July 2012 Print

Samuel Mazzuchelli, Polymath Priest

Christopher Check

A traveler in Wisconsin even to this day need not stray far from the Interstate before he gets a good sense of the wild and uncut territory that greeted the explorers, traders, entrepreneurs, and missionary priests who first brought European civilization and its Faith to the savages who stalked the forests, roamed the prairies, and canoed the waterways of the American Midwest. To the freshly ordained Samuel Mazzuchelli, O.P., the untamed Wisconsin Frontier of 1830 could not have been more different from the culture, society, and wealth of his native Milan, all of which he renounced for love of Jesus Christ.

Coming from a country teeming not only with culture but also with clergy, Father Mazzuchelli found himself, at the age of 23, the only priest in a region half the size of Italy. He would tirelessly fill the next 34 years spreading the Gospel in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois, accomplishing the work of scores of priests, if not more.

Reluctant Permission

Carlo Gaetano Samuele Mazzuchelli was born on November 4, 1806, the 16th of 17 children to Luigi and Rachele Mazzuchelli. His father came from a family that for two centuries had given Milan artists and writers, captains of commerce, and no small number of priests. Although named for Milan’s patron, St. Charles Borromeo, on whose feast he was born, the boy came to be called Samuel and was destined for a career in politics. Or so his father thought. Growing up but a block from Milan’s magnificent Gothic cathedral, built on the site where St. Ambrose baptized St. Augustine, Samuel cultivated a burning piety from an early age. At 17, after obtained his father’s reluctant permission to enter the religious life, he renounced his inheritance. By 19 he was in Rome studying at the Dominican college at Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill, where to this day orange trees said to have descended from those planted by St. Dominic continue to bear fruit. While in Rome, Samuel forged a bond with Bartolomeo Alberto Cappellari, the future Pope Gregory XVI.

Ordained subdeacon at the Lateran in 1827, Samuel was recruited for missionary service by Fr. Frederick Rese, Vicar General of the Diocese of Cincinnati, who, years later through Mazzuchelli’s intervention, would become Detroit’s first bishop as well as America’s first German-born bishop. In the summer of 1828, Samuel made for Paris to improve his French, and on October 5 of the same year boarded the ocean-going Edward Quesnel and made the Le Havre to New York crossing, a terrible tempest notwithstanding, in 40 days. Of New York City, Mazzuchelli would later write, “The splendors of this world are always closely associated with general moral corruption.” He did not linger.

By coach and riverboat he traveled to Cincinnati where he was welcomed by fellow Dominican, Bishop Edward Fenwick. Fenwick, a descendant of one of Maryland’s earliest Catholic families, had escaped certain death when the French Revolution spilled into Belgium, where he was in seminary. His American citizenship saved his life to become Cincinnati’s first bishop. He ordained Samuel Mazzuchelli on September 5, 1830. A special dispensation was required as the young Milanese was but 23.

One month later Samuel arrived by way of steamship from Detroit on Mackinac Island, which was to become his first base of operations in evangelizing Wisconsin. Hardly the refined resort of the present day, the island was a center of the French fur trade. Vice abounded, and the young priest witnessed first hand the effects of intemperance and also the exploitation of the Indians of the upper Midwest.

Expanded Mission Field

A natural builder, he immediately set about restoring the small and vacant church of St. Anne, from which he brought the Mass and the Sacraments to the island’s lapsed Catholics. He also delivered a series of 14 Sunday-evening conferences defending the Catholic Faith against the false charges of the local Presbyterian minister, a man named Reverend Ferry, who in the event packed up and left the island and eventually his ministry.

By 1831, Father Mazzuchelli had expanded his mission field to Green Bay, where he built a stone church, St. John the Evangelist, and opened schools for European and Native Americans, adults and children, French and English. He also prepared texts in the Menominee language to teach the New Testament, psalms, catechism, music, geometry, arithmetic, and American history. Father Mazzuchelli was not the first priest to plant the Cross on Wisconsin soil. French Jesuits in the first half of the 18th century had been there before him, but had left in the wake of the Fox Wars. By the time Mazzuchelli arrived, however, there were at least two, if not three generations of uncatechized Catholics in the region, to say nothing of the Chippewa, Menominee, Winnebago, and Potowatomi Indians, who yet remembered, almost as legend, the Black Robes of the century before. For this reason, Mazzuchelli requested and received permission from Fenwick to set aside his Dominican whites in favor of a black cassock more identifiable to the Indian imagination and better suited to life in the field. Father Mazzuchelli also organized training for the Indians in the building of frame houses, European agricultural methods (the savages subsisted mostly on game and fish), and, for the women, sewing. Three years later, there were over 1,000 Christian Indians in the Green Bay area.

While in Green Bay, Mazzuchelli heard confessions day in and day out, sometimes for 14 hours a day, hearing the sins of men who had not seen a Catholic priest for 40 years. He baptized adult children and married their parents, some of whom had lived together for 50 years. From Green Bay, he canoed 70 miles to Sault Ste. Marie and preached to Indians and American soldiers at the fort, Protestant and Catholic alike. From there he headed west to visit Fr. Frederic Baraga, the famous “Snowshoe Priest” who evangelized the Upper Peninsula and became the first bishop of Marquette. In the wilderness the two priests heard each other’s confessions and gave one another spiritual direction.

Diocese of Detroit

As Bishop Fenwick’s health was fading, and the number of faithful on the western edge of his diocese growing due to Mazzuchelli’s aggressive evangelizing, the need to divide the Cincinnati Diocese became clear. It was not, however, until Mazzuchelli wrote to his old friend in Rome, now the pope, that Rome took notice of the need. The letter, a comprehensive description of the baptism of many of Wisconsin’s Indians, the restoration to the Faith of her lapsed European Catholics, and the conversion of no small number of her Protestants (including a 91-year-old Anglican), inspired Pope Gregory XVI to create the Diocese of Detroit. He appointed Rese its first bishop.

For five years, Mazzuchelli worked from his base of operations on Mackinac Island ever improving his English and French, and taking his mission work farther and farther west into Wisconsin, twice as far as Prairie du Chien. To prepare for his journeys he would sleep for weeks on the floor to grow accustomed to life without a bed. His adventures by snowshoe, horseback, and canoe across Wisconsin white with winter include feats of courage and survival including eating a captured prairie rat to keep from starving. With his understated manner, Mazzuchelli described the rodent as “edible, but with an offensive odor.”

The young priest made every effort to secure funding from the United States Government for a school promised the Winnebago Indians of Central Wisconsin in the Rock Island Treaty of 1831. Mazzuchelli wrote to Andrew Jackson himself describing the success he had had educating Wisconsin’s Indians and the longstanding affection they had for Catholic priests. Nonetheless, the funds—some 3,000 dollars a year—went to a poorly attended Protestant school on the Yellow River. Zachary Taylor, the Indian agent at Prairie du Chien at the time, was particularly opposed to the thought of supporting the work of “an Italian Catholic Priest.” Reflecting on the event in his memoirs, Mazzuchelli predicted that the American government had no real desire to educate the Indians. “It will be their fate,” he wrote, “to continue in their wild, roving, and uncivilized state until the day when the civilized population of European origin will have filled the entire continent. Then the Indian will have left scarcely a trace of his existence in the land.”

Church Builder

Father Mazzuchelli’s forays into Wisconsin brought him at last to the region where his work would come to full flower: the lead region of southwestern Wisconsin, eastern Iowa, and northwestern Illinois. There, he brought the Gospel not only to Indians, but to the miners of the region, Cornish, German, and Irish, the latter group conferring honorary ethnic status on the Italian by calling him “Fr. Matthew Kelly,” a practice the first Bishop of Dubuque, Mathias Loras, would take up in official correspondence when Mazzuchelli became his first vicar general.

Throughout the lead region, in cities such as Galena, Dubuque, Davenport, and Muscatine, Father Mazzuchelli designed and built over 20 churches, five of which stand today, including St. Patrick’s in Benton, Wisconsin, where his remains rest. He also designed and built a number of civic buildings, including, it seems, the original Iowa State House in Iowa City. In his memoirs, Mazzuchelli does not precisely claim authorship, but historians agree that there was no one in the region at the time capable of designing the building described as, “reminiscent of Rome.” Some say he planned the entire capital. We do know that he planned the town of Shullsberg, Wisconsin, for he named the streets there after virtues. In 1846 he founded a college for men at Sinsinawa Mound in Wisconsin, the original building of which today still stands. The college is no longer operational but the adjacent community of Dominican Sisters persists to this day, although no small number of the members have gone the way of so many American orders. There, however, they do maintain a fine exhibit on the priest’s life.

Learning and Expertise

Father Mazzuchelli’s final years were spent in Benton, Wisconsin, where, with the help of the Dominican Sisters, he founded the Santa Clara Academy for Girls, where even Protestant families from the East Coast would send their daughters for formation (one became Sister Charles Borromeo Stevens, a Sinsinawa Dominican). Among the many subjects he taught there was astronomy, using astronomical slides he himself made. The equipment he gathered for scientific experiments was the best of its kind, better, according to one report, than what was used at the University of Wisconsin. He also shared with his students the best of Italian culture, including the work of his contemporary Alessandro Manzoni, of whom he was a great admirer. He taught oil painting, although none of his works survive today, save, perhaps, a head of Christ above the altar at St. Patrick’s. He drilled his students on the importance of manners, insisting frequently that ladies never slam doors. Above all, he shared with them his deep devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows, an image of whom hung above his bed. “He who truly loves Jesus,” he wrote, “has a heart filled with sentiments of love, and has a tongue ever ready to tell of Mary, chosen our most tender mother by our Savior.”

Supervising three parishes in his declining years he never relaxed, making frequent sick calls in the dead of winter. It was after one such call that the 57-year-old priest succumbed to pneumonia. When his friends prepared the body for burial they found an iron chain around his waist. How long he had worn it no one knows, but his skin had grown over portions of it, and it was stained with blood. It is available for veneration at Sinsinawa Mound.

Mazzuchelli’s life is carefully recorded in a fine biography from 1974 written by Wisconsin poets Jo Bartels and J. Michael Alderson. Although marred by too few maps, no index, and a curious absence of page numbers, the volume makes extensive use of Mazzuchelli’s voluminous correspondence and journal entries. Declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II in 1993, Father Mazzuchelli’s cause for sainthood was completed and sent to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints by Bishop Morlino of Madison. What may well be a miraculous disappearance of a cancerous tumor in the body of Robert Usulmann of Menona, Wisconsin, is attributed to Father Mazzuchelli’s intercession. Mr. Usulmann’s cancer left his lung after he had prayed holding Mazzuchelli’s chain.

The reader of his life marvels at the scope of Samuel Mazzuchelli’s learning and expertise, the variety of his skills, his capacity for languages, his physical endurance, his command of Sacred Scripture and doctrine, his drive and patience, and perhaps, most of all, his unfailing confidence in Divine Providence. He put all his talents and virtues at the service of spreading the Gospel to Wisconsin’s indigenous peoples as well as to her Irish and German immigrants. In an age when Roman Catholics were held in low regard by Protestant Americans, Father Mazzuchelli won the hearts of no small number of separated brethren. Yet even in Wisconsin, this heroic Italian priest is not well known. With his cause currently under review, however, that injustice may yet be corrected. When his memorial is at last established on the Roman Calendar, it should be observed also as a holiday in the Badger State.

Christopher Check graduated from Rice University with a degree in Literature before serving for seven years as a Marine Corps officer in expeditions in the Far East and the Persian Gulf. He is the executive Vice President of the Rockford Institute in Rockford, Illinois. His set of historical talks, The Lepanto Lectures, are available through Angelus Press.