St. Louis Guanella Inspires Those Who Continue His Mission to Care for the Disabled and Dying
Have you heard of the Guanellians? True to the old saying that “good things come in small packages,” the Guanellians have made a mighty impact for several decades in the United States, far from their Italian origins.
This fall, on Oct. 24, the dual order with congregations for men and women will mark the 100th anniversary of the death of St. Louis Guanella, the founder of the men’s Congregation of the Servants of Charity in Italy in 1908 and the women’s Congregation of the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence in 1881. In 2013, the sisters celebrated their 100th anniversary in the United States.
St. Louis was born in Italy’s Southern Alps in 1842. He was beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1964 and canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011.
The mission of his congregations is to take care of adults and children with developmental disabilities and handicaps and the elderly, especially the poor, as well as host an apostolate of prayer for the suffering and dying throughout the world.
“I just love being a Guanellian,” said Sister Margaret Mary Schissler, who became a sister in 1977. “St. Guanella wanted to take care of people who no one else wanted. In his time, it was the handicapped and developmentally disabled — a mission always remaining a major priority.”
The example of the Guanellians inspired Sister Margaret Mary to become a Daughter of St. Mary of Providence: She witnessed the way they treated and worked with her sister in one of the congregation’s homes.
“My sister was treated with dignity and respect for her life, no matter of her handicap,” Sister Margaret Mary said. “That reeled me in right away.”
The Daughters of St. Mary of Providence wear a full habit, “a sign and witness to the people,” explained Sister Margaret Mary. “I have to represent the Church in my habit, no matter where I am. [As a result] in today’s age I have people constantly calling me for prayers and telling me those are the things that build us up. I need that prayer and witness, most of all.”
The Vision Continues
One location the Guanellians run is the St. Louis Center (StLouisCenter.org) in Chelsea, Mich., a home and teacher-training facility for children and adults.
“St. Louis Center is a strong part of the apostolate — one of the three main things we do,” said Servant of Charity Father Satheesh Caniton Alphonse, former administrator of the center.
Homes for the developmentally disabled, plus dependent/independent living homes for the elderly in Illinois, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and South Dakota, are also part of the order’s apostolate.
It was little surprise that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in 2011, at the founder’s canonization, called St. Louis Guanella “a champion for the defense of life.”
For her part, Sister Margaret Mary continues in the founder’s vision of reaching out to the poorest of the poor. Currently, she runs the elderly daycare center at the inner-city Sacred Heart Church and School in East Providence, R.I., and occasionally helps with the youngsters in the school.
“We’ve expanded because we have to expand the pro-life idea,” she said of the elderly daycare. “What society wants to do is kill them off,” but “they have a right to live until natural death” and be treated with great dignity.
“These are God’s special people today,” she said. “When they come here, it’s bright and beautiful. That’s important, because we’re assisting those persons going to Jesus next. I do whatever I can to make their lives more peaceful.”
Carl LaPietra helped to build the facilities for the elderly daycare at Sacred Heart. He attended Sacred Heart School, where his wife now teaches and his son and daughter attend.
“The Guanellians give their all. Sister Margaret Mary and all those involved give up their lives for even one person. They’re as joyous with one patient there as they would be with 100. The most important thing she gives the people is her smile. She always has her arms out,” he said. “They [the Guanellians] have eternal patience, eternal gusto — all of them. They change anything they touch for the better.”
“They believe the people they are taking care of deserve the best,” he said, and, echoing Pope Francis, added, “The Guanellians smell like their sheep.”
Observing the Guanellian priests and sisters at Sacred Heart inspired LaPietra to get involved in helping them as a Guanellian cooperator, part of an international group of laity assisting the orders. For 25 years, he has done all sorts of physical labor around the church and school, and 21-year-old son Brendan joins him, helping with technology.
Pious Union of St. Joseph
Also close to the orders’ hearts is St. Joseph, whom their founder loved.
Father Satheesh serves as director of the Pious Union of St. Joseph, headquartered in Grass Lake, Mich.
“St. Louis wanted to start a confraternity of prayer, the Pious Union,” explained Father Satheesh.
At the invitation of Pope Pius X, St. Louis Guanella built a church in Rome dedicated to St. Joseph — St. Joseph at the Trionfale — and Pius X donated the altar.
“St. Pius said, ‘Put me down as the first member,’” Father Satheesh explained. Popes since Pius X have been a member. “The latest one is Pope Benedict — he also is a member.”
They ask “St. Joseph’s intercession for a happy death for all those who die that day,” noted the director.
“The benefit of praying for the suffering and the dying is that we’re actually praying for the next people to get to heaven,” said Sister Margaret Mary, who spent several years working at the Pious Union.
The thousands of priest-members are requested to celebrate one Mass a year for the Pious Union’s intentions. Father Satheesh made clear that means every second a Mass is celebrated somewhere in the world for the suffering and the dying.
Very significantly, the Guanellians are one of the few orders that offer Gregorian Masses — a series of 30 consecutive Masses for a departed soul that the faithful can request.
Need For Vocations
One young woman entered Sister Margaret Mary’s community as one of two postulants this year, after a drought of some years. There are 65 Guanellian sisters in the United States, among the more than 700 in other countries, including one in Afghanistan.
“God has blessed us,” said Sister Margaret Mary, who believes that Pope Francis dedicated a Year for Consecrated Life so that people become more aware of the need and necessity of having consecrated persons in their midst.
“Imagine the change that can occur if every sister and priest encouraged one vocation in this year dedicated to the consecrated life.”
Father Satheesh, who is also vocations director for the Servants of Charity in the United States, noted that, currently, two or three young men are discerning the priesthood. There are nearly 600 priests and brothers worldwide.
As part of his work, he conducts a vocation camp — a monthly retreat for young men every second Saturday.
“We have Mass, adoration, confession and different activities, games and talks on certain topics and devotion to our Blessed Mother,” he said.
With a priest arriving soon to help with the Pious Union, Father Satheesh will be able to concentrate even more on vocations.
His approach is a mark of the Guanellians’ philosophy. “I try to communicate joyfulness,” he said. “Grumpy people don’t attract anybody. [Joy is] a gift, God’s gift. People can say, ‘This man seems to be happy with his priesthood.’ It’s a joy to serve. It always has to be a joy.”
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.
Father Satheesh and Sister Margaret Mary were guests on EWTN Live with Father Mitch Pacwa on July 1 (see YouTube.com/EWTN).
Visit priest/brothers at ServantsofCharity.org; and the sisters at DSMPIC.org; also see PiousUnionofStJoseph.org.
- st. louis guanella
- religious orders and congregations
- corporal works of mercy
- caring for the sick
- caring for the disabled