Life and Works
Let us set out for any place where the work is great and difficult, but where also with the help of the One who sends us, we shall open the way for the Gospel.”
Samuel Mazzuchelli, OP
Samuel Mazzuchelli was an eminent Italian American missionary of the 19th century. When he reached the port of New York in 1828, he was one of the few immigrants (about 200) from Italy who came to the United States in the entire decade of the 1820s. From a Milanese family of merchants, bankers, artists, and scholars, his background seemed to promise him success in any career. When Samuel chose to become a mendicant friar of the Order of Preachers, or Dominicans, his family was predictably disappointed.
At the age of 17 he became a Dominican novice in Faenza, and in 1825 began his studies in Rome. After three years, he answered an urgent call from America. The pioneer bishop of Ohio and Michigan, Edward Fenwick, needed help in his far-flung ministry to natives and new settlers on the frontier. In response, the young Italian traveled alone to Cincinnati, where he began to learn English and adapt to American culture.
In 1830 at age 23, Mazzuchelli was ordained and sent to be the only missionary in an area larger than the whole of Italy. Extending south from the Canadian border through the Great Lakes region (later the states of Michigan and Wisconsin), the territory contained a wilderness defended by forts.
Mazzuchelli adopted the life and culture of many different people: natives of the woodland tribes; French Canadian fur traders and trappers; and Irish and German immigrants in the Mississippi Valley who came to mine the rich lead ore and remained to farm the land and build the first towns.
Keeping in touch with Italians at home, Mazzuchelli empathized with their political problems and desire for a united nation, while missing their rich culture. Among the Americans, the priest never heard his own tongue. Nevertheless, he cherished the writings of his contemporary Alessandro Manzoni, shared the beauties of Italy with frontiersmen, and introduced students to literature, music, and history of Italy.
Among the Menominee and Winnebago natives, Mazzuchelli was the first resident missionary since the Jesuits, who had been withdrawn 50 years earlier. He traveled on snowshoes or by canoe to their homes, shared their frugal meals, and joined them in ice fishing and gathering maple sugar. He understood their religion, their love of children, and their respect for aging members. As the government pursued its Indian removal policies, he protested the injustices to his congressman and to President Andrew Jackson. The priest also defended the rights of American citizens and deplored the enslavement of African Americans.
In meeting the needs of the people, Father Mazzuchelli displayed his own remarkable talents. In 1833 he published a Winnebago prayer book, and in 1834, a liturgical almanac in Chippewa, the first printed item in Wisconsin. In 1836 he addressed, at their request, the first legislature of Wisconsin Territory. He designed and built more than 24 churches in the upper Mississippi River Valley. He founded a college for men at Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, in 1846. He also gathered in Sinsinawa the first members of a community of Dominican Sisters who, enrolling more than 3,000 members in subsequent years, have conducted schools and served in various ministries throughout the United States. With the Sisters, he founded the St. Clara Academy for young women in Benton, Wisconsin. Through its charter, granted in 1848 by the state of Wisconsin, this frontier prototype of secondary schools became the forerunner of two colleges for women: Rosary College (now known as Dominican University) in River Forest, Illinois, and Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin.
Mazzuchelli became a devoted citizen of the United States and admired its democratic principles, but was not blind to its weaknesses such as slavery and the ravages of Civil War.
Both Catholics and Protestants loved this priest, whom the Irish and others called “Father Kelly,” for his zeal, courage, and selfless generosity, especially in tending to the sick. He died suddenly on February 23, 1864, as a result of exposure in bitter cold weather when he was summoned to visit the sick. After his death, there appeared accounts of his life and ministry in newspapers from California to New York. One writer stated the following:
Another efficient servant of God is gone to receive the reward of eternal life, and he who was once the only priest west of Lake Michigan has left the people of that vast region in mourning! He was a good man; faithful to his vocation, prompt and zealous in the performance of every duty, inflexible in principle, but so mild, affable and obliging that in him seemed to have been centered for a time all the reverence and respect of a heterogeneous and frontier people.
Descendants of those served by Samuel Mazzuchelli have kept alive their memory of him and their conviction that he was a saint. In 1993 he was given the title Venerable by Pope John Paul II as a first step toward possible canonization.
By Sister Mary Nona McGreal, OP