Blessed Guanella's Trip to America:
Planting the Seeds of Charity
by Fr. Matthew Weber, S.C.
On New Year's Eve 1912, while Father Guanella was a guest of the Missionaries of St. Charles (the "Scalabrian" Fathers) in Boston, he wrote to his confrere, Father Mazzucchi, in Italy the following comments: "On account of our weakness and fear we were not in America at least ten years before. The desire was there even ten years ago, but one must wait the call from the Most High. The Reverend Father Gregori has been a very fit instrument [of the call]. He has been to me more like a brother and almost a guardian angel." These heart-felt sentiments articulated Father Guanella's deep, faith-filled desire to serve the poor Italian immigrants of America. It was natural that a priest who had served the poor all of his life would literally go across the ocean to find them. Yet, at the same time, these comments express a deep trust in Divine Providence and in the human instruments of Divine Providence. There is the human desire to respond; yet, in God's time. As Father Guanella used to say, "It is God who does." The following is an account of Father Guanella's visit to the United States. The visit is the culmination of a process that had begun with the departure of his relatives for the United States in 1850 and whose departure he had kept deeply in his heart. The visit is the culmination of the life of this man of God who never tired seeking out the poor and who would often say to his cohorts, "The heart of a Christian, that believes and feels, cannot pass by the hardships and deprivations of the poor without helping them."
On December 15, 1912, Father Guanella and the Scalabrian priest, Father Gregori, left Le Havre, France on the ship Provence bound for the United States. On December 21 or 22, the priests arrived at New York. They were met by some Scalabrian religious and set out immediately for Boston. It was Father Guanella's intention to visit several of the Scalabrian parishes in the United States. Father Gregori would accompany Guanella throughout his trip.
On Christmas Eve, Father Guanella visited Cardinal O'Connell of Boston, who received him most warmly and who reverently kissed Pope Pius X's letter of recommendation that Guanella was carrying. (This was the same Cardinal who was present at the laying of the first stone of St. Joseph Church in Rome). The Cardinal wished Father Guanella the best in establishing his works in the United States. During his stay in Boston, Father Guanella visited the cathedral and stayed at Sacred Heart parish on Boston's north end. His reputation for serving the poor preceded him and the parishioners received him with great warmth.
On December 30, Father Gregori accompanied Father Guanella to Providence, RI; a city that he described "was inhabited by about 175,000 Italians, Germans, Polish, Canadians, Irish, Portuguese, and Japanese." Guanella met with Bishop Matthew Harkins who greeted him warmly. He also visited the Italian parish of St. Charles Borromeo, the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, and the Academy of the Sacred Heart founded by St. Rose Philippine Duchesne herself. Thereupon, he returned to Boston where he would stay until the Feast of the Epiphany.
From Boston, Father Guanella traveled extensively throughout the United States while being guided by his constant companion, Father Gregori. On January 9, 1913, Father Guanella went to New York City and there visited the parishes of St. Joachim and Our Lady of Pompeii. Guanella had also met with Cardinal Farley and with the bishop of Brooklyn. Father Guane11a went on to visit St. Patrick's Cathedral and in his letters home he commented on the Statue of Liberty. From New York, the two priests proceeded to Baltimore. On Sunday, January 12, he participated in Vespers (Evening Prayer) in Baltimore's cathedral. The next day he had an amicable audience and luncheon with Cardinal Gibbons about whom Father Guanella commented very highly in his letters home.
From Baltimore, Fathers Guanella and Gregori continued to Washington, D.C. where they lunched with the Apostolic Delegate to the United States, Bishop Bonzano. In 1908, Bishop Bonzano was at the inauguration of the Pius X rest home in Rome run by Father Guanella's religious sisters, the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence. Bishop Bonzano had also visited the House of Divine Providence (the Guanellian "Mother House" or first house) in Como. In Washington, the two priests were guests of the Franciscan friars. One of the Franciscan priests, Goffred Schilling, director of the Holy Land Shrine project, received Guanella most warmly and gave him a personal tour of the Holy Land Shrine. Father Guanella was so impressed by the "Mount of the Holy Sepulchre," that he had a replica of it fashioned in his shrine Church of the Sacred Heart in Como, Italy. Until this day, visitors to the Sacred Heart Shrine can see the replica, climb the stairs to Calvary, and stoop into the room of the Holy Sepulchre.
From Washington, D.C. Father Guanella continued to Cincinnati. He stayed there January 16-18 at the Sacred Heart parish. He met with Archbishop Moeller and he celebrated Mass at the Sisters of St. Mary of Setal. He was also a guest of the distinguished Bellamy-Storer family. On Sunday, January 19, he arrived in St. Louis. Here he met with Archbishop Glennon, visited the cathedral, and walked the banks of the Mississippi River. From St. Louis, Father Guanella went on to Chicago. There he visited two hospitals run by the Sisters of Mother Frances Cabrini as well as the parish of Our Lady of Sorrows ("Madonna Addolorata"), and walked along the shore of Lake Michigan. It was in Chicago that Father Guanella also had a fruitful meeting with Archbishop Quigley. Among all the places Guanella had visited in the United States, he had placed his greatest hope in founding a home in Chicago.
January 23 was a day of travel and Guanella had arrived in Buffalo on January 24 from which he visited Niagara Falls and Lake Erie. On the trip back to the East Coast, Guanella visited Utica, New York, and there visited the Italian parish of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel where his seminary companion, Bishop Scalabrini, had blessed the cornerstone in 1901. Towards midday on January 26, Guanella and Gregori returned to Boston. Here Father Guanella stayed for several more days during which he made a day trip to New Haven, Connecticut. Father Guanella returned to New York and from there he embarked for Italy on February 8 arriving in Naples on February
Father Guanella's visit to the United States was both an answer to a divine call and a learning experience. While answering the call of Providence in reaching out to the poor, the American trip opened Guanella's mind and heart to the reality of the Church in another cultural and social reality. While the Church of Jesus Christ was substantially the same in the United States as in Europe (and, for that matter, anywhere in the world), Her response to the needs of the immigrants and the poor was fashioned by the social, political, and cultural reality of the United States itself. Father Guanella's ample comments on his trip often point out how Church life in the United States was different from that in Europe.
In the end, Father Guanella realized that the call of charity is the same the world over; yet, the call needs to be fashioned according to the local reality. Father Guanella was cognizant of the cultural differences and the challenges that lay before him and his spiritual sons and daughters. At the same time, however, he went ahead with his usual full force placing his own and his spiritual children's natural gifts into the hands of the Providential Father. Father Guanella expressed these sentiments in his periodical, Divine Providence, in February 1913: "...we feel like small instruments, confused by our misery and insufficiency. But it is God who does great things with despised elements; this is the sign of His goodness and strength. Let us push ourselves in striving to live out the call, to vow ourselves with greater fervor to the holy cause of the poor and needy, to grow in number and in the virtues of charity and of zeal for the good of and for the redemption of the world."
(Credit: Weber, Fr. Matthew. "Blessed Guanella's Trip to America: Planting the Seeds of Charity." Now and at the Hour April-May 2003: 20.)