Modern Saints, Their Lives and Faces
by Ann Ball
Louis was the ninth of the thirteen children of Lawrence and Maria
Guanella. He was born December 19, 1842 in Fraciscio, Italy. The day
after, his father carried him in his arms down to the Valley of
Campodolcino to be baptized.
The family maintained a simple but comfortable home high in the
Italian Alps. Lawrence served as first deputy under Austrian rule,
and under Italian rule he was the respected mayor of the little town
of Campodolcino. The land was used for pasture, and young Louis
worked tending the family sheep and carrying wood and other items
long before he had had any schooling. These mountain people were hard
workers. They had no animals to help with the work, and horses and
wagons were almost unknown.
From his family, Louis learned many lessons he would later put
into practical use in his apostolate. He learned how to use his hands
to build things, rather than depend on having money to purchase
ready-made items. He learned the value and some of the skills of
agriculture. Best of all, he learned that a loving spirit of
sacrifice can work miracles.
Annually on the Feast of St. Rocco, Lawrence gave away food to all
who came. Louis and his sister Catherine played at making "pretend"
soup from mud to give to the poor. Perhaps their childish game was an
indication of their later work. At one time, Catherine came to help
Louis in one of his Houses of Divine Providence, where the soup was
still free to the poor - but not made of mud!
Louis' childhood was similar to that of many other little Italian
boys of his age and state of life. He learned some reading and
arithmetic from a local curate and later attended an elementary
school in a village where the priest was a relative of his family. He
was entranced at his first sight of horses attached to a wagon.
Accidents were no stranger to such an active child, and he had
several narrow escapes from serious injury.
At the age of twelve, Louis wanted to enter the seminary. With
thirteen children to provide for, his father was uncertain about
whether he would be able to afford this. Luckily, through the offices
of an uncle, Louis was able to obtain a scholarship. His record at
school was excellent and he completed high school in 1859. After
this, further studies at the seminary in Como were possible only by
sacrifice on the part of his family.
At the seminary, a fellow student came down with a contagious disease
and became critically ill. While others used every precaution and
avoided the student when possible, Louis disregarded all warnings and
cared for the patient until all danger was past.
Louis was ordained in 1866. His first priestly duty was that of an
assistant to an elderly pastor. Here his zeal for souls and his
sense of responsibility toward them became so strong that he began
trying to do penance for those who would not do penance on their own.
He prayed for them, fasted for them, and wore a heavy spiked chain.
However, the wise old pastor noticed that Louis' health was beginning
to be affected, and forbade him such severe penances before his
health completely failed.
From 1875-1878, Don Guanella went to stay with Don Bosco at the
Oratory in Turin. Here, too, he was able to observe the great works
of charity carried out by Joseph Cottolengo. He wrote of his time
there, "The Lord saw to it that I should meet Father Bosco and Father
Cottolengo whom I admired and grew to love the more I learned of
The spirit of these two saints of Turin (both have been accorded the
honors of the altar) became the greatest example for Louis' priestly
life. He followed the example by combining John Bosco's work for the
education of youth with Joseph Cottolengo's great works of charity
with the poor and the sick. His first houses, indeed, were called
Houses of Providence in imitation of Father Cottolengo's home in
Louis Guanella's vision extended beyond his time to the movements
which even today are of concern to Catholics - social action,
education, youth movements, and the lay apostolate. In particular, he
encouraged the laity to pray the Mass silently along with the priest,
and he anticipated St. Pius X's decree by encouraging frequent and
even daily Communion. The Italian census of 1861 showed that 74% of
the population was illiterate. Father Guanella went so far as to
obtain a teaching certificate so that he might not only teach, but
also train teachers.
The dignity of the human person was a priority in all of Father
Guanella's works. In particular, he wanted to maintain this dignity
for those who were classed as society's outcasts.
Often the old, the incurable, and the physically and mentally
handicapped were left in pitiable condition by relatives who had no
desire or no knowledge of how to give them this human dignity. In the
early days, Father Guanella took these outcasts to be cared for by
the followers of Father Cottolengo. Later, he established homes for
their care and founded the Servants of Charity and the Daughters of
St. Mary of Providence to staff his homes.
Father Louis refused to call his mentally handicapped men and boys
"retarded." Instead, he wished them to be called his "good boys" or
"good children." He believed that a human life has value because it
is a gift from God, and that it cannot be measured by its
achievements. When he died, he left these "good children" to his
priests and sisters as most precious gifts; he called them his
During most of Father Guanella's lifetime, Italy was in a state of
political unrest. The infamous law ofjuly 7,1866 suppressed all
religious communities. Several later laws, including the Suspect Law
of 1866, were enacted by the anticlericals and the socialists.
Because of his popularity with the people, Father Guanella was seen
as a threat by these groups as well as by the Freemasons. He was
placed under surveillance, and several times had to offer Mass under
the watchful eyes of the police.
In 1881, a pious priest, Father Coppini, had just died in the town of
Pianello Lario, leaving behind a small home for orphans and the aged,
which he had entrusted to the care of a group of young women who had
an inclination toward the religious life. In 1878, with five of these
women as its members, the bishop had authorized Father Coppini to
establish a religious community. No one seemed willing to assume the
burden of carrying on Father Coppini's work until the bishop
remembered Father Guanella, whom he thereupon sent to Pianello.
In five years with the cooperation of the Superior, Sister
Marcellina Bosatta, he established the foundation of charitable work
and he became the founder of the Congregation of the Daughters of St.
Mary of Providence. He thought it best to transfer the headquarters
of the work to Como where it could be at great service of the entire
On an evening in April 1886, a little boat slipped into the quiet
lake at Pianello and traveled through the night to Como. Two Sisters
and four orphans were its passengers and it transported an assortment
of furniture which Father Guanella described as "a square table
missing one leg, a chair that had seen better days, and a bed that
was a miracle of balance." This was the nucleus of the future "Little
House of Providence."
The poor and the afflicted of all ages came. In 1890 there were 200
in the House of Providence. Never before in Como had there been
gathered so much human misery into one place. Some young men came to
follow him, he guided them and established a second congregation of
priests and brothers, the "Servants of Charity."
In 1896, a mob of antlclericals set fire to the House of Providence.
As Father Guanella comforted the people, he advised them to tell God,
"Lord, in Your designs You have permitted that our house be burned
down! We will stay here in Yours." They slept that night in the
church, and immediately, plans for rebuilding were begun.
"The Lord ordinarily wants everything here on earth to follow a
natural course," said Father Guanella. He believed that the help of
Providence was merited by faith, prayer, and work. Sometimes,
however, the ordinary course of events gave way to the extraordinary.
At one time, Father Guanella decided to rebuild the chapel. Patients,
workers, and Father Guanella himself were working happily one day
when he suddenly gave the order to halt and directed all the workers
to leave the area. Within minutes, the scaffolding crashed to the
ground without a single injury. On another occasion, the superior at
one of the schools discovered that there was no food for dinner. When
she told Father Guanella, he replied, "It is only 11:30; Providence
still has half an hour to provide." The sister asked the students to
pray, and at noon a cart delivered a sack of rice. No one knew where
the cart had come from.
This was the foundation which Father Guanella built within himself
and made ready for the help of Divine Providence which never failed
him. Countless are the incidents that tell of this dual activity:
Father Louis' confidence on the one hand, and the wondrous
intervention of Divine Providence on the other. "Those who receive
with two hands from Providence," he would say, "must give with four
hands to the poor of Providence."
"But if too many come seeking a home, where will you put them?" a
priest asked him one day. "Just let them get in the door ," Father
Louis answered, "and Providence will take care of them." Father
Louis' confidence, as always, was vindicated. "Let us confide and
hope in God," was his maxim. "Let us avoid sin, then shortly God will
work." He, himself, lacked neither foresight nor human prudence,
nevertheless, he could say with complete conviction "One grain of
confidence is worth more than one hundred grains of foresight and
Father Guanella did not believe that his priests and sisters
should simply sit back to watch God work, although he often said,
when asked how he accomplished so much, "It is God who does the
work." He advised his priests that "the Servant of Charity must go to
bed each night so tired from work that he will think he has been
As he saw it, practicality went hand in hand with trust in God's
Providence. Although Father Louis relied on Providence to care for
his dependents; he also worked to improve their lot. When a fellow
priest asked how Father Louis could hope to care for all who came to
him for help, he simply advised the priest that God would provide for
Noticing a large parcel of swampy, mosquito-infested land at the
end of Lake Como, Father Guanella decided to attempt to reclaim the
land. His detractors thought that he was crazy, and laughed that he
had at last found a swampy grave for himself and his work. Using the
labor of his "good children" who were physically strong, and the
directive and administrative ability of some of the old men from his
homes, he began slowly to reclaim the swamp. Within a few years, the
work of leveling, filling, plowing, and planting had changed it into
fruitful land. People began to move into the area to make new homes.
Father Louis designed a statue of Mary for his faithful workers and
called it "Our Lady of the Worker." Soon a church was dedicated in
this "swampy grave." For his work in reclaiming unusable land, Father
Louis was awarded a medal of honor by the minister of agriculture.
A friend and comtemporary of Pope Pius X, Father Guanella often
appealed to him for help in his work. After the construction of one
home for the retarded, he asked Pope Pius if he might name the new
home in honor of His Holiness. Laughingly the pope replied, "Yes,
yes, put me at the head of your retarded patients. Immortalize me
through them; call it the Pius X Home." These two great men of their
age often joked in this manner while carrying out numerous works of
charity. When the Pope asked Don Guanella if all his responsibilities
did not worry him a great deal, the priest replied, "I worry until
midnight and from then on I let God worry. I even sleep too much.
Sometimes when I am in the streetcar and should get off at [one
stop], I sleep and it takes me to another place. And then quietly,
and well rested, I return without telling anyone so they will not
make fun of me."
Humorous incidents often arose from what some considered Father
Guanella's foolish charity. Once when some of the sisters tried to
prevent his giving away some money, he literally threw money out the
window to a poor man standing outside. Another time, not having any
money to give, he tossed out a pair of new shoes.
Father Guanella did much to rescue the victims of the Italian
earthquakes of 1905 and 1915. He assisted on the disaster sites and
sheltered refugees in his homes all over Italy. During World War I,
he was active in relief and aid and was presented with a gold medal
by the board of deputies for his outstanding work.
In other facets of his apostolate, Father Guanella began the
return of Catholicism to Switzerland, promoted the Lourdes devotions,
led a pilgrimage to the Eucharistic Congress in London, and himself
traveled to the United States in 1911 to investigate the plight of
Italian immigrants. Later he sent his sisters and priests to assist
these immigrants, and care for the physically and mentally
Louis Guanella died on October 24, 1915. He was beatified by Pope
Paul VI on October 25, 1964, only forty-nine years later.
Credit: Ball, Ann. "Louis Guanella" Modern Saints, Their Lives and Faces. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers.
Webmaster's Note: This book is recommended to anyone; it has beautiful pictures that show the life of Blessed Luigi. You can order it from the Pious Union of St.