Francesco Bressani

The First Italian Jesuit in North America

By Frank Spezzano



Francesco Giuseppe Bressani was born on May 6, 1612. Bressani entered the Society of Jesus on August 15, 1626 at the age of fourteen. In 1642, he left Rome and resided for a time among the French in Quebec. His voluntary mission included his aspirations of converting the natives to the Christian faith.

On 24 April 1644, he departed by canoe from Trois Rivieres for the Huron mission on Georgian Bay accompanied by six Christian Hurons and a twelve year old French boy. On the third day of travel, Fr. Bressani and his companions were attacked by a band of approximately thirty Iroquois. At this point he was brutally tortured. The innocent missionary lost his left thumb and the small finger on his left hand was mutilated. He also lost the first joint of three fingers of his right hand (the index, middle finger and ring finger). He suffered innumerable blows and was frequently burned. It was a miracle that he escaped death. At one point the Indians even threatened to burn him alive but spared his life by selling him as a slave. This outcome gave him little respite and enabled him to write a long letter to the general of the Jesuits. The letter was divided into three parts - the first dealt with the discovery and location of New France as well as the missions along the St. Lawrence River and the northern shore of Lake Ontario. The second part covered the conversion of the natives to the Christian faith and in particular the difficulties encountered in converting the Hurons. The third part described the tortures inflicted by the Iroquois on some of the Jesuit fathers including himself.

On November 15, 1644, Fr. Bressani was able to return to France. In the autumn of the next year, he started out again for the Huron missions. He remained there for almost four years, accepting abuse and discomfort. He attempted to understand the natives by learning their language and adapting himself to their ways until the constant attacks by the Iroquois forced the Jesuits to abandon the mission. In November of 1650, Fr. Bressani left New France for the final time and returned to Italy. There he devoted himself to preaching and to his apostolate. He gained widespread fame as a preacher, displaying his mutilated hands as a method of convincing the disbelievers. On September 9, 1672, Fr. Bressani's life finally came to an end.

During his eight years of evangelizing in Canada, Fr. Bressani had acquired valuable experience of the country and its inhabitants. He recorded his discoveries and observations in a work principally to the Huron country and its martyrs.

Throughout the ordeal he showed a determination and control that only a man that had to come to grips with his God and himself could illustrate and have considered himself a humble and unworthy servant.

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