by Gayda Hollnagel of the La Crosse Tribune
Families of Italian descent from the Genoa [Wisconsin] area may have a near-saint in their ancestry. The beatified notable is Father Louis Guanella, a Roman Catholic priest born in 1842 in the village of Fraciscio, high in the Italian alps.
Guanella's local connection was uncovered by Sister De Sales Curti, a La Crosse woman who traces her roots to the same village in Italy.
Curti, who grew up in Genoa [Wisconsin], says many of the tiny Mississippi River community's early settlers came from Fraciscio. Names such as Buzzetti, Fanetti, Barilani, Penchi, Zabolio, Gadola, Gilardi, Paggi, Francoli, Starlocki, Vener, Ghelfi, Curti, Trussoni, Guanella and Levi are common in both locales, says Curti.
Her interest in Father Guanella came out of her interest in genealogy, she says. She and another Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, Sister Loretta Penchi, visited Fraciscio on a trip to Italy. They also stopped in at the Catholic church in Campodolcino, a town close to Fraciscio, where residents of Franciscio took their children to be baptized.
The women attempted to trace Father Guanella's relatives through old church records but were unable to make a complete search in a short visit. The priest who is there now wouldn't let them make photocopies of the old documents, Curti said.
A book about the revered priest, The Life, the Spirit and the Works of Father Louis Guanella, was written shortly after Guanella's death on Oct. 24, 1915, and published in 1920. The work was translated into English in 1980. A copy is on file in the Viterbo [University] library.
Sister De Sales has taken information from the book and from her own research to prepare a brief article on Father Guanella and his link to Genoa.
She notes that the priest was born Dec. 19, 1842, to Lawrence and Marie (Bianche) Guanella. The ninth of 13 children, he was baptized the following day in the church at Campodolcino. Aloysius Trussoni and Maria Ursula Curti are listed in the old records as the baptismal sponsors.
Father Guanella had what appeared to be a normal childhood. The family was poor but respected, and very devout in their religious beliefs and practices.
He was ordained in 1866 and spent the early part of his priesthood working with St. John Bosco, an Italian priest famous for his care of homeless boys. Bosco, organizer of the Society of St. Francis de Sales (Salesians) for missionary activity and work with boys, and the Daughters of Mary Auxiliatrix to care for girls, was canonized in 1934.
Father Guanella worked with Father Bosco and the Salesians for three years and then returned to his home diocese of Como, where he became a parish priest.
During those years, a period of political unrest and religious persecution in Italy, Guanella founded a boarding school for students preparing for the priesthood and wrote a book urging Catholics to stand up for their faith against government persecution. As a result, the priest became a government target and eventually was even censured by his bishop for his activities.
Guanella's interest in the poor, orphaned, elderly and handicapped continued and he founded two religious orders, the Servants of Charity for men and the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence for women. Both groups are still at work in Italy, the United States and other countries.
Father Guanella came to the United States in 1912 to work with Italian immigrants. He traveled to Chicago and checked out the train schedules for Wisconsin, but according to Sister De Sales, he never quite got to Genoa [Wisconsin] to visit his American relatives.
Among those relatives, an uncle, Anthony Levi, willed the priest 3,000 lira in the 1805, she said. Other relatives listed in the will were Mary Olsla Levi and Mary Hunder of St. Andrew, Minn., Antoinette Corty (Curti), Lawrence Levi and Catherine Guanella of Polk County, Wis., Dominica Destafani of Stillwater, Minn., and Olsla Perlinger and Margaret Chapparelli of Italy.
Guanella visited his native Fraciscio for the last time in 1913 and died two years later in Como, Italy.
The priest's lifelong devotion and good works were recognized by the church and he was beatified (declared among the blessed in heaven and entitled to veneration) by Pope Paul VI in 1964.
Although Guanella never got to Genoa [Wisconsin] and there are no monuments or memorials to him in St. Charles Catholic Church [in Genoa, Wisconsin], Sister De Sales says the priest did have some influence on the early life of the Wisconsin congregation. The priest, aided by Father Bosco, helped the pioneer community to secure the services of the Rev. Gabriel Momo, a priest who served the congregation for several years.