St. Jean de Brebeuf and Joseph Chiwatenhwa are depicted in a stain-glass window at the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ont. Photo by Michael Swan

Martyrs' Shrine opens arms, gates to Indigenous

  • September 24, 2022

When the Martyrs’ Shrine community in Midland, Ont. — Jesuits and benefactors — gets together Sept. 24 to celebrate Mass with retired Ottawa Archbishop Terence Prendergast, it will celebrate St. Jean de Brebeuf and his companions in a whole new context.

The Pope’s apologies and his pilgrimage of penance across Canada in July has put new emphasis on the people the Canadian Martyrs died with and for, said Martyrs’ Shrine director Fr. Michael Knox.

The Sept. 26 Feast of the Canadian Martyrs is an opportunity to bring the history of Sainte Marie Among the Hurons to life, said the Jesuit historian.

“Over the last extraordinary years of encounter between the Indigenous peoples and the Church, and certainly after the visit and apology of our Holy Father, more than ever the importance of recognizing the special relationship of intercultural exchange, struggle and disease that marked the story of our early martyrs takes centre stage,” Knox said.

The shrine is doing more to make sure Indigenous people feel welcome at the site, he said.

“We strive to make the shrine a place that is truly open to all Indigenous people. This past year, we made the decision that all First Nations, Metis and Inuit people have free access to the shrine in perpetuity,” said Knox.

The feast day for the eight French missionaries — six Jesuit priests and two lay volunteers — who died during the mid-1600s in the midst of war between the Iroquois and the Huron or Wendat people marks the beginning of a truly Canadian spirituality.

“We see in the writings and the lives of these men a strong focus on the crucified Christ, emptying one’s self to be filled with God for the sake of other people. And a strong set of gifts that more often than not opened up their minds and hearts to see God already present in this land, in a people whom they most often praised,” Knox said.

“That spirit of goodness, of self-offering love, could in many ways be a hallmark of the early Canadian spirituality.”

Knox is adamant that visitors to the Martyrs’ Shrine must not forget the message of solidarity in the story of the martyrs.

“These priests and lay people had the opportunity to flee. In fact, they were encouraged to do so by the Christian Indigenous people around them,” said Knox. “But because of their experience and understanding of the culture they had come to serve — they had authentic experiences of Christ present within them — when a choice came to leave, to flee, or to stay, to serve, to baptize, to hear confessions at the last minute, to bless amidst a de facto battle, they chose to remain. They chose to do so among the people they had come to serve, seeing Christ truly with them and in them.”

It’s an example for our own times.

“In light of our current reality and our current journey with the Indigenous people, it is a clear sign, in the end, of a love that involved their whole lives,” Knox said.

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