Blessed Louis Guanella, Founder (1842-1915)
Butler's Lives of the Saints
Luigi Guanella was born in 1842 at Franciscio di Campodolcino, near Lake Como in northern Italy, the ninth of thirteen children. When he was twelve years old he went to the college run by the Somaschi fathers in Como, where he studied for six years before entering the seminary to study for the priesthood. He was ordained in 1866 and was given charge of the parish of Savogno; here he built an elementary school and started to teach. He organized various kinds of assistance for the poor people of the parish and set up a branch of Young Catholic Action, a movement founded in 1867. His activities and writings made him the enemy of anticlerical politicians and the local Freemasons; he had to give up his school and his name was black-listed by the government so that he could not be a parish priest. As a result of this opposition he decided to give up ordinary parish work, and in 1875 he went off to Turin to join St John Bosco (31 Jan.), whose work he had admired for a long time. He entered the new Congregation of the Salesians and took triennial vows; he was appointed to be director of one of their oratories and began to write for the Catholic Reader.
In 1878 he was faced with a difficult choice when his former bishop recalled him to the diocese; despite the opposition of John Bosco he obeyed the bishop and returned to parish work. Again he opened a school for poor children, at Traona, and once again he had to close it because of Masonic opposition. He was forced to move to a tiny parish in the mountains, where the civil authorities thought he would be out of the way and could do no harm. It turned out to be a providential move: there were in the area an orphanage and a hospice for the elderly and sick run by a religious community which had just been founded by Don Coppini (1827-81) in 1878. Coppini himself had been a revolutionary in 1848 and secretary to the legendary Mazzini before becoming a priest. Luigi was very impressed by the work of the Congregation and felt he should do all he could to cultivate "this grain of mustard." An invaluable collaborator in this enterprise was a Sister Marcellina Bosatta, one of the nuns of Coppini's original foundation.
In 1886 they transferred the operation to Como, where they found more spacious accommodation, and named it "The Little House of Divine Providence," after the example of St Joseph Benedict Cottolengo (29 Apr.), who had opened a similar house in Turin in 1828 and who was one of Louis' main inspirations in his dedication to the sick and disadvantaged. By 1890 the house was caring for over two hundred people, and a Congregation named the Daughters of Mary of Providence was established to carry on the work; they were approved by the Holy See in 1917. By 1895 Louis had also accepted a number of men who had vocations to join him in his work. He sent them to various seminaries for their training and eventually set up another Congregation, the Servants of Charity; he made his own religious vows with the first members in 1908. This Congregation received approval in 1928 and 1935. Louis insisted that assistance must be given to the disadvantaged "without any exceptions"; in 1905 and 1908 he offered shelter to those who had been made homeless by earthquakes, and in 1915 he went personally to help those affected by the earthquake in Marsica, even though he was seventy-three years old, and provided help for the orphaned and the injured in the Congregation's house in Rome. In 1913 he decided to organize a worldwide crusade of prayer for the dying and so established the Archconfraternity of St Joseph for the Dying, which in the 1960s claimed to have ten million members across the world.
In addition to his charitable work Louis kept up his interest in education, opening day, evening, and vocational schools. He had a special devotion to Mary, to whom he gave the title "Our Lady of Work"; he was particularly interested in working conditions and in preparing young people for the world of work. He was, indeed, a person full of ideas and initiatives. He was involved in the plan to reclaim part of the Spagna Plain, an area that had been badly affected by malaria, and established an institute for the disabled there. Another initiative was the sending of some of his Congregation into the parts of Switzerland bordering on Italy to see what could be done to re-establish a Catholic presence in the Protestant valleys. He was friendly with Fr. Scalabrini and impressed by the work he was doing for the spiritual care of the many thousands of Italians who were emigrating for economic reasons in these years; he sent one of his first priests to America to help with the work, after going there himself in 1912 to see what the situation was like. He wrote over fifty short works, some of them devotional, others on history, social matters, and the defense of the Church against anti-clericalism. He was a friend of all those at the time who were developing a social Catholicism through movements such as the Opera dei Congressi and various forms of Catholic Action.
In 1915 he was awarded a gold medal by the civil authorities in Como for his work with the war-wounded. He suffered an apoplectic attack in September of the same year and died on 24 October at Como. Pope Pius XI called him the "Garibaldi of Charity," and his cause was introduced at Rome in 1939; he was beatified by Paul VI in 1964.
Both his Congregations flourished and opened a large number of hospitals and homes. These are the lasting legacy of a person who lived the precepts of the gospel to the full and gave an outstanding example of personal holiness and involvement in the problems of the modern world, despite living in a society when opposition to religion and particularly to the Church was very strong and when many Catholics preferred to keep their heads down and wait for better times.
Credit: Doyle, Peter, Revised by. "Bd Louis Guanella." Butler's Lives of the Saints: New Full Edition Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1997.