Italian priests remember 'surviving martyr'

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  • November 23, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - He’s been called the “surviving martyr.” And next spring, 17th-century Italian Jesuit missionary Fr. Francesco Giuseppe Bressani’s sacrifices and contributions will be recognized with a statue at Martyrs’ Shrine near the territory where Bressani narrowly escaped death for his Catholic beliefs.

Fr. Daniele Bertoldi, president of the Italian Pastoral Commission of the archdiocese of Toronto, said Bressani’s importance “has not yet been acknowledged.” 

“He survived but was not proclaimed saint,” said Bertoldi, who spearheaded the creation of the commemorative statue.

Having this tangible recognition is welcome news for members of the Italian Catholic community in the city, including the close to 10,500 Italian-Canadians who attend his parish, Immaculate Conception in Woodbridge, Ont., he said. 

The bronze statue is two metres tall and represents Bressani staring at the future while holding a Bible, a primitive telescope and his geographical papers.

It was commissioned by the Italian priests of the Toronto archdiocese and will be unveiled and blessed by Archbishop Thomas Collins on Nov. 22 at 4 p.m. at Immaculate Conception Church. The statue will be permanently located next spring in Midland at Martyrs’ Shrine.

With this statue, Bertoldi said all Canadians, especially those with Italian roots, are invited to remember Bressani’s accomplishments.

At 14, Bressani entered the Society of Jesus on Aug. 15, 1626 and was ordained a priest 15 years later. A few months after ordination, a then 30-year-old Bressani was attracted to the foreign missions and set foot on Canadian soil in 1642, the first Italian priest to do so. He worked with the Jesuit priests who would later become the Canadian martyrs.

Bressani was tortured after being captured by a band of 27 Iroquois in 1644. He was mutilated and, while awaiting death, Bressani was given to an old Iroquois woman whose grandfather had been murdered by the Hurons.

Bressani wrote a letter to the Jesuits’ superior general and recounted his sufferings: “I know not whether Your Paternity will recognize the letter of a poor cripple, who formerly in perfect health, was well known to you. The letter is badly written and quite soiled, because,” Bressani wrote, “in addition to other inconveniences, he who writes it has only one whole finger on his right hand; and it is difficult to avoid staining the paper with the blood which flows from his wounds, not yet healed; he uses arquebus powder for ink, and the earth for a table.”

But despite being mutilated and tortured, Bressani survived.

Upon leaving Canada, Bressani left behind a rich treasure of writings with his accurate descriptions of the land inhabited by the Hurons, and their social and religious organizations. Even with mutilated hands, he recorded a lunar eclipse in the fall of 1645 at Ste. Marie among the Hurons. Bressani later gave a lecture on the topic in Paris at the Academy of Sciences. This was reportedly the first recorded observation of its kind for North America “with an accuracy unmatched in North America for the rest of the century and equalled at the time only by European astronomers,” according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.

He was also the author of an important map which is the earliest representation of native life in New France.

Bertoldi points out that it was Bressani who wrote about the Canadian Jesuit martyrs and that his words were used as evidence for their martyrdom.

Bressani left Canada in 1650 after the superior general sent some missionaries back to France. He later returned to Italy.

During this Year for Priests, Bertoldi said the statue serves to honour Bressani’s memory “and to encourage all of us to live our faith even when we are called to live it in a heroic way, as Fr. Bressani did.”

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