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Saints be praised: New Richmond woman attends canonization

Jo Wrich, the administrator at The Deerfield in New Richmond, attended the canonization service for Saint Louis Guanella at the Vatican on Oct. 23. St. Peter's Square was packed with Catholic believers who were on hand to see three saints gain their canonization status1 / 2
Four of Louis Guanella's distant relatives pose for a photo beneath a picture of the new saint. Pictured (left to right) are Diane Conrad, Michigan; Mary Quist, Brooklyn Park, Minn.; Mary Jo Mcleary, Chicago; and Jo Wrich, New Richmond.2 / 2

When someone tells Jo Wrich that one of her relatives was a saint, he really is.

Wrich, New Richmond, traveled to the Vatican in October to attend the canonization ceremony for St. Louis Guanella, a Catholic priest who spent his lifetime caring for the disabled, orphans and downtrodden of Italy.

Guanella, it turns out, is Wrich's fifth cousin (the first cousin of Wrich's great-great grandmother on her father's side).

Guanella, who is often referred to as the "Good Samaritan," lived a servant's life from 1842-1915. He opened and operated four Divine Providence facilities that cared for those in need. He believed each individual has a God-given right to "dignity and love."

"He did whatever it took to meet people's needs," Wrich said. "He had a lot of obstacles to overcome to become successful, and he could make anything happen through the power of God and the power of the people."

Since his death, scores of followers of Guanella (known affectionately as Guanellians) have carried on his work to serve the poor and disabled.

There are more than 100 care facilities worldwide tied to the inspiration of Guanella. The Daughters of St. Mary of Providence and the Servants of Charity were two orders that were founded by the former priest.

"Even in his death, his mission continues," Wrich said proudly. "His life has touched so many people."

In 1964, after two miracles were documented when people prayed to Louis Guanella, Apostle of Charity, the former priest was beatified by Pope Paul VI. The designation provided at that time made Guanella a "blessed" religious figure worthy of public veneration. He is believed to be in heaven interceding for people who pray in his name.

After his beatification, there was just one last step before Guanella became a saint. A miracle in 2002, when William Gisson, Jr. of Philadelphia miraculously recovered from a severe head injury, led to Guanella's eventual sainthood. After two brain surgeries, doctors told Gisson's family there was not much hope. After praying in Guanella's name, Gisson recovered. Gisson was on hand at the canonization service at the Vatican Oct. 23.

Through the years, Wrich said she knew she had a distant relative who was "on the road to sainthood," but she never paid much attention. But as the date for Guanella's canonization approached, she eventually wanted to know more. She was among eight relatives who decided to travel to Italy for Guanella's canonization event in St. Peter's Square.

The nine-day trip for the group of Americans began in Como, Italy, where Guanella's body lies in a glass enclosure in a local chapel. His body has never decomposed, which can be another sign of sainthood, according to the Catholic Church.

"It was all kind of surreal," Wrich said. "There's kind of resemblance to my dad."

While there, Wrich said, the family members learned more about their saintly relative. What they found was surprising, especially for Wrich.

Guanella spent his life caring for the elderly and disabled. Wrich, the administrator at The Deerfield senior living complex in New Richmond, never realized that she had so much in common with the her famous relative.

"It just confirmed why I am in this business," she said. "I feel blessed to have the opportunity to serve the elderly and disabled as a Guanellian under the Presbyterian Homes umbrella."

She said it was also refreshing to see people in Como so excited about the pending sainthood of one of their former residents. Banners and pictures of Guanella hung throughout the community in anticipation of the big event.

"It was very cool," Wrich said. "He was kind of like a rock star. In Italy, they respect and honor their church figures ... as they should."

After their initial stop, the group of Americans traveled to Rome to see the sights and attend the Oct. 23 ceremony. St. Peter's Square was packed with people wanting to watch the canonization ceremony, including one man who tried to disrupt the event by burning a Bible from a high perch.

Wrich and her group had reserved tickets, so they were able to find a good seat for the festivities.

Young and old alike attended the ceremony, and for hours prior to the Mass they waved banners and chanted like they were at a major entertainment or sporting event. The biggest crowd of revelers were the Guanellians, Wrich estimated.

"It gave you hope that people really want to meet the needs of others," she said.

The Mass, which was conducted by Pope Benedict XVI, lasted about two hours and was conducted in four different languages.

"It's finally official ... he's now a saint," Wrich said. "The past 100 years have been spent trying to prove that."

Now that she's back home and recovered from jetlag, Wrich said she's glad she was able to experience her relative's canonization first hand.

And while she has often prayed to St. Anthony, the saint of lost souls and items, Wrich is now praying to the Apostle of Charity.

"I'll be saying more of my prayers to my cousin," she said.