Francesco Bressani

The First Italian Jesuit in North America

By Frank Spezzano




Mission: Jesuit priest arrives in New France in 1642 to convert the Natives of North America to the Christian Faith.

The play Bressani, derived from a letter written by Fr. Bressani himself, is a timeless tale which is relevant today as it was then in 1644. It reveals the life of a Jesuit priest who arrived in Canada as missionary to preach the word of Christ.

On April 24th 1644, Fr. Bressani departs from Trois Riviere with six Catechumen and a servant boy named Pascal to reach the Mission at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons in Georgian Bay. His intent is to bring supplies to the mission and journey there for a while. When canoeing in the St. Lawrence River he is ambushed by a band of thirty Iroquois from the Ottawan tribe near Fort Richelieu. Captured, suffers immediate violence and torture that imperil him for sometime. In fact the head of his Huron Guide is severed immediately and his body displayed and parts of it eaten along with all their provisions. At this point the Jesuit is taken across the Hudson River and over to Fort Orange, (present-day Albany N.Y.) in New Amsterdam. There he is brutally tortured. The innocent missionary loses his left thumb and the small finger on his left hand is mutilated. He also loses the first joint of three fingers of his right hand (the index, middle finger and ring finger). He receives innumerable blows and is frequently burned. Fr. Bressani’s death is near and in fact he’s sentenced to death, be burned alive and then eaten as a ritual by the pagans. Finally, after a Grand Council meeting in the Iroquois camp, a decision is passed to spare his life. No one knows what prompted them to change their minds. The Mohawk Warrior announces the mutation of the sentence that, he is to become prisoner and slave to an old woman.

It was a miracle that he escaped death. This outcome gives him little respite but it allows him to write a letter to the general of the Jesuits in Rome. The letter is divided into three parts: The first deals with the discovery, the location of New France and the missions along the St. Lawrence River at the shores of Lake Ontario; The second part covers the conversion of the Natives to the Christian faith and the difficulties encountered in converting the Hurons; The third part describes the tortures inflicted by the Iroquois on some of the Jesuit fathers including himself.

While still a prisoner, a Dutch captain stationed along the Hudson River, hearing of his perils at the hands of the natives, negotiates a ransom of 20 pieces of gold to the woman and he’s returned. On November 15, 1644 Fr. Bressani having been rescued by the Dutch authorities, was able to return to France. But in the fall of 1645 he returned to Canada and started out to work again in the missions. He remained there for almost four years, accepting abuses and perils of the life in the mission and attempting to understand the Natives by learning their language and adapting 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. He was invited to negotiate a peace treaty among the tribes where he met once again his tormentors and called them brothers when he embraced them. Finally he returned to Italy in 1650 where he continued to preach the word of God until Sept. 9, 1672 when his life came to an end in the city of Florence.


Web page designed by W. Korobaylo (c) 2007