Saint of society’s most vulnerable

After miraculous healing of U.S. man, priest who cared for the marginalized and dying is to be canonized

By Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller – OSV Newsweekly, 10/23/2011

Blessed 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 the handicapped and the elderly abandoned and underfed when mid-19th century society standards considered them useless and a burden.

He was so filled with love for the marginalized that he devoted his life to serving them as a priest, and to founding two religious orders to carry out that work.

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

Those prayers have been answered. On Oct. 23, Blessed Guanella was to be elevated to sainthood when Pope Benedict XVI also canonizes Bishop Guido Maria Conforti, founder of the Xaverian Missionaries, and Sister Bonifacia Rodriguez Castro, founder of the Servants of St. Joseph in Spain.

Father Rinaldo is treasurer of the Servants of Charity Province in Chelsea, Mich., which includes the United States, India, Philippines and Vietnam. He was in his theological studies in Rome when Blessed Guanella was beatified in 1964.

The Miracle

William Glisson is now married and working for the family business.

“I always believed that Bill’s recovery was a miracle,” Donna Glisson told Our Sunday Visitor, “and it didn’t matter to me whether or not that was confirmed.”

It was. In January 2010, the Pontifical Theological Commission approved that Glisson’s healing was obtained through the intercession of Blessed Louis Guanella, who will be canonized Oct. 23. The Glisson family will be present in Rome at the Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI.

Servant of Charity Father Peter DiTullio, now at Sacred Heart Church in East Providence, R.I., was vice postulator in the investigation that originated in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He has been a longtime supporter for the cause for sainthood.

“I felt that sooner or later, Blessed Guanella was going to give us a hit,” he told OSV.

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 Raymond M. Joson, M.D., of Haverford, Pa., 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, “(S)uch a recovery was not only remarkable, but miraculous since I can not attribute his recovery to any specific neurosurgical or medical treatment he received.

“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.”

Serving most vulnerable

Louis Guanella was born in Fraciscio, a small village in the Italian Alps, on 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 the poor and disabled.

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 Blessed 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, Blessed 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.

Blessed 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.

Blessed 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. Blessed 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.

U.S. presence

His charism 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, Mich., is for boys and adult men. In Springfield, Pa., the C.K. Center serves low-functioning young adults, and the Don Guanella School is for boys and young men. Sacred Heart parish in inner-city East Providence, R.I., 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. Three years ago, Sister Margaret Mary Schissler and Sister Brenda McHugh were asked to build up the Shrine of St. Joseph in Grass Lake, Mich. The chapel, built in a barn, seats 130, and there are plans to build what the congregation hopes will become a national shrine.

The site also is dedicated to the Pious Union of St. Joseph for the Suffering and Dying.

“Suffering doesn’t necessarily mean physical,” Sister Margaret Mary told OSV. “It can be emotional and it can be spiritual. We are reaching out to the people to be a comfort and a strength. We are taking Communion to the sick, visiting the elderly and people in the hospital, and as time goes on, we will try to reach out more and more.”

Pro-life ministry

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

“He had great trust in God and is very relevant in these times when you hear the Holy Father speak of absence of God in people’s lives,” 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.”

Father Weber, vocations director for the Servants of Charity, called the canonization “a great blessing” for both congregations.

“One of my hopes,” he said, “is that this will bring an awareness of our ministry and the need for priests, brothers and sisters to carry on this ministry.”