Servant of God Caterina Guanella
Lay woman of faith, servant of the poor
The Bl. Don Guanella Institute's formation programme for lay members was recently inaugurated at the Divine Providence Institute in Cosenza, Italy, and chose to highlight the figure of the Servant of God Caterina Guanella. A brief historical outline will show the significance she had on her world as well as on the world of today.
Maria Caterina Anna Guanella was born in Fraciscio, an outlying rural district of Campodolcino in the Province of Sondrio, Italy, on 25 March 1841. She was the sixth daughter of Lorenzo and Maria Bianchi, devout parents of a large family.
As custom required, she was carried to the baptismal font the day after she was born. She spent her childhood at home but was not entirely accepted by her father, who after five daughters would have preferred a third son.
In the culture of those days, the male child assured the continuity of the lineage and promised security, for he was better suited to heavy work in the fields. A little more than one year after Caterina, Luigi was born to the great joy of all.
The tiny town of Fraciscio is a cluster of homes perched at an altitude of 1,300 meters on a rocky spur above the San Giacomo Valley, formed by the River Rabbiosa. At that time, its inhabitants were mainly farmers and shepherds.
Society had deteriorated due to poverty and widespread illness caused by lack of hygiene and malnutrition. Health-care assistance and medicines were totally lacking, and mental illness and alcoholism were rife. This situation was uncommon for mountain communities in those days.
In their childhood games, stirred by compassion for the many poor villagers, Luigi and Caterina mixed mud and water into "soup" and divided it into many portions, thinking they were making soup for the poor. Thus, Caterina Guanella can rightly be considered the inspirer and first cooperator of the Guanellian Institute.
Between ages 7 and 15, Caterina attended elementary classes given by the chaplain, Fr. Giuseppe Raspini, and by Fr. Giovanni Battista Persico. Since State schooling had only recently been introduced, a staff of teachers did not exist, and most teaching was done by priests.
For the greater glory of God
Caterina nevertheless distinguished herself in learning the Catechism, and on various occasions earned the parish priest's praise. But she attached no importance to such rewards and insisted that what she was doing was for the greater glory of God.
Having completed compulsory education, the young woman dedicated herself until she was 27 to domestic work and all that was needed in the fields.
On 26 May 1866 Luigi Guanella was ordained a priest; his sister Caterina, strong in her faith and his first collaborator, followed him to his new residence as his housekeeper and colleague in social, pastoral and charitable initiatives.
Fr. Luigi was sent as curate to the Parish of Savogno in the outlying district of Prosto.
After obtaining a teacher's diploma from the local educational authority in Como in 1871, Fr. Luigi was entrusted with the elementary classes by the municipal administration. He therefore shared the task with his sister Caterina, to whom he assigned the education of the girls.
The young woman not only passed on to her pupils notions of education and domestic science, but also models of moral virtue. Her conduct was respected and admired by all.
Caterina Guanella possessed no more than an elementary school education, but she was extremely intelligent and sufficiently trained in language and in the tasks of domestic science. Under her brother's supervision she carried out her work with precision.
Local Authorities who inspected the school from time to time had nothing but praise and support for Fr. Luigi and Caterina. But due to the fact that they were part of the Catholic Church, the administrators of the Province strongly opposed the Guanellas, considering them subversive. Church-State relations were far from good at that time, due primarily to the "Roman Question" raised by the unification of Italy and the end of the Popes' temporal power.
Fr. Lorenzo Sterlocchi, Provost of Campodolcino at the time, supported the dream of a group of girls led by Caterina, and on 25 March 1877 he canonically established the "Pious Union of the Daughters of Mary" in his parish; the Pious Union was a Marian association promoted by Fr. Alberto Passer' on 23 January 1864, after the proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
In the meantime, after her brother's decision to join Don Bosco in Turin, Caterina returned home and became assistant-head of the group in Fraciscio.
Later, in January 1888, she was unanimously appointed head of the pious sodality. Members turned to her as a mother and true teacher of the faith.
Prayer at every hour
Caterina dressed modestly and adopted a strictly spiritual way of life in rhythm with all the hours of the day.
Her first thought was always for Jesus and Mary, and she participated in Holy Mass every day.
She refrained from meddling in the affairs of others, never supported pettiness and detached herself from honour, pleasure and worldly activities. She loved humility, charity, purity and obedience. Throughout the day, she would utter little prayers and exclamations in order to be continuously in communion with God and Mary Most Holy.
In particular, she accepted hardship, illness, work and offences as forms of penance most pleasing to God.
In church every evening she would pray before the Blessed Sacrament, while at home before retiring she would recite the Holy Rosary. She went to confession every week and received Holy Communion every day.
Each month she would make a day's spiritual retreat, and every two months she took part in spiritual exercises where silence and prayer prevailed. She dutifully obeyed her spiritual director, whose help she requested for the eternal salvation of her soul.
Caterina was reserved and avoided any act that attracted attention; she preferred a humble, hidden life. She confided to her brother, Fr. Luigi: "I truly did not want to be their Principal, but the Provost obliged me to. It means that I look here and there, and throughout the week, we say some prayers and then reflect, and I prepare what I have to say on Sunday. It pains me to mention the shortcomings of my sisters and I never want to, but when I really have to, I try to speak as sweetly as possible. As for those who do not pay much attention to me, I speak to them privately and sometimes urge them to come here and then we have a little more time to talk and they leave happy".
After her death, Caterina was continually talked about because of numerous extraordinary events attributed to her.
Information concerning the many graces received through her mediation was collected by her biographer, Fr. Sterlocchi, and submitted with the proceedings of the process of her canonization. They include:
Bernasconi, a cleric-theologian seriously afflicted with pneumonia, was cured after calling on the Servant of God; Sr. Orsola Tavasci was freed from burdensome spiritual suffering; Giuseppina Frontini was cured of a malignant tumour; Sr. Carnago, Superior of the House in Menaggio, testified to the mysterious healing of a little boy with peritonitis and nephritis.
Pius X's encouragement
The fame of Caterina's virtues spread quickly in Lombardy and Roman ecclesiastical circles. The first person to advocate her cause was Bishop Eusebio Semproni. Cardinal Domenico Ferrata, Prefect of the Congregation for Sacred Rites, became promoter of her cause after reading about Caterina's life.
Lastly, Fr. Guanella's initial hesitation was overcome because Pope Pius X, informed of Caterina's virtues and death, urged him to go ahead with the cause for the first stage in the process leading to sainthood.
"Try it, do what you can but waste no time! While you are alive, while many witnesses of the virtues of your blessed Sister are alive, take the initial steps to introduce the cause, and immediately".
The cause of veneration, beatification and canonization was introduced by the diocesan curia of Como with Bishop Alfonso Archi, who established the ecclesiastical tribunal competent to evaluate the testimonies of the process.
For example: "It is impossible to describe the sorrow felt by the people of Savogno at the departure of Fr. Luigi and Caterina. He was their most beloved Father and Pastor and she, their mother, sister, faithful friend and confidante; and it seemed to the people that since they were leaving, all devotion, all comfort and all life would also depart from the town and leave nothing but melancholy, mourning and death" (Fr. Lorenzo Sterlocchi, in Vita di Caterina Guanella, 1911, p. 62).
"Her figure as a sister is most exemplary and deserves to be held up as a model of virtue, worthy of being raised to the honours of the altar. So on with it, let me make myself a champion, that is, a promoter of her cause" (Ibid., pp. 155ff.).
Certain procedural errors as well as a delay in introducing the ecclesiastical investigations undoubtedly slowed down the process of canonization. Most firsthand witnesses were dying, while Fr. Luigi, taken up with innumerable tasks to support his institutions, was no longer following it up closely.
Despite all this, the virtuous figure of Caterina shone out as brightly as ever.
Caterina Guanella, an image of spirituality, was certainly a lay figure to be rediscovered for her witness of a heroic Christian life.
Indeed, partly because of the deep crisis in values which humanity is currently experiencing 116 years after her death, Caterina Guanella, a humble instrument of daily Providence, continues to be an excellent model of lay holiness, a witness to Christ's love for the poor and suffering.
Weekly Edition in English
28 March 2007, page 8
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