‘In All Things Love’
St. Luigi Guanella (1842-1915) and Venerable Michael McGivney (1852-1890) were born a decade and an ocean apart, but these two priests of God founded lasting societies dedicated to charity and service.
In 1908, Father Guanella established the Servants of Charity, an Italian religious order whose charism is to aid those with special needs, especially people with intellectual disabilities. This charism would likewise grow in significance for the Knights of Columbus, founded by Father McGivney as a lay organization some 26 years earlier.
Through an alliance now famous throughout Michigan, the Knights and Servants of Charity have faced the 21st-century challenges of funding and maintaining a Catholic non-profit facility that houses 50 adults and children with special needs.
The St. Louis Center in rural Chelsea, Mich., began in 1960 as a diocesan-sponsored school run by the Servants of Charity for boys with mental impairments. It took its present form as a group home in the early 1970s, with the Servants of Charity continuing to provide administrative and spiritual support.
While the Michigan Knights of Columbus has been supporting the program since its inception, the Order has been particularly involved since the early 1990s, when the center began to experience some financial troubles. At that time, the Knights and other benefactors stepped up their aid to ensure that the center would not only survive, but also flourish in the years to come.
In addition to the Michigan State Council and councils throughout the state, St. Louis Guanella Council 3092 in Chelsea has been among the St. Louis Center’s most reliable allies and a mainstay of support.
Named for Father Luigi (Louis) Guanella, whom Pope Benedict XVI canonized in 2011 (see sidebar), the St. Louis Center was founded in 1960 to care for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities, then referred to as the “mentally retarded.” Cardinal Edward Mooney, the first archbishop of Detroit, invited the Servants of Charity to found the St. Louis Center, and his successor, Cardinal John Dearden, saw the project to its completion.
With a maximum capacity for 93 residents, the St. Louis Center currently serves half that number to accommodate individuals who require single rooms. In the center’s family atmosphere, those with Down syndrome, autism and other intellectual disabilities receive educational, spiritual and professional formation.
The program “is perfectly in line” with St. Luigi’s vision for helping those with special needs, according to Servants of Charity Father Enzo Addari, administrator of the St. Louis Center and a member of Council 3092.
“It is a very small, particular thing we do here, but part of our faith is that God wants to have a family around himself,” he said. “People with disabilities are human beings made in the image and likeness of God, and the mystery of redemption is true for them as well.”
Servants of Charity Father Joseph Rinaldo, the community’s superior and faithful friar of Cardinal O’Hara Assembly 489 in Ann Arbor, further emphasized that the Holy Family of Nazareth inspired St. Luigi’s work. This same spirit and model, he added, sets the St. Louis Center apart as truly Catholic.
“You look around here and the children see the staff as their family,” he said. “They feel secure.”
With a full schedule of events and activities, the day program at the center offers residents opportunities for supervised social interaction such as arts and crafts, cooking, cleaning, and other life skills. Residents ages 8-18 attend local schools during the day, while adult residents, when possible, are employed off premises.
The St. Louis Center residents also participate in sports and exercise, while social workers and direct care workers provide one-on-one guidance and therapy. For basic health-care needs, the program also has two registered nurses on staff.
One of these nurses, Servants of Charity Father David Stawasz, said that his work with residents allows him to embrace his vocation both as a registered nurse and a priest.
“The majority of people who are here working want to be involved with the residents,” said Father Stawasz, a member of Council 3092. “It’s not a 9-to-5 job, but you can get to know each resident individually. We have a lot of activities so they’re not locked away from society.”
At the center’s gymnasium, for instance, residents are fond of putting their own spin on the traditional game of basketball.
“Usually we play local youth groups,” said program director Rick Visel, a member of Saline (Mich.) Council 6674. “They come out and we divide up and it’s a pretty intense basketball game. We have about 15 players on each side … going back and forth, taking turns shooting.”
Mike, an adult resident at the center, is an avid fan of sports in general, and basketball especially. Possessing an athletic build and the steady blue eyes of a master free-thrower, Mike has an infectious enthusiasm for life. When he’s not working at a local phone company helping to package phone books, he volunteers at Meals on Wheels and serves at Mass, which is offered daily in the center’s chapel.
“I like helping Father Joseph and Father Enzo,” Mike said. “At church, you get to see God.”
Another adult resident, Lisa, is grateful that the center provides her with a place to live and helped her find work as a custodian at the Chelsea Courthouse.
“Working makes me feel warm and happy,” she said. Then, with a mixture of pride and gratitude, she confided in a lower voice, “Someone helped me get the job.”
But like anyone with a regular job, Lisa also looks forward to the weekends and especially vacation time.
“My favorite time is Easter,” she said with a laugh. “I get to go home for spring break. I visit my folks.”
KNIGHTS AND SERVANTS
Given St. Luigi’s mission to serve those with special needs, it seemed inevitable that the U.S. branch of the Servants of Charity would cross paths with the Knights of Columbus.
“The Knights have been involved with the St. Louis Center from day one,” Father Addari said. “The support they gave to us is not only financial, but also emotional and personal. Every time we have a major need, we call the Knights and they show up.”
Past Grand Knight Tom Turek of Council 3092 is a maintenance worker at the St. Louis Center. He’s proud of the fact that the council’s support goes beyond giving out Tootsie Rolls and cutting checks, as important as those activities are.
“I realized at some point that most of the members in our council didn’t really have a clue about what goes on here at the St. Louis Center,” he said. “So at the time I was grand knight, I said that we as a council needed to have some more involvement.”
The Knights came up with the concept of an annual summer picnic and kickball game with the residents an event that has grown in popularity each year.
Likewise, Past Grand Knight Joe Yekulis has been involved with the center since 2001 when he served as director of the center’s board of directors. In 2006, he was hired as its public relations director.
With the help of the center’s development director, Peggy Cole, Yekulis has also spearheaded the center’s ongoing $10 million Legacy Campaign. Through private donations from Knights, other organizations and individuals, the campaign has so far raised about one-third of the money needed to finance the renovation of the facility’s welcome center and underwrite the cost of a modern playground on the center’s 180-acre property.
The campaign will also help expand and update one of its residential facilities, Guanella Hall. When funds become available, Yekulis said, the center will build a unique assisted-living community, Village at St. Louis, which will accommodate residents and their elderly family members.
Since working side-by-side with the Servants of Charity, Yekulis has come to better understand the true meaning of service and charity that is foundational to both the Servants of Charity and the Knights.
“Our residents are people who can’t take care of themselves, and charity is, after all, the first responsibility of the Knights and the Servants,” he said.
When St. Luigi was canonized on Oct. 23, 2011, in Rome, Yekulis said, the Knights of Columbus were well represented at the event. At the invitation of the Servants of Charity and before a crowd of 30,000 faithful, he read a prayer for the pre-canonization ceremony in St. Peter’s Square.
A visit to the saint’s birthplace in northern Italy then confirmed for Yekulis why the Servants of Charity and Knights share such a strong bond with the poor and with each other.
“I can understand the humble place Father Guanella came from,” he said, “and how God can take a person like this and turn him into a saint whose impact can be felt worldwide. It says a lot about the human spirit and what we as individuals are capable of accomplishing if we put our minds to it.”
JOSEPH O’BRIEN is a staff writer for The Catholic Times in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis.