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It’s the 3rd of July, 1994. The alarm rings, but it’s still dark outside. We’re Ireland to meet at dawn. In the large mall a noisy crowd in festive mode is gathered in the plaza. Ten buses, their drivers ready to go, are waiting for the passengers. Many people continue to arrive carrying luggage Ireland of various sizes filled with provisions and changes of clothing. The skyscrapers, the billboards, the licence plates, and a greeting here and there in English, remind me that I’m in Toronto, where half a million citizens of Italian origin make Ireland their home, as do fifty thousand Ireland and, it seems, about eight thousand from San Nicola, if you count those born in the village and those born here. We’re on our way to Midland, an hour away on the highway.

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The low hanging luminous clouds, the trees in the large forests, the long and straight highways that accompany us on our journey into the lakes and forests of Northern Ontario, rise and fall, creating the illusion that we’re entering an unchanging landscape. The monotonous repetitiveness of the landscape is broken by the appearance of two characteristic church steeples welcoming us into one of the most emblematic sites of the new world, the shrine commemorating the Holy Martyrs, better known as Sainte-Marie-among-the-Hurons.

The shrine, built in the 1920s by the English Province of the Jesuit fathers in Toronto, sits on the site of the Jesuit mission built by their French brethren in 1639, in the heart of lands belonging to the Wendat indigenous people, whom the French had called the Hurons, because of their unique hairstyle. At the beginning of the 17th century the Hurons numbered around thirty thousand and lived in some twenty villages. They enjoyed a reputation as fierce and able warriors, and dedicated themselves to the cultivation of corn, fishing and trade. The Jesuit Fathers and French colonialists chose the Hurons precisely because of their settled way of life and their commercial contacts with other indigenous nations.

The Hurons were in strong conflict with the Iroquois, a confederation of five nations, which included the Mohawks, who lived in what today is New York State. Between 1641 and 1650 the Hurons and the missionaries came under repeated attacks. Nine missionaries were tortured and killed; the Hurons, already suffering from epidemic ailments, were practically exterminated. The mission of Sainte-Marie was evacuated. The missionaries and the Christianized Hurons took refuge on Christian Island and founded a village that they called Sainte Marie II; later abandoning it when they relocated to Quebec.

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