Bruno was born in Cologne about the year 1030. According to tradition, he belonged to the family of Hartenfaust, or Hardebüst, one of the principal families of the city. Little is known of his early years, except that he studied theology in the present-day French city of Reims before returning to his native land.
His education completed, Bruno returned to Cologne, where he was most likely ordained a priest around 1055, and provided with a canonry at St. Cunibert’s. In 1056 Bishop Gervais recalled him to Reims, where the following year he found himself head of the episcopal school, which at the time included the direction of the schools and the oversight of all the educational establishments of the diocese.
He was then appointed chancellor of the archdiocese at the age of 45. He supported Pope Gregory VII in his fight against the decadence of the clergy, and took part in the removal of his own scandalous archbishop, Manasses. Bruno suffered the plundering of his house for his pains.
He had a dream of living in solitude and prayer, and persuaded a few friends to join him in a hermitage. After a while he felt the place unsuitable and through a friend, was given some land which was to become famous for his foundation “in the Chartreuse”—from which comes the word Carthusians. The climate, desert, mountainous terrain, and inaccessibility guaranteed silence, poverty, and small numbers.
Bruno and his friends built an oratory with small individual cells at a distance from each other. They built an oratory with small individual cells at a distance from each other where they lived isolated and in poverty, entirely occupied in prayer and study, for these men had a reputation for learning, and were frequently honored by the visits of St. Hugh who became like one of themselves.
Hearing of Bruno’s holiness, the pope offered him the archbishopric of Reggio, Italy, which he refused. He then retired to Calabria where he established his second colony of hermits at La Torre and passed away on 6 October 1101 in Serra San Bruno.
After his death, the Carthusians of Calabria, following a frequent custom of the Middle Ages, dispatched a roll-bearer, a servant of the community laden with a long roll of parchment, hung round his neck, who travelled through Italy, France, Germany, and England, stopping to announce the death of Bruno, and in return, the churches, communities, or chapters inscribed upon his roll, in prose or verse, the expression of their regrets, with promises of prayers. Many of these rolls have been preserved, but few are so extensive or so full of praise as that about St. Bruno. A hundred and seventy-eight witnesses, of whom many had known the deceased, celebrated the extent of his knowledge and the fruitfulness of his instruction. Strangers to him were above all struck by his great knowledge and talents. But his disciples praised his three chief virtues — his great spirit of prayer, extreme mortification, and devotion to the Blessed Virgin.
Both the churches built by him in the desert were dedicated to the Blessed Virgin: Our Lady of Casalibus in Dauphiné and Our Lady Della Torre in Calabria; faithful to his inspirations, the Carthusian Statutes proclaim the Mother of God the first and chief patron of all the houses of the order, whoever may be their particular patron. He is also the eponym for San Bruno Creek in California.