St. Louis Guanella: Saint of the sick, servant of the suffering

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St. Louis Guanella witnessed the ravages of poverty, illness, and the neglect of the most vulnerable while growing up in the Southern Alps of Italy. He saw people with disabilities and the elderly both abandoned and underfed, when mid-19th century society standards considered them useless and a burden.

St. Guanella (1842-1915) was so filled with love for marginalized people that he devoted his life to serving them as a priest, and to founding two religious orders to carry out that work. Within a century, the Catholic Church recognized him as a saint.

“We have been praying for a miracle for our founder to confirm to us that his charism can lead to holiness,” Servants of Charity Father Joseph Rinaldo said of the time leading up to the saint’s canonization. “We have been praying for a sign that our founder was a holy man.”

Those prayers were answered. On Oct. 23, 2011, Blessed Guanella was elevated to sainthood. His feast day is Oct. 24.

Recently retired, Father Rinaldo belongs to the Servants of Charity Province in Chelsea, Michigan, which includes the United States, India, Philippines, and Vietnam. He was in his theological studies in Rome when Blessed Guanella was beatified in 1964.

“During that summer, and for four summers in a row, we visited every single town where he had been,” he said. “We searched libraries and religious archives for letters, correspondence, or any kind of information about him.”

Louis Guanella was born in Fraciscio, a small village in the Italian Alps, Dec. 19, 1842, a time rife with poverty, illiteracy, and intense political persecution of the Church. He was ordained May 26, 1866, and assigned to parish work. But he moved to Turin seven years later to join the Salesians of Don Bosco, where he could serve people in poverty and with disabilities.

In one village, he found a group of young religious women who were formed in piety and sacrifice. In 1886, two of those sisters and a few orphan girls went to Como, where St. Guanella had prepared for them a simple motherhouse for the religious congregation he had dreamed of, the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence.

In 1904, under the protection of Pope St. Pius X, St. Guanella opened a facility for children who were living in the streets of Rome. He founded the Servants of Charity Congregation of priests and brothers in 1908, the same year he began building the Church of St. Joseph in Rome, named after the patron saint of the dying and the patron saint of a happy death.

St. Guanella also established an association of devotees who would pray each day for St. Joseph’s intercession on behalf of the dying and the suffering. “There is a need to live well, but there is even a greater need to die well,” he wrote.

He called it the Pious Union of St. Joseph for the Salvation of the Dying, and in 1914, Pope St. Pius X canonically recognized it and became its first member.

St. Guanella traveled to the United States in 1912 to minister to immigrants who were living in deplorable conditions. The next year, six Daughters of Mary of Providence arrived in Chicago as the first Guanellians in North America.

An earthquake struck central Italy in 1915, killing tens of thousands. St. Guanella, his priests and sisters went to the destruction to look for survivors and to shelter orphans and the aged. It was his last service to the vulnerable. The work weakened his health, and he died on Oct. 24, 1915, in the 50th year of his priesthood.

St. Guanella’s charisma lives on in the work of the congregations he founded. In the United States, Servants of Charity run several residential facilities for individuals with developmental disabilities. The St. Louis Center in Chelsea, Michigan, is for boys and adult men, and in Springfield, Pennsylvania, the Don Guanella Village serves young adults. Sacred Heart parish in inner-city East Providence, Rhode Island, has outreaches to the community.

The Daughters of St. Mary of Providence in the United States, headquartered in Chicago, serve the elderly and disabled and also do parish work. Several years ago, Sister Margaret Mary Schissler and Sister Brenda McHugh were asked to build up the Shrine of St. Joseph in Grass Lake, Michigan. The chapel, built in a barn, seats 130. The site also is dedicated to the Pious Union of St. Joseph for the Suffering and Dying.

Father Dennis Weber of the Servants of Charity in Springfield calls St. Guanella “a saint for our times in his spirituality.”

“He had great trust in God and is very relevant in these times,” he said. “I strongly believe that he is a pro-life saint for his inherent respect for the dignity of the human person, especially those who are marginalized, vulnerable, and disadvantaged in any way.”

St. Guanella came through in a remarkable way for William Glisson, who suffered such severe head injuries when in-line skating March 15, 2002, that neurosurgeons at Crozer Chester Hospital near Philadelphia told his mother that he might not survive. Glisson’s brain swelled so much that two parts of his skull had to be removed, along with one-third of the left frontal lobe.

Two days after the accident, Donna Glisson placed a tiny box with a relic on her son’s wrist band and put another in her pocket. Then she put his condition into the hands of St. Louis Guanella, and prayed.

William Glisson recovered, took a job in the family business, and married. In January 2010, the Pontifical Theological Commission approved that Glisson’s healing was obtained through the intercession of St. Louis Guanella, who was canonized Oct. 23, 2011. The Glisson family was present in Rome at the canonization Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI.

Servant of Charity Father Peter DiTullio, now retired, was vice postulator in the investigation that originated in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He was a longtime supporter of the cause for sainthood.

“I felt that sooner or later, St. Guanella was going to give us a hit,” he said.

It was his friend, Noreen Yoder, who, after her own accident years ago, received the first-class relics containing bone fragments. Yoder lent the relics to Donna Glisson, who saw her son’s condition improve day by day. His eyes opened within a week. Then soon after, unable to talk because of the breathing tubes, he signed to a deaf cousin.

“The doctor said that he had such a high level of brain damage that he couldn’t be doing that,” she said. “It was astounding.”

Bill spent months in rehabilitation and later underwent numerous physical and psychological evaluations during investigation into the alleged miracle.

On Oct. 30, 2006, in part of the process, neurosurgeon Dr. Raymond M. Joson wrote a letter to Father DiTullio describing the severity of William Glisson’s injuries and noting that the attending neurosurgeon had told the family “that he would probably not survive or if he did, he would have severe neurological disabilities.” However, he “made a rapid recovery with no signs of motor or cognitive disabilities.”

In Joson’s opinion, “such a recovery was not only remarkable, but miraculous since I can not attribute his recovery to any specific neurosurgical or medical treatment he received.”

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