The Experience of Traona: Father Guanella’s Agony in the Garden

On September 15, 1878, Father Guanella’s three year term of vows among the Salesians, expired. Between the bond to Don Bosco and the obedience to the bishop, he chose the latter. Leaving his diocese seemed to him an act of rebellion. Leaving Don Bosco was like betraying the affection of his father. He had returned to the diocese to duplicate for his own people what Don Bosco had done in many parts of the world. In his heart he would never be able to forget what he had seen realized at Cottolengo’s Little House of Divine Providence in Turin. The bishop seemed annoyed by such insistence and offered him the chaplaincy of Traona, where the pastor Fr. Joseph Bellini, affected by progressive paralysis, needed help and care. The frail pastor told him he was getting much better and that he did not need an assistant. Father Guanella understood that the trials that awaited him were the most severe. He had to make himself understood by one who did not want to listen. Still, in humility, he put himself at the service of the pastor, who did not fail to show him that he was only tolerated.

The church in Traona
The church in Traona

At Traona he found all the difficulties that would have discouraged many hearts of good will, but he never despaired. The pastor was openly hostile to him and was regaining some strength. He employed the little energy he had to travel to the Prefecture of Sondrio to report the problems caused by Father Guanella whom he considered his adversary and a rebellious person. He was troubled that Father Guanella would draw several children and youth, on weekdays and holidays, to the oratory for catechism and that he opened the pastor’s own house for day and evening school every day of the week. His financial condition, however, remained so critical that he had to inform the bishop. On January 5, 1879, the Bishop sent a severe call to the pastor, the mayor and the prefect of Sondrio: “If you do not think of providing Father Guanella with the means to live, I will be forced to permit him to leave.” The prefect Breganze, ignoring the plea of the bishop, wrote to the mayor in contemptuous terms. He wanted to put forth a decree that would force Father Guanella to change his position or face hunger. He ordered the township to abstain from every initiative, because Father Guanella did not have any difficulty, if he could “squander” his substance (thirteen liras a year!) “For the purpose of clerical propaganda, this notorious priest Guanella knows very well how to do what he wants without involving the township. He is not in financial need when you observe his spendthrift ways in the township.” It was an opinion that did not differ much from that of many priests, who influenced the evaluations of Bishop Carsana. Someone had defined him “as a poor maniac, not caring about legislative dispositions, advising the Superior to confine him in some remote corner of the diocese.”
During this time of particular stress, he received from Fraciscio the news that his mother was dying. She had been paralyzed since January of the previous year. Father Louis had gone several times to visit her, but now he returned in agony of soul, because he felt that this would be the last time. He stayed near her. He did not leave her for a moment. Then when on September 18, 1879, Maria Bianchi was about to pass away, he held her hands as if he wanted to draw from her that same energy she had to face life.
The odyssey reached its climax, when on November 16, 1880, he was struck by a decree of the prefect of Sondrio that refused him payment of the salaries due to him as an assistant pastor since 1878. His only meager revenue came from invitations to preach. But at what price? Sometime later, while preaching for Lent in the largest church of Morbegno, the prefecture sent two policemen and a delegate from the Prosecutor’s office to hear him every day, hoping to catch and condemn the said priest, who had come with obscure projects from the school of Don Bosco to fill the province with those abhorrent monks and nuns.
The lawyer Brasca listened to him with great care. He intervened as much as he could, and after repeated and stormy meetings, he convinced the Curia of Como to grant “Guanella a care of souls on a mountain peak where he could not exercise dangerous influences. The office of the prefect supported the plan. Olmo, above Chiavenna, was chosen. On July 2, 1881, Father Guanella reached the house of his cousin Fr. Lorenzo Buzzetti in Gravedona, where the reception and understanding of his relative contributed to dispel the sadness which had accompanied him during the trip. The olive Garden painful and humiliating experience was over.

Be a Dynamite Guanellian- in the Divine Ministry!

We are going to memorialize the 149th ordination anniversary of Father Guanella on May 26th. It is worth reflecting on his vision and virtues of the priesthood and, above all, of his aspirations, attitude and motto “a fiery sword” in the divine ministry. What was his lifestyle and way of holiness and perfection? Nothing but the way of the cross, self-denial, struggle and mortification- his 49 year priesthood experience was both a tremendous and terrible one.
We could analyze three phases of his priesthood:

  1. Before the failure of Traona (Prosto, Savogno, Turin and Traona);
  2. After Traona- the nine months of confusion and humiliation (Morbegno, Milan, Gravedona, Olmo) and
  3. The years of his adventure (Pianello, Como, etc.)

There were internal as well as external hurdles and difficulties Father Guanella underwent- a wall of opposition expressed in distrust, envy, suspicion, malice, and prejudice. He also faced disappointing divisions, conflict, resentment, and discontent in many of the communities.
What is the “key word” Father Guanella used? This is none other than “God is good”- trust in God and His Providence. The so called evil forces had been transformed into graces because of his faith experience in the kneeling position before the holy tabernacle which led him to hope and certainty. A month before his Sacred Ordination, Father Guanella wrote about the gift of Priesthood as the “Blessed and glorious and the most beautiful day of my life!” The anointing is for a prophetic mission and, like Jesus, suffering in favor of the poor. Therefore our founder served with dedication, divine jealousy, burning zeal, maternal tenderness and, above all, the goodness of heart. As the sons of this affectionate father, let us resolve to renew our enthusiasm and our conviction.
Fr. Soosai Rathinam