Tuesday, October 19, 2010

North American Martyrs

Today is the memorial of the North American Martyrs, eight Catholic missionaries who were killed for the Faith in the 1640s. All eight men were Jesuits; five were killed in present-day Canada and three in present-day New York State. If you'd like to read more about these heroic missionaries, there's some great info here.

Although we celebrate these eight particular martyrs today, we shouldn't forget that there have been other Catholic martyrs in the modern South who have not been officially added to the role of saints or blesseds, but who, nevertheless, planted important seeds of faith throughout the years.

One such man was Father Jean Francois Buisson de St. Cosme (Fr. St. Cosme for short), who was the first native-born North American missionary to be killed while carrying out his work in the mission fields. Fr. St. Cosme was born in 1667 modern-day Quebec, Canada and entered into the minor seminary in Quebec at the age of eight (a common occurrence at the time). He was ordained a priest in 1690, at the age of 23, and was first assigned to administrate a parish in Acadia but in 1698, he was chosen to enter the mission fields of the lower Mississippi River Valley. Fr. St. Cosme's diary records the canoe trip down the Mississippi River during which he and his companions planted crosses at many points along the river and eventually established the mission of Sainte-Famille (Holy Family)  among the Tamaroas tribe at Cahokia in present-day Illinois. This parish, established in 1699, is still in Cahokia, Illinois today and is the oldest continuous Catholic parish in the U.S. 

Map of Fort Rosalie, circa 1728; detail of the Terre Blanche concession
Archives Nationales de France, Cartes et Plans, N III Louisiane 1/2
In July of 1700, Fr. St. Cosme left the Sainte-Famille mission and traveled to present-day Natchez where he became the first permanent French-speaking resident in the area. He worked hard and long among the Natchez Indians but his efforts met with little success. In 1706 he decided to move on toward the French garrison at Mobile, Alabama. Along the way, however, he was killed when his party was attacked by Chitimacha Indians near present-day Donaldsonville, Louisiana. In 1715, the French established Fort Rosalie, founding the present-day city of Natchez. Natchez would go on to be established by the Church as the first Catholic diocese in Mississippi in 1837.

Father St. Cosme is but one of many Catholic missionaries who were martyred in or near the missions in Mississippi. Fr. Nicholas Foucault was killed in an attack on Fort Rosalie in 1729. Later that same year, Jesuit Father Paul Du Poisson was killed by a Natchez Indian while carrying communion to the sick. Two other Jesuit priest-missionaries were also killed: Father John Souel, who was killed by the Yazoo in 1729; and Father Antoine Lenat, who was burned at the stake by the Chickasaw tribe in present-day Lee County in 1736.

Today, the Catholic faith is widespread throughout North America and even in the South. These early martyrs might be surprised to learn that their sacrifices planted fertile seeds whose growth would not be realized for centuries. In 2010, the Catholic Church remains the largest religious body in the U.S., with an estimated 68.1 million adherents (a 1.49 percent growth since last year). To put this in perspective, the second-largest religious body is the Southern Baptist Convention and they report an estimated membership of 16.2 million. As Tertullian proclaimed in the third century, "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." May God continue to provide the living water so that our Faith can continue to grow in the South and beyond.