When Jesuits first established their missions in Canada during the early 1600s, they were helped in Huronia (the historical region surrounded by Lakes Erie, Ontario, and Huron) by a number of first believers. Among them was “The Forgotten Martyr” Joseph Chiwatenhwa.
“The Jesuit Relations” chronicles recounts his life, a true testament to the Faith:
Chiwatenhwa had been deeply touched by the Christian teachings of the Jesuit missionaries in 1636, when he first met them, despite the fact that other members of his Huron tribe blamed these missionaries for the epidemics that had broken out in Huron lands. He himself became ill. After his convalescence, he was baptized on August 16, 1637 by Father Jean de Brébeuf and named Joseph. His wife, Aonette, was baptized on March 19, 1638; her first name was Marie. Their marriage was blessed on the same day; it was the first Catholic marriage in Huronia. Joseph became the first lay administrator of the Catholic Church in Canada in 1639. He helped the Jesuits translate hymns and prayers from French into Huron. He was impressed by the teachings of St. Ignatius and the Spiritual Exercises. He was the first Huron to follow the Exercises of St. Ignatius in eight days. His confessor, Father Lemercier, happily recorded a meditation for the neophyte: “Lord God, I rejoice to know you at last. You have made heaven and earth. You created us, men. You are our master as we are of the canoe and the hut we made. Yes, you love us. I dedicate myself to you. You are my only master. Do whatever you want with me. It is in your word that I hope. We must no longer fear suffering in life. For we will gain an increase of joy in Heaven and more courage in affliction. Truly, death is not to be feared, for it is precisely what opens up the happiness of Heaven for us.”
This good Christian often went to the help of the Fathers, and one day he decided to enlarge his hut so that a chapel decent enough for his God could find room there. When he was given custody, he cried out: “Alas, my God, it takes a saint to keep things holy. I care for your temple, care for my soul, my God, it is up to you to sanctify me.”
On August 2, 1640, he was tomahawk martyred by two Hurons who hated him, who was so devoted to the Jesuit Fathers.
Shortly after the death of this Huron saint, Saint Jean de Brébeuf had a vision of him in his heavenly glory: “I saw a pavilion or a dome come down from heaven and rest on the tomb of our Christian [Joseph Chiwatenhwa]. Then it seemed to me that someone had picked up the two ends of the pavilion, pulling it upwards, as if to take it to heaven … The vision continued for a long time. The vision went on for a long time, and I felt that God wanted me to understand the state of mind of this good Christian.””
After his death, his family continued working with the Jesuits to spread the Faith, and more member of the Huron nation were baptized into the Church. Saint Gabriel Lalemant considered Chiwatenha an excellent catechist, calling him the “apostle” to the Huron people.
On his 1984 papal trip to the Martyr’s Shrine consecrated to the Canadian Martyrs in Ontario, Pope Saint John Paul II had this to say of Chiwateha:
“Of great importance to the Church of Huronia is Joseph Chiwatenwa, who together with his wife Aonnetta, his brother Joseph and other family members lived and witnessed to their faith in an heroic manner. Their fidelity is yet another testimony to the truth attested to by the Apostle Paul: “Nothing can ever separate us from the love of Christ”. A statue now commemorates the life and mission of Joseph Chiwatenwa. Particularly striking is the testimony of Saint Charles Garnier on the inscription: “It was in this Christian that we had our hope after God”. These men and women not only professed the faith and embraced Christ’s love, but they in turn became evangelizers and provide even today eloquent models for lay ministry.”
Pray below the Joseph Chiwatenha Prayer, composed by the martyr himself and translated from Huron to English.
You who are master, God, behold now I know you. It is fortunate that now I know you. You are the one who skillfully made this earth and this sky. You are the one who made we who are called human beings.
Just as we are the masters of the canoes and the longhouses we have made, so you are our master because you made us. It is a matter of little importance that we are the masters of all that we possess as it is for a short time only that we are the masters of the canoes and the longhouses that we have made. It is for a short time that we are masters. As for you, you have home the permanent master of we who are called human beings. While it would not be a trifling matter that you are master when we are still living, it is principally at the moment that we die that you are master.
You alone are master; no one shares the position with you. You are the one we should greatly fear. You are the one we should greatly love. It is very true that human beings and spirits are not really powerful. Not only do spirits lack power, hut they do not love us.
I now give special thanks that you willed that I should acquire knowledge of you; for you greatly love us.
Behold, I am now offering myself to you; I who am located here. Behold, I now choose you for my master. You are the principal master of I who am located here. Use your wisdom when you are thinking about I who am located here.
You have all of us in my family within your sphere of influence. If I am not present when something happens to my family, I will think that he who most assuredly has us within his sphere of influence is watching. As for me, I am not of such a stature. It will be of little import if I am present, as my family will die even if I am there.
Behold, I now express great thanks. Behold I now know your plans. I should not think: ‘what if something happens to my family?’ I will think that God who loves us will reflect on the matter. And if he wills that my family should become poor, I will think: ‘It is the will of God who loves us.’
And if my soul wishes to become rich, I will think that he does not think of God. I will greatly fear this and take care as to how I live. For it is easy for one who is rich to be one who offends, as, unknown to him, he is accompanied by a bad spirit.
Alas, those people who are rich brag in vain. For, either rich or poor, we do not surpass one another. You love us equally; both those who are rich and those who are poor.
Fortunately I now know your intentions; you, God, who loves us. I express great thanks. I completely abandon myself to you, I who am located here. Behold, as we now cast away from us all kinds of things that we value while we are still living. Behold, they are no longer valued. Just you alone are valued. Apply your wisdom, great master, with respect to I who am located here.
It alone would have been providential if you had merely wished that human beings should come into being. Nevertheless, one should express thanks as there is good reason to rejoice here on earth in the many things that you have given us. You have greatly favored us by willing that people should go to the sky when they die, and that they should live forever.
I should not examine it for faults as things are quite perfect in the sky. I would have overestimated my ability if I thought that I could examine it, for I am not of such a stature. It is providential in itself that I am familiar with your word. Behold, I now believe that it is true. I do not doubt it as you do not lie. You speak only the truth, whatever you say.
You said that you will not refuse me anything in heaven as nothing is difficult for you. You love us. Your word is the subject of my prayer.
Truly, it is likely that we might suffer while we are living. There will be great cause for our rejoicing in the sky, and people will no longer cling tenaciously to life when they are sick. It is no longer a difficult thing to die. It is in vain that we fear to die while we are living. We are foolish. For at the moment of death, when one goes to heaven, one should be very happy.
It is like it is with those who go to trade. They suffer, those who go to, trade. It is of little significance, however, that one expresses satisfaction when returning home and thinks: ‘We are now returning home and are at the end of our suffering’. For it is only when one is at the point of dying that one should think: ‘Now I will be at the end of my suffering.’
These are my thoughts, God, the master. I now no longer fear death. I will express satisfaction when I am at the point of death. I will not suffer or be sad when relatives of mine die. I will think that God deliberated on it and willed that he loves them very much, for he willed that people would depart for a place where they will be very happy.
Joseph Chiwatenha, pray for us! 🙏