.). Here he remained in slavery, constantly threatened with death and suffering from innumerable tortures, for thirteen months, until the Dutch at Fort Orange (Albany) were able to effect his escape. After a short stay in Europe, he resumed his missionary activities, and was martyred by the Mohawks at the place of his captivity in 1646. Along with other Jesuit martyrs, Father Jogues was canonized in 1930.

At the first stirring of the Mohawks, Jogues slipped out of the barn and hurried down the road to the home of Van Corlaer. He told the Director that he had decided to accept the proposal to escape. Van Corlaer was surprised; he professed himself delighted, and sent for Dominie Megapolensis and some others of his councilors. They not only agreed to the rightness of Isaac's resolve, but were determined to help him to the last extreme. Van Corlaer summoned the officers of the Dutch ship that rode at anchor in the river opposite to the Fort. When the captain arrived, the Director explained the situation and asked a pledge from him that he would guarantee safe passage to the Frenchman. The blustering captain swore his word with a seaman's oath: "If he once sets foot on our vessel, he is safe. He will not leave it till we reach Bordeaux or Rochelle."

With that settled, Van Corlaer advised Isaac: "Well, then, go back to the savages. Toward evening, or sometime during the night, steal away quietly and make for the river. You will find there a little rowboat which I will have kept ready for you, to take you secretly to the ship." Jogues thanked Van Corlaer humbly and politely, as he related, and bowed himself out of the room. He put on a casual air and sauntered back along the wagon road toward the team where the Mohawks were gathered. The rest of the morning and the afternoon he tramped about with his guard. As evening drew near he followed the men back to the team, which lay about a mile above the settlement and the Fort.

The owner was a Dutch farmer, a man of some substance and influence. He was married to a Mohawk woman and had several children by her. The structure in which he lived was a frame building about one hundred feet long. One end of it was his home, solidly built and consisting of several rooms. A back door opened from the house into the barn. Here the party of savages slept. Beyond, at the far end, were the stalls of the horses and the cattle. A picket fence extended around the farmyard and the building.

Father Jogues studied all the details in preparation for his flight. At dusk, when the Mohawks went into the barn, he stretched himself out on the dirt floor as if he were tired and wanted to sleep. After a while, when it was totally dark and the savages were quiet, he thought it might be well to reconnoiter and make sure of the directions. He picked his way among the prostrate figures and let himself out of the swinging doors of the barn. The night was black and he walked a few steps out into the yard. There was a growl, the rapid pad of feet. The watchdogs charged on him. A big mastiff circled about him, barking furiously and lunging at his legs. Jogues tried to beat the beast off, but the dog drove in on him and nipped him twice on his bare legs before the Dutchman could rush out of the house and drive the brute away. By this time, all the Mohawks were aroused and crowding out into the yard.

The Dutchman brought Isaac into his house, and lit the candles to examine the wounds. They were nasty gashes from which the blood was flowing freely. The Dutchman was much upset; he knew the mastiff for a vicious brute who would likely have killed the Frenchman. He applied the only remedy he could think of to prevent rabies, that of inserting the hair of the dog in the cuts made by its teeth. After he had thus tended the wounds and wrapped a rag about the injured leg, he sent Jogues back into the barn with the Mohawks. They fumed at him for waking them up. In bad humor, they barred the doors more securely against the dogs which were still barking and howling, and they made Ondessonk (as they called Jogues) lie down between two of them. So closely was he wedged in that he could not move without disturbing them.

He was suffocated by the closeness of the summer night and the stench of the barn, and sweated between the hot bodies of the savages. He trembled from the fright caused by the mastiff, and suffered keen pain in his leg. "This whole night, also, I spent without sleep," he recounted. "When I saw myself surrounded with those evil creatures, and the barn well locked, and the place surrounded with dogs which would raise the alarm if I tried to go out, I almost came to the conclusion that I could not escape. With deference, I complained to my God because, after he had given me the decision to escape, 'he hath shut up my way with square stones; he hath turned my paths upside down.' He was stopping up the ways and the path of escape." The hours passed wearily and painfully. He was trapped. The cattle at the far end of the barn ruffled the straw, the cocks fluttered and crowed shrilly, the faint purple of the morning showed through the cracks of the walls.

A door creaked, the door leading from the Dutchman's house. Jogues discerned a servantman groping his way toward the barn door. Wriggling out from between the savages he stuffed into his blouse his two little books, the Office of the Blessed Virgin and The Following of Christ, and stuck his small wooden cross into his pocket. On hands and knees he crawled over to where the man was unbarring the door. He whispered and gestured to the servant to tie up the dogs. The Mohawks slept soundly. He crept out into the yard, shrouded in mist.

He darted across to the fence, and ran for the river bank. His leg pained him so horribly that he could scarcely put any weight on it Nevertheless, running and limping, he made his way along a narrow path near the river. The trail cut across a marshy stretch, where the reeds and thorny bushes scratched his naked legs. He looked back fearfully. No one pursued him The morning was still dim and blue. He kept on, breathlessly, under what cover he could find, past the farmlands, to the outskirts of the settlement, beyond the cluster of houses vaguely outlined on the rising ground, till he came near the fort. Fifteen minutes had passed, and as yet there was no alarm.

The ship was riding a little distance from the shore. There was the rowboat Van Corlaer had promised to have ready for him. It was aground, in the mire, for the tide had receded several feet, stranding it. He pushed it, but could not move it down to the water. He pulled at it. It was heavy and was stuck in the oozing mud. Frantically he tugged and twisted and rolled it from side to side, and lifted it; to no avail. He hallooed over the water to the ship. They did not answer. He called louder and shouted; still no one appeared. He was despairing, for now it was growing lighter.

A few hundred yards away, on the other side of the fort, were huts belonging to the Mohawks. He was in full view of them. The braves and squaws would wake with the sun. They would certainly discover him. In his extremity, he prayed to God out of the depths of his soul. Grasping the boat once more, he pushed with his full strength against the stem. It moved, just a fraction. He eased the prow, and again strained every muscle of his body superhumanly, the while he supplicated God for aid. The boat moved a bit more; then more; at last it was at the water's edge. He swung it about, wildly, feverishly. It floated.

As he rowed toward the vessel he scanned the shore which was now lit up by the first streaks of the sun. Miraculously, not a living being was anywhere visible. He bumped along the hull of the ship, clambered up the rope ladder and scrambled on deck. The captain came out. Once more he assured Jogues, now he was on board, he was safe. For greater security, since the Mohawks might come prowling and spying about the ship, the captain suggested that Jogues should hide in the hold of the vessel amid the cargo and ballast. Father Jogues lowered himself into the dark hold, and heard the captain close the trapdoor and move over it, as he said he would, a heavy chest to conceal it.

The Mohawk guard woke to fury. Ondessonk was gone....

The delegation of Mohawk chiefs arrived to hold council with Cora. The sachems were resentful over the treachery of their paleface neighbors and the warriors were in an avenging mood. When they descended in great numbers, upon the little settlement in the middle of September, they plainly indicated that it was only their deepest love for the Dutch that prevented them from a massacre. Van Corlaer endeavored to beguile them, in the first council; then, to bribe them through the ransom he offered. Since the Mohawks remained stubborn, Van Corlaer ceased to plead. He declared bluntly that he had taken Ondessonk under his protection. He offered them a present of three hundred guilders. If they refused this gift, he and the Dutch would refuse to trade with them. After much haggling and flowery oratory, the Mohawks touched the presents of Cora and professed themselves consoled over the loss of Ondessonk.

Fully aware of how treacherous were the Iroquois, and how easily aroused, Van Corlaer continued to keep Jogues closely concealed. Then, in the last week of September, under the cover of darkness, he smuggled Isaac to a sloop that was ready to sail with the turn of tide next morning. For Father Jogues, on that cool September evening, was the first breath of freedom after six weeks of the closest confinement, was the first moment of security. He was content. He had followed the will of God, not his own; he had sought the greater end, to escape now, but to return later and dedicate himself wholly to the conversion of the Iroquois nations.

In the morning, under the impact of the wind, the sloop rippled down the flat level of the river. Dominie Megapolensis and a goodly number of the important burghers were aboard, for they had been summoned by Director-General Kieft to New Amsterdam for a conference on the state of the Colony. Well rounded and comfortable-looking were they, with their broad-rimmed hats crowning their jovial faces, their long coats amply covering their paunches, their knickerbockers swelling out about their hips, their hose trimly showing off the bulging calves of their legs, their slippers elegantly buckled. They smoked their long-stemmed pipes and exuded an air of prosperity and well-being.

They were in dire contrast to Isaac. Though he was but thirty-six years old, his face was drawn and deeply lined with furrows. After seven years in the open weather with the savages, his skin was rough and dyed almost a copper color. His beard was graying and untrimmed; the hair of his head was sparse and scraggly. For clothes, he wore an ill-fitting, worn-out suit that had been donated to him by some one of his hosts. He was uncomfortable and self-conscious, as he stood in the midst of his Dutch friends.

That day they sailed carefully through the channels of the upper river, between the shallows and patches of green water weeds and sprawling islands. It was the path that Jogues had traveled in early August when he went to the fishing-haunts under the escort of his "aunt." The wind not being too favorable, they made on that first day not more than about twenty miles, and there they anchored for the night, in the vicinity of the place where Jogues had been with the Mohawk party.

Dominie Megapolensis, in a holiday spirit, had brought with him a number of bottles of wine. That evening he dealt them out lavishly to the burghers and crew in order fitly to celebrate the escape of his friend and fellow-minister. He wished to signalize the event, so he announced, by naming an island in honor of Isaac Jogues. What more fitting, than, that of baptizing this island near which they were anchored, seeing that it was near this island that their guest had encamped. All the ship's company loudly applauded the speech of the Dominie. They raised their tankards for a toast, while the Dominie proclaimed that for all times hereafter the island near by would be called "The Island of the Jesuit Jogues." Guns and muskets fired a salvo and set the echoes booming; the company cheered. Father Jogues laughed with them, but he was much embarrassed. Though touched by the tribute and the kindliness of his Dutch friends, he remarked deprecatingly, when he narrated the story to Buteux: "Each one manifests his love in his own fashion."

If Father Jogues thought the river of the Dutch, as he saw it above Fort Orange and some miles below, was mean and unimpressive as compared with the grandeur of the St. Lawrence, he changed his opinion as he sailed down its length. During the five or six days that followed he passed beyond the area of shoals and weedy, sandy islands, down where the shores widened out grandly and stretched before him in majestic vistas; where the banks rose up in rough and hardy magnificence, covered with the tapestry of the trees blazing in fiery color; where far off the mountains rose tier upon tier in dizzy ridges of blue and purple, bulked against the pale sky; where, again, the river narrowed to defile through precipitous mountain cones; then, where it spread out into broad expanses of lake and sea. Finally, when they had passed away from the tumbling hills and sailed around a wide-sweeping curve, Father Jogues looked curiously at the shaggy walls of rock that reared up hundreds of feet, straight and regular as if they were the walls or palisades of a town.

For Megapolensis and the Dutchmen, these palisades marked the beginning of the settlement of New Amsterdam. On the bank opposite to them, the Dominie gleefully pointed out the familiar landmarks; the little hamlet of Yonkers, the mouth of the small river called the Harlem, which made Manhattan an island; then some distance below the bouwerie of the Dutch West India Company, and the gardens and orchards; the little clearing of the cemetery; and over the shoulder of the hill the arms of the windmill. Jogues, hanging over the ship rail with the Dominie watched the square wall of Fort Amsterdam emerge between the trees. He followed with his eyes the curve of the land about the lower tip of the island, noted the islands that dotted the far-reaching harbor toward the sea, the sweep of the river to the left. As the sloop tacked about the fort he gazed upon the cluster of gabled houses planted in rows on the lowlands beyond the fort. The ship veered to the left again and made for the wharf and strip of rock which the Dominie called Schreyers' Hoek.

Under the towage of Megapolensis, who was proud of his distinction, Father Jogues walked through the townsmen who were congregated about the landing-place. They were fascinated to see a Jesuit priest, whom they had been taught to believe was a devil in disguise. This Frenchman, this Isaac Jogues, seemed more pitiable than fearsome to them. He seemed to be a gentle, quiet man, with a kindly look in his face, who greeted them with smiles, who was rather grotesque in his poorly fitting coat and knickerbockers.

They marched a few hundred feet up the cobbled road from the dock until they came to the block of houses stretching along Parel Straet and faced the length of the Marckveldt. On the right-hand side was the intersection of Brugh Straet, and the storehouse and stone workshops of the West India Company. To the left, whither Megapolensis led Jogues, was the open space before Fort Amsterdam. This appeared as a rectangular pile, some three hundred and fifty feet in length and two hundred and fifty in width, scarcely higher than a breastwork, with curtains of earth and stone between the triangular bastions at each corner.

They passed within the gate, about which a few soldiers lolled, into the courtyard of the fort. On the west side of the inclosure were the barracks of the soldiers. On the east, in the far comer, stood the newly erected Church. Nearer was the elegant, red-brick mansion of the Director-General. A broad, smooth pavement flanked with grass and flowers led from the flagged courtyard to the mansion door, which was some twenty feet broad.

They were admitted into the spacious, low-ceilinged living-room, comfortable with its capacious fireplace. Director-General Kieft welcomed Father Jogues heartily. He was an officious, self-assertive man, most autocratic and decisive in his words and gestures. After he had inquired solicitously about Isaac's ordeals, he assured him most emphatically that now all his troubles were over and that he, the Director-General, would arrange personally for his passage either to Europe or to New France. His keen eye surveyed Isaac's costume. He emitted waspish remarks about the niggardliness of the people of Rensselaerswyck, and straightway ordered his tailor to measure and fit Master Isaac in a black suit of good material, with a heavy cloak to match, and with a beaver hat of respectable style. For the first few days the Director-General lodged Father Jogues in his own mansion. Then he arranged a suitable place for him in the Stadts Herbergh, the city tavem. This hostel had been erected just a year or two before to accommodate the growing number of visitors to New Amsterdam....

Of the diverse nationalities represented in the tiny settlement, Father Jogues had experience. One day, as he strolled along the country road out from Hoogh Straet toward the farm and pasture lands, he heard a man calling after him. He paused, and saw a young man, evidently a laborer indentured to one of the farmers, running breathlessly toward him. The lad fell on his knees before Father Jogues, took his mangled hands, and kissed them most fervently, exclaiming, "O Martyr! O Martyr of Jesus Christ!" Jogues gently raised the man from his knees and, in surprise, asked him if he were not a Calvinist. "Nenny, not at all," the fellow answered, trying to make himself intelligible. "Polakim. Lutheranim." Father Jogues was touched by the fervor and faith of the young Polish Lutheran, and grieved that he could not show his appreciation except by smiles and gestures.

On another occasion, while he walked along Parel Straet, near the fort, and was admiring the neat little houses banked about with vines and flower-boxes, a soldier accosted him. The man was the standard-bearer of the garrison, and in a friendly way invited him to enter the house. In the tiny room, Jogues was amazed and delighted to see two pictures hanging over the mantelpiece, one of the Blessed Virgin, the other of Blessed Aloysius Gonzaga. He looked at the soldier inquiringly. The man pointed to his wife and explained that she was a Portuguese and a Catholic. She was quite young, Father Jogues noted, "and wore an expression of Christian modesty." She had remained faithful to her religion in the midst of the Calvinists, and was proud to display her holy pictures. It was a great joy to her to meet Father Jogues, to receive his blessing and make her confession.

Still another confession he heard was that of an Irishman who came up from Virginia. The man never thought he would meet a Catholic priest and a Jesuit among the Dutch Protestants ....

It was Christmas morning; it was France. Noel, Noel, the day that Christ was born. His soul sang Noel as he hurried up the road to the monastery church. He was free, free of the Mohawks, free of the Dutch, free of the English. Venite adoremus, throbbed in his brain. The Christmas carols he had sung as a boy pulsed through him. He was before the monastery church. He sought out a gray-

robed priest and knelt before him to make confession of all the sins he could remember since July 30, a year ago. With bowed head he listened to the priest pronouncing the words of absolution. He knelt on the flagged floor among the people near the altar. The candles, the priest in white vestments, the words he said were blurred and indistinct. It was time for Communion. He felt the Host upon his tongue. It was the Body of Christ. He knelt in adoration. The cloud cleared about him. He came to himself. "It seemed to me that it was at this moment that I began to live once more. It was then that I tasted the sweetness of my deliverance," he said.

Unobtrusively, he slipped out from the church and avoided the knots of villagers who gossiped about. He returned, light-footed with ecstasy, down the road to the cottage of the fishermen. Some neighbors were there, for they had heard of the strange visitor

thrown on their shore that morning. Some others who had watched him at church also strolled down to the cottage. They still judged him to be an Irish refugee, for his speech had a queer French accent. However, glad they were to welcome him, and they sat him down at the little table and laid his breakfast before him.

His hands, they noticed, were knotted and scarred; his fingers were crooked; some were stumps; some had no fingernails; he had no left thumb. They were in pity for him, for his cheeks were sunken and his skin was roughened. With simple curiosity they asked him of himself, of who he was and where he had been. He told them, briefly and modestly. "When they learned how he had suffered that martyrdom, they were at a loss to know what welcome to give him," he related....

On Monday evening, January 4, 1644, after night had fallen, Father Jogues and Monsieur Berson drove their tired horses through the ancient gateway of Rennes. Jogues would have liked to rush straightway through the streets and up to the College of the Society of Jesus, to throw himself in the arms of his brothers. It was too late at that hour, for the doors were already barred and all had retired. Berson offered him the hospitality of his own home for the night, and Jogues contented himself to remain with his friend and host. He was wide awake long before the earliest glow of dawn, was dressed and impatient to leave Berson's house.

About five-thirty on Tuesday morning the Brother porter of the College of Rennes rang the signal bell for the community Mass. At the same time he heard a pounding on the street door. He opened it to a dilapidated man, clothed in an old greatcoat, with a scarf about his neck, and a peasant's hat perched upon his head. Brother eyed his visitor with some suspicion. The man asked if he might see Father Rector. Brother told him that Father Rector could not be seen at that hour of the morning; he was just preparing to begin Mass. However, the Brother admitted, if the man wanted to wait, the Father Rector would probably see him after Mass. He led him into the dark parlor. The man answered that he must absolutely see the Father Rector immediately, even before he began Mass. "I have something to tell Father Rector," the visitor explained. "I have some news from Canada and from the Fathers there."

Something about this poor, starved-looking man impressed the Brother. He thought he had better speak to the Father Rector, and so went over to the sacristy. He found the Rector partly vested; nevertheless, he whispered to him that there was a poor man in the parlor who wanted to see him right away because he could not wait and had news of the Fathers in Canada. The Rector said the man had to wait until after Mass, and continued vesting. The thing troubled him; Brother had said it was a "poor" man from Canada. "It may be that the man is in a hurry," he thought to himself. "He may be in want and may need some help." Taking off his alb and his amice, he went to the parlor.

The room was shrouded in darkness. Father Rector could see only the dim outline of the visitor. He greeted him kindly, and the man handed him a letter. Under the gleam of a candle, the Rector glanced at it hurriedly and read: "We, Willem Kieft, Director General, and the . . ." He did not bother to examine the paper, for he was in a hurry. He asked the visitor if he had come from Canada, as the Brother related. Yes, the man answered, he had been in Canada. Do you know the Fathers there? Very well. Father Vimont? Yes. Father de Brebeuf? Extremely well. And Father Jogues, did you know Father Isaac Jogues?

"I knew him very well indeed," Isaac answered.

"We have had word that he was captured by the Iroquois. Do you know, is he dead? Or is he still captive? Have those barbarians not murdered him?" Father Rector inquired.

"He is at liberty," he said, with a queer gulp. "Reverend Father," Isaac broke into tears, "it is he who speaks to you."

He fell on his knees, at Father Rector's feet, kissed his hand, begged his blessing. A cold shiver passed through the Father Rector. Then a burst of joy. He lifted Isaac from his knees, threw his arms about him, kissed him on both cheeks. With a loud voice, that rumbled strangely through the quiet corridor at that hour of sacred silence, he welcomed him and brought him to the community room. The Brother porter, the other Brothers, the Fathers, startled by the excited voices, came hastening into the room. They gathered about Father Isaac; they embraced him and kissed him; they were so overjoyed that they could only gasp sounds, they could scarcely find words. They stripped off his old coat and found a cassock for him. They brought him in triumph to the chapel, where Father Rector, thrilling with the joy of it all, said Mass and gave Father Jogues Communion. All the community was hushed with awe, and in every heart there was offered a prayer of thanksgiving to God for His great mercy.

From A Treasury of Catholic Reading, ed. John Chapin (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1957)