The North American Province





At three points in their historical development, the Barnabites have endured significant crises, all of which have transformed the Order's apostolic vision and have served their ideological focus to advantage. The first crisis occurred shortly after Anthony Zaccaria's death in 1539. Seeking to execute the Founder's individualistic charism as an institutional group living in community, the Barnabites floundered and became entangled in a complex of unpleasant circumstances. But Charles Borromeo (d. 1584), the Archbishop of Milan, came to the Order's rescue, secured their apostolic approval in 1579, and placed them in an educational ministry. A second crisis occurred during the political upheavals of the late 1700's and the Napoleonic suppressions of the early 19th Century. The dissolution of all religious orders and the abandonment of their foundations and missions outside of Italy caused the Barnabites to limit themselves to working up and down the Italian peninsula as teachers, church administrators and advisors and as renowned scholars and specialists in various theological and scientific fields of interest. A third crisis occurred in the past century, when after having endured the political vicissitudes of two "great wars" and the ubiquitous, ominous presence of the iron curtain separating Eastern and Western Europe, the Barnabites realized that the time had come to establish new foundations - not only outside Italy but also outside Europe.
As a result of a series of treaties with various European nations, the heretofore "closed" country of Afghanistan opened up its doors to western culture and technology in 1921. But the Afghan government kept its doors tightly closed to democratic ideas and religious freedom; therefore, no missionaries were, or are, allowed into the country.  Nevertheless, in its 1931 treaty with the Afghans, the Italian government secured the right to have a Catholic chaplain on the Embassy staff. And so, in a somewhat directed, albeit circuitous way two Barnabites - the only two clergymen who were allowed to serve in Afghanistan - Frs. Egidio Caspani and Ernest Cagnacci traveled from their Afghan assignment to the United States and Canada in the latter half of 1947 seeking possible new foundations for the Order in North America.
Backtracking a bit - In 1932 Fr. Caspani was personally, through the designation of the Barnabite Father-General, Clerici requested by Pope Pius XI to serve as a chaplain in remote Afghanistan. He was the only priest allowed on the Embassy staff for religious assistance to the diplomatic personnel and their families and any other foreigners hired by the Afghans. Fr. Caspani and his incognito assistant MR Cagnacci covered the religious needs of the Embassy in a truly "ecumenical" spirit - ministering to Protestants, Jews, and Catholics alike. Moreover, as a "cover up" Fr. Cagnacci served in the Embassy as a member of the diplomatic corps. Both priests seized upon the opportune circumstances of the Afghan assignment and traveled about the country during their vacations and spare time gathering material and pictures for a book about the country - a request that had been made both by the Vatican and the Italian government. The Barnabite Superior General, Idelfonso Clerici requested that the two Fathers return to Italy in order to complete and publish their book, Afghanistan: Crocevia Dell’Asia (Afghanistan: The Crossroad of Asia), but their return trip was to be a long journey by way of an extended visit to North America to investigate the possibility of a Barnabite Foundation in the United States and/or Canada. As Barnabite ambassadors-at-large, Frs. Caspani and Cagnacci traveled all over the U.S. and Canada for five months. And then they set sail for Italy reporting that there were three possibilities for a North American Foundation: one in San Diego, California, another in Buffalo, New York, and another in Quebec, Canada - with Buffalo offering the two priests the most viable option for a successful future. According to Fr. Cagnacci,
“Our first attempt to be the founders of the American Barnabites wasn't exactly a smashing success, but we could not afford to be pessimistic.”  (Ernest M. Cagnacci, "The Barnabite Fathers in the United States," in The Barnabites and North America, ed. Ernest Cagnacci [Youngstown, NY, 1977], p 5)
In the Chancery of the Los Angeles archdiocese the two fathers met with the Chancellor and offered the cooperative service of the Barnabites in the education and/or pastoral field. "He was kind but non-committal" (Ibid., p. 4). So the two priests pressed on visiting San Diego where they were received politely but coolly by Fr. Pilolla, the local pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church, the only national parish in that diocese for Italian-Americans. It is an example of gentle irony or quiet determination, but years later, in 1969, the Barnabites were assigned to Our Lady of the Rosary Church, a pastoral appointment that they maintain even today. Nevertheless, since the initial visit with Bishop Charles Buddy in 1948, there was an open invitation for the Barnabites to be a "presence" in Southern California - both in a pastoral ministry and as teachers and chaplains. Over the years some of the Fathers have worked in the greater San Diego area in Spanish-speaking apostolates even assisting in remote, desert locales such as El Centro.
Because of an inability to supply staffing needs, the Barnabites, some of whom had been teaching at the Fermin La Suen High School in San Pedro, left their California foundation at the end of the academic year, June, 1961 and returned to Buffalo with heavy hearts.
The Barnabites returned in March, 1969 to Our Lady of the Rosary Church. Even though the church, which was established in 1923, is an Italian national parish for the local community, the largest ethnic group in the area today is Hispanic-American. Presently, the church is an inner-city parish - as well as an important center for Italian activities ministering both to people living in the neighborhood and to those Italian-Americans who have moved away. In 2004 a new Pastoral Center to house the parish offices, a chapel for perpetual adoration, a religious articles store, a library and nine classrooms for C.C.D. was added to the parish complex.
For nine years – June 1996 to July 2005 – a member of the San Diego community, Fr. Paul Marconi, was entrusted by the Diocese of San Diego with the pastoral care of Mission San Antonio de Pala. Mission San Antonio de Pala, founded by Father Antonio Peyri, OFM on June 13th, 1816, is the only one of the original Spanish California Missions to survive in its purpose of service to Native Americans. Built as an ‘asistencia’ to the larger Mission San Luis Rey, Mission San Antonio de Pala was administered at various times by the Comboni Fathers, the diocesan clergy, and the Franciscan Friars, OFM Conv. Besides the main church dedicated to St. Anthony, the Mission serves various chapels of different Indian tribes (Rincon, La Jolla, Pauma) and a growing Hispanic population. During his term as pastor, Fr. Marconi managed to build in 2004 a multi-purpose Mexican-American center, called San Diego Center, to serve as a place for large worship assemblies and educational and cultural activities. As of July 2005 the Diocese of San Diego has taken back the administration and pastoral care of the Mission.
The Buffalo Beginnings
The Barnabite Superior General, Idelfonso Clerici, processed the data that the two itinerant Fathers had gathered on their transcontinental North American journey and began the lengthy canonical process to establish a religious community in the diocese. Upon their return to Buffalo, January 24, 1952, Frs. Caspani and Cagnacci lived briefly at Holy Cross' rectory and then moved to the second floor of the Bishop Duffy Center (the former St. Vincent's Orphanage) at Main and Riley Streets in downtown Buffalo. The Barnabites lived at 9 Riley Street until their relocation to Bishop Gibbons High School in North Tonawanda where they lived and taught from the school's opening in September 6, 1961 until its closing in June, 1971, a victim of economic hard times.
The steady influx of immigrants who flowed into the United States and the need to staff the many high schools in the Buffalo area gave the Barnabites a chance to minister to the Italian speaking parishes and to teach. Most of the Fathers, to a man, could not speak English, and their arrival in America meant not only learning a new and difficult language but also adapting to a whole new cultural environment - while at the same time they needed to be sensitive and insightful toward the "assimilation" process that they and their parishioners were experiencing. To this very day, 50 years later, practically all of the North American province of the Barnabites is a bilingual, Italian-English speaking community. And, as such, they are very much aware of the diversity and pluralism which is very much a part of American Catholicism.
Although the living accommodations at Riley Street were an adequate beginning, the Barnabites were eager to find a place of their own where they could organize a full community that would house their growing number. In the 1950's, Pope Pius XII restricted the flow of priests from Italy, and so it became increasingly important to the Fathers here to encourage American vocations. Meanwhile, the Barnabites worked hard in the city of Buffalo. Fourteen men living at the Riley Street address and only one shared car in the community necessitated working mostly in the local hospitals and parishes and at any nearby assignments that could be conveniently coordinated. By the mid-‘50s, Frs. Caspani and Cagnacci were again working in California serving in two Italian-speaking parishes in the San Diego diocese. Fr. Augusto Pucci, the Pro-Provincial sums up the situation in this way:
"Man proposes and God disposes." Actions and dreams do not necessarily meet. The dream was to establish ourselves as a teaching order [in the U.S] meeting the expansion of Catholic High Schools in Buffalo. The “disposition” of the dream culminated in our winding up with the famous Shrine dedicated to our Lady of Fatima.
As the Fathers remember Riley Street with the peeling plaster and leaking roofs, so also do many of them remember the beginnings of the Shrine, acres and acres of stones and weeds...
While the Fathers were living and working in the Buffalo area in the '50s, they continued searching for a suitable property on which to build a seminary-residence. Mr. and Mrs. Walter Ciurczak, local farmers from Lewiston, NY, having heard of the Barnabites’ search, offered the Fathers 15 acres of land located along Swann and Creek Roads - about seven miles north of Niagara Falls and about three miles outside the village of Lewiston. The Ciurczak's wanted to donate land to a religious institution in thanksgiving. Fr. Igino Andreani, a Barnabite and assistant to the pastor of St. Joseph's Church in Niagara Falls, visited Mr. Ciurczak.
Upon hearing the reason of Father's visit, Mr. Ciurczak told him a strange story: "Not long ago," he said, "I had a serious stroke. My wife Helen got sick, too. We turned to the Blessed Mother Mary for help, promising her that we would donate a portion of our Farm to a religious institution that would use it to her honor. We both recovered, and we were waiting and waiting for the right person. You Father are sent by the Blessed Mother."
The idea of a shrine arose when Fr. Andreani met a man who wanted to donate a statue of Our Lady of Fatima. Under this title the cult of Mary had captured the imagination of many during the '50s decade. From April 1, 1955, onward the Shrine grew both spiritually and physically as the Barnabites bought additional acreage from the Ciurczak's and together with hundreds of friends and workers, who donated endless hours of hard work, built the Shrine into a pilgrim center and a tourist attraction.
Under the leadership of Fr. Pucci, the local superior, a fund raising campaign was launched at the Riley Street house; and an architect was hired to draw up plans for the building of the seminary on the recently acquired Shrine property. On August 21, 1960, the Auxiliary Bishop of Buffalo, Leo Smith officiated at the cornerstone ceremony, and the following fall Bishop Joseph Burke dedicated the new, unfinished building. The Fathers soon moved into the new seminary - with no heat and no lights – but with overwhelming happiness that at last the Barnabites had established a base of operation for their North American province. More importantly, they now had a foundation on which to build an apostolic ministry in the United States.
And so, by 1961, after a series of temporary setbacks the Barnabites were actively engaged in their North American assignment, working at the Shrine in Lewiston, serving in Buffalo as chaplains and parish assistants, teaching at Bishop Gibbons High School in North Tonawanda (until its closing in 1971), and returning to San Diego, California in 1968. Moreover, in 1976 on Saturday, May 8, Bishop Edward D. Head officially read and executed the Papal decree, a document from Pope Paul VI, that conferred the title of Shrine-Basilica onto the Fatima pilgrim center. This decree was a recognition of the hard work of the Barnabites and a confirmation of their liturgical, pastoral, and apostolic activity.
On December 8, 1976, Bishop Edward Head canonically installed the Holy Family Church on the Tuscarora Reservation in Lewiston, N.Y. and entrusted the Barnabite Fathers to serve this Native American, Indian chapel. The Holy Family Chapel had existed since 1952 (the same year that the Barnabites began living at 9 Riley Street) as part of the Buffalo diocese. Working with the Tuscarora Indians was not a Barnabite novelty because the Fathers had inherited the assignment in 1962 from the Vincentian Fathers of Niagara University.  Starting with Fr. Pucci in the early '60s, several Barnabites have served as pastor in this special, unique assignment. The original chapel building, a converted barn, was burned to the ground, a suspected victim of arson; but a new chapel building project was inaugurated in 1988. It is this structure, that was dedicated on January 29, 1989, which presently stands as a memorial to all those who helped to rebuild the chapel as a living witness to the Tuscarora Indian parish community who worship there today.
From Beca (Bethlehem Catholic High school)to BSC (Barnabite Spiritual Center) in Bethlehem, PA
In 1971, in response to a timely invitation from Allentown, Pa. Bishop’s Joseph Mc Shea, the Barnabites undertook a teaching assignment in Bethlehem.  The Fathers lived in the faculty house rectory of the high school until 1984 and taught at "Becahi" (Bethlehem Catholic Highschool) several years until June, 1991 when the two remaining teaching Barnabites were reassigned elsewhere in the province. The community life at Bethlehem was tightly organized around the daily concelebration of the Eucharist and several intra-community activities all of which served to give the small group a Barnabite “identity.” A number of Allentown area parishes invited the Barnabites to assist at their Sunday and weekday services, and the Fathers were kept busy and active, teaching and ministering.
After a number of successful fund raising activities in the Mid-80s, the Fathers launched a concerted drive in 1986 to raise enough money to build a residence that could also be a house of formation and/or a spiritual center. The Barnabite Spiritual Center (BSC) at 4301 Hecktown Road, just north of the city of Bethlehem is used by the Fathers as a base for their various ministries of teaching, serving and assisting at local parishes, and working in pastoral care and counseling in the greater Allentown area.
Canada: Oakville, Elfrida, Guelph
The Barnabite Fathers who had come to Buffalo with the intent of staffing a Catholic High School saw the importance of expanding their apostolate to a direct pastoral service in a parish. The increasing number of Italian immigrants in neighboring Ontario encouraged them to explore the possibility of expanding their pastoral ministry in Canada.
Two Fathers, Fr. George Predelli and Fr. Augusto Pucci, (+ Dec 16, 2010) crossed the Canadian border and, after a negative answer from Bishop McCarthy of the diocese of St. Catharines, stopped at the Hamilton Chancery Office. Bishop Joseph F. Ryan was interested. He had in mind to establish a new parish in Oakville with priests able to provide assistance to the immigrants. The future pastor, Fr. George Predelli, was asked to spend a period of time in a Canadian parish to learn how to run a parish. The Superior General, Fr. Emile Schot, questioning its success, was not in favor. Reluctantly, he agreed, provided, as he wrote, that this be considered a “temporary experiment.” His letter was dated: Rome, October 29, 1960. On October 2, 1961 Bishop Ryan wrote to Fr. George Predelli, “First of all I wish to welcome the Barnabite Fathers to the Diocese of Hamilton and particularly to welcome you in the assumption of the new parish at St. James Oakville. You are herein appointed pastor of that parish… You are to take charge on Saturday, October 21, 1961.” With that letter the Bishop officially decreed St. James as a parish.
The first two priests assigned to the parish, Fr. George Predelli and + Fr. Luciano Visconti, were housed in the Catholic Center connected to the St. James Catholic School, whose auditorium was also used for Sunday Masses. The Fathers started a door-to-door census of the parish, establishing a personal contact that will never be lost in the St. James community. The census revealed that the parish comprised 557 families: 41% Canadian, 24% Italians, 8% Portuguese, 6% Dutch, 6% Polish, and the remaining 15%, Austrian, Belgian, British Guyanese, Croatian, Czech, English, French, German, Hungarian, Irish, Jamaican, Lithuanian, Maltese, Romanian, Scotch, Spanish, Swiss, Ukrainian, USA, and Yugoslav. The majority were Canadian and the official services were in English. As time passed, the proportions changed substantially: the Italians nearly doubled and the Portuguese became eight times as large. The parish, however, remained Canadian to the benefit of the young generation absorbed in the Canadian society by the St. James Catholic School.
In May 1962 the two Fathers moved to a new rectory, a tiny house located on two acres of land adjacent to the Catholic Center. A simple, modern new church was also built near the school and was dedicated on April 26, 1964. It had the distinction of being the first church in the diocese with an altar facing the congregation. A new, attractive and larger rectory was built in 1973. Lastly, in 1986 a new entrance was added to the church building encompassing a weekday chapel.
The presence and ministry of the Barnabite Fathers at St. James have sown the seed of a Barnabite vocation into the hearts of two parish children, Fr. Louis Lenssen and Fr. Paul Keeling. Their ordination and first Mass, in 1974 and 1975 respectively, can be considered the highlights of St. James parish.
In 1977, on the 25th anniversary of the Barnabite Fathers establishment in North America, another Canadian parish opened its doors to welcome them, Our Lady of the Assumption in Elfrida, on the outskirts of Hamilton, Ontario. The first Fathers assigned to the parish were Fr. Frank Papa, Pastor, and Fr. Ubaldo Fior, Associate.
In 1984-85, under the pastorship first of Fr. Louis Solcia and then of Fr. Ubaldo Fior, a Parish Hall was added to the church and a new rectory was built to replace the existing one that had become inadequate for the growing parish. Four elementary Catholic schools are located within the boundaries of the parish and entrusted to the spiritual care of the parish: Our Lady of Assumption, St. Mark’s, St. James’, and St. Paul’s.
In June 2006, after 28 years of marvelous pastoral activity, the Barnabite Fathers returned the parish to the diocese. Their decision was not an easy one and was taken after much prayer, reflection, study and consultation. In a letter to the parish dated August 24, 2005, the Provincial Superior, Fr. Gabriel Patil, explained the motivations that led to that decision:
The decision was motivated by two simple and objective factors: (1) the aging of the Barnabite Fathers in their small North American Province (of the 16 members of our province, 3 are over 80 years of age, 6 are over 70 and near retirement, only 2 are below 50); (2) the lack of new vocations (our most recent ordination was in the year 2000; presently we have no one in our formation program and no ordinations to the priesthood in sight in the near future).
Good things always come in three’s…and so, when Bishop Paul F. Reding of Hamilton invited the Barnabites to assume responsibility of another parish in his diocese they gladly accepted the challenge. The parish was St. John’s in Guelph, a parish that was established in 1966 and numbered about 1,100 families and had 35 active committees and groups when the Barnabites started their pastoral ministry. To those committees and groups the Barnabites added a Knights of Columbus Council in 1987. The first Barnabites at St. John’s were Fr. Anthony Bianco, Pastor, and Fr. James Boudreau, Associate.
Before leaving the parish in 2000, the Barnabites completed the renovation of the rectory.
Faithful to a distinguishing trait of their Congregation, the Barnabites have favored and promoted ecumenical initiatives in all three Canadian parishes, such as informal meetings with ministers of other Christian denominations, ecumenical study and worship, pulpit swapping, etc. Exemplary of this practical ecumenism was the Ecumenical Faith Covenant signed on January 23, 1994 between St. John’s parish and St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Congregation of Guelph in the presence of bishops of both traditions.