Rooted in a mission of transforming the lives of individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities, the communities of Don Guanella and Divine Providence offer programs worldwide to provide care to those who were lovingly called “good children” by founder St. Luigi Guanella.
Luigi Guanella was born in Fraciscio, Italy, on Dec. 19, 1842. He entered the seminary in 1866 and 11 years later he began assisting St. John Bosco in his care of homeless children. The populace and other priests often misunderstood his own personal journey and mission. He spent three years collaborating with Father Bosco to help rehabilitate children abandoned and rejected by society because of their physical and mental disabilities.
He was undeterred by opposition of civil authorities, criticism of the wealthy and naysayers who labeled him a dreamer. He was a prolific writer and preacher, penning books and articles and giving speeches to present the challenges of those with disabilities and to advocate for these individuals.
Three years later, Don (Father) Guanella was called back to Traona by his bishop. Once there he began to organize youth groups and offer school programs for children. Once again, anticlerical authorities and some clergy undermined his efforts, and he was exiled to serve in Como.
As a talented writer and preacher, he authored books, articles, and speeches to present to society the problem of those with disabilities and to advocate for their acceptance as blessings from God.
In 1886, Fr. Guanella’s goal became a reality. He opened the first established residential school in Como. A group of young men and women joined Don Guanella, and two religious congregations were subsequently established: the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence and the Servants of Charity.
These young men and women would devote themselves to his vision of promoting individuality and belonging, ensuring respect and dignity and with nourishing the spirituality and wellness of those they served in a loving family atmosphere.
Father Guanella traveled to the United States in 1912 to tour several major cities so he could establish communities in other countries. He sent the first six Daughters of St. Mary of Providence to Chicago to work with young girls with disabilities. World War I prevented bringing over priests to establish schools for young men, but this became a reality in 1960 when his successor, Father Luigi Alippi, established foundations of the Servants of Charity at Don Guanella Village in Springfield, Pa., and at the St. Louis Center in Chelsea, Mich. Don Guanella Village expanded in 1976 to include the residential Cardinal Krol Center. Divine Providence Village, a similar facility for girls, opened in Marple, Pa., in 1984.
When Don Guanella Village opened it was staffed by three priests and one religious brother along with four sisters. By the end of 1960 they were providing care, education, and family support to 45 boys. Near the end of the 1960s the program had grown to provide for almost 200 boys. All the boys lived within four cottages in the southern wing of the building.
Two years before his death, Fr. Guanella founded the Pious Union of St. Joseph, whose members pray for the dying. The first member of the prayer association, of what has now become over a million members, was Pope Pius X.
Fr. Guanella died on Oct., 24, 1915, but his spirit is deep in the hearts of his priests and sisters who serve throughout the world loving and educating thousands of boys and girls. With his initiative and guidance there are communities of the servants of charity and the daughters of Divine Providence in 24 countries including Italy.
The campus in Springfield closed at the end of 2014. The men living there, ages 21 and older, moved into 14 group homes built throughout Delaware, Chester and Philadelphia counties. Divine Providence provides homes and care for approximately 72 women in our area. Some of the adults live in homes with a family through a life sharing through family living program. The men and women living in Delaware County participate in a day program at the former school of Our Lady of Fatima in Secane, Pa. They are engaged in a variety of artistic and cultural activities and participate in other pursuits such as hiking, community yoga, trips to the zoo and local farmers markets, visits to the library, as well as pottery classes.
Other groups, such as the Associazione Regionale Abruzzese of Delaware County (ARA Delco) invite them to attend holiday parties and other events throughout the year. At one of these recent events, ARA Delco invited actor Chris Burke as a guest speaker. He spoke of the support he received from the Don Guanella community during the eight years he was in their care. Chris is the first television actor with Down Syndrome, and he became famous for his role as Corky Thatcher on the series “Life Goes On.”
Father Dennis Weber is the director of Ministry and Mission within the Don Guanella program assisted by his associate Father Amal. Sister Mary Veasy is a full-time pastoral associate for the Divine Providence community which is now under lay administration. Both communities serve individuals from a variety of cultures and faith traditions. The communities are blessed with many wonderful volunteers providing a loving and caring family atmosphere both in the group homes and in the day programs.
Father Guanella’s spirit and teachings remain deep in the hearts and caregiving of the sisters and priests who continue his work. Pope Paul VI proclaimed him “Blessed” in October 1964 and presented him to the world as a true example of charity and dedication in the education of exceptional boys and girls.
In March 2002, a young man from Springfield Pa., was critically injured in a skating accident and was in a coma at a local hospital. After a relic of Don Guanella was placed on his forehead, his family and friends continued to pray. As he slowly began to recover his family and doctors believe a miracle had occurred. Eight years later, after an exhaustive review of this event, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed Blessed Luigi Guanella “Saint” on Oct. 23, 2011.
Don Guanella and Divine Providence communities have many missions and provide varied services. Perhaps the most important is the simplest. They are a ministry of presence, providing a steadfast and loving connection daily for those who need it most.