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Jean De Breboeuf

Jean de Breboeuf, a priest of the Jesuit Order, came to Canada as a missionary to the Indians about the year 1625. He belonged to an old and honourable French family that had given many sons to the army, and was a man of great physical strength, one who possessed an iron will, that was yet combined with sweetness and gentleness of temper.

He lived with the Indians for many years, and spoke the dialects of different tribes, though his mission was chiefly to the Hurons. By them he was much beloved.

At the time of the uprising of the Iroquois in 1649, there was a massacre of the Hurons at the little mission village of St. Louis upon the shores of Georgian Bay. There Jean de Breboeuf, refusing to leave his people, met death by torture at the hands of the conquering Iroquois. Lalement, his friend, a priest of the same order, was also martyred by these Indians upon the same day, March 16th, 1649.

As Jean de Breboeuf told his rosary
At sundown in his cell, there came a call! -
Clear as a bell rung on a ship at sea,
Breaking the beauty of tranquillity -
Down from the heart of Heaven it seemed to fall:

"Hail, Jean de Breboeuf! Lift thee to thy feet!
Not, for thy sins, by prayer shalt thou atone;
Thou wert not made for peace so deeply sweet,
Thine be the midnight cold, the noonday heat,
The journey through the wilderness, alone.

"Too well thou lovest France - her very air
Is wine against thy lips - and all her weeds
Are in thine eyes as flowers. She is fair
In all her moods to thee - and even there,
See! thou dost dream of her above thy beads.

"Rouse thee from out thy dreams! Awake! Awake!
Thou priest who cometh of a martial line! -
Thou hast its strength, thy will no man can break:
Go forth unarmed, the law of love to take
Into a lonely land, that yet is Mine."

Then straightway fell the monk upon his face
Trembling with awe throughout his mighty frame.
"I hear Thee, Lord!" he cried. "Give me Thy grace,
That I may follow thee to any place,
And speak to any people - in Thy name."

The vine-leaf shadows darkened in the cell -
And barefoot friars passed the close-shut door;
At vespers rang the monastery bell,
Yet still he lay, unheeding, where he fell,
Cross of black outstretched upon the floor.

* * * * *

Northward into the silence, night and day,
Through the unknown, with faith that did not fail,
Into the lands beneath the redman's sway,
The priest called Jean de Breboeuf took his way,
Led by the Polestar and the far-blazed trail.

He bore the sacred wine cups, and a bell
Of beaten bronze, whose tongue should warn or bless;
As had been done in France, so he as well
Would ring a marriage chime or funeral knell
For his lone flock, out in the wilderness.

And like a phantom ever at his side
Pointing each hour to paths he scarce could see,
By wood and waterway, went one still guide,
Who drifted with the shades, when daylight died,
Into the deep of night, and mystery.

But when they reached the place of many pines,
God's country, that no white man yet had named -
They beached their birch canoe 'neath swinging vines,
For here, the Indian read by many signs,
Lay the wild land the tribe of Huron claimed.

Then like down-dropping pearls the rounded years,
One after one, slipped off the thread of Time,
And Jean de Breboeuf laboured - oft with fears
Safe-hidden, oftener still with smiles and tears,
Among the people of this northern clime.

The forest children had become a part
Of his own life - always he spoke their tongue,
He dwelt within their tents - with all his heart
He learned their ancient woodcraft, and each art
Their race had practised when the world was young.

He gave a simple truth and faithfulness
To men of silence and of subtle ways;
He shared with them long hunger and distress -
When they had little, he himself had less,
Through all the dark and lonely winter days.

High in the vast cathedral of the trees
He hung the bell of bronze; there in God's name
He taught the law of Love; there on his knees
In the sun-dappled gloom, midst birds and bees,
He lifted up the cross, with words of name.

But evil days were come. The arrowhead
Was dipped in poison, and de Breboeuf saw
The painted faces and the swift-slain dead, -
The deep, unhealing wound - the rent of red
Made by the weapon of the Iroquois.

Closed in the village with its palisade,
Guarded by many a mighty Huron brave,
The women and the little children stayed,
Lest forest fire or sweeping midnight raid
Make all their hunting ground a common grave.

It was at daybreak that they heard the cry:
"The Iroquois! - The Iroquois! They come!
Fly to the hidden forest places! Fly! -
To linger in the village is to die -
Steal through the river grasses - and be dumb!"

Swiftly the women and the children fled,
But with the braves de Breboeuf stayed behind.
"Go!" cried the chief, "good father - we be dead!"
Yet soft he answered as he shook his head:
"I stay with thee - and with thy old and blind."

When the red sun came creeping up the sky
Grey death had reaped the harvest hate had sown;
The Jesuit heard no longer curse or sigh -
His prayers were said for those about to die -
He faced the living Iroquois alone.

They bound him fast beneath the forest green,
And when was come the shadowy edge of night -
Nay - ask not what the horned owl hath seen,
Nor what the moon doth know - white and serene
The soul of Jean de Breboeuf took its flight.

Jean De Breboeuf by Virna Sheard