Sanctity in America: Ven. Samuel Charles Mazzuchelli, O.P.

Carlo Gaetano Samuel Charles Mazzuchelli was born on November 4, 1806 to a prominent Milanese family, the 16th of their 17 children.  His father hoped that he would become a prominent politician.  Growing up only a block from the Gothic Cathedral in Milan, young Samuel developed a great piety that led to his desire to enter religious life, a desire to which his father eventually submitted.  Having surrendered his inheritance, Samuel began his studies at the Domincan college, Santa Sabina, in Rome.  While in Rome, Samuel struck up a friendship with Fr. Bartolomeo Cappellari, a Camaldolese monk, who would figure prominently in this future in America.  Ordained a subdeacon at the Lateran at the age of 21, Samuel was recruited to serve the missions in the Diocese of Cincinnati, Ohio, by the Vicar General, Fr. Frederic Rese.  To prepare for his work, Samuel traveled to Paris to improve his French, then set sail for America, arriving in New York in 1828.

When Samuel arrived in Cincinnati, he was welcomed by the his brother in religious life, Bishop Edward Fenwick, OP.  After obtaining a dispensation from Rome because of his young age, Bishop Fenwick ordained Samuel on September 5, 1830.  He was assigned to the mission on Mackinac Island, which lies between the Upper and Lower peninsulas of Michigan.  Mackinac was a base for French fur trading, and rife with vice, dissolute living and exploitation by the French traders of the native population.

Fr. Mazzuchelli began his efforts by re-building the abandoned chapel of St. Anne and re-introducing the sacramental life to the lapsed Catholics of Wisconsin.  By 1831, he expanded his mission field to Green Bay, where he build a church, St. John the Evangelist, and opened a school for adults and children open to the French, English and Indian peoples, providing texts in the local Menominee language so to teach the faith as well as Math, geometry and history.  Fr. Mazzuchelli also taught the skills of building frame houses, European agriculture and sweing.  French priests, whom the natives called “Black Robes,” had evangelized the area a century before, but then left.  This presented the unique challenge to Fr. Mazzuchelli of catechizing Catholics who had enjoyed no instruction in the faith for two or three generations.  On top of this, there remained the challenge of evangelizing the native peoples of several tribes, including Chippewa, Menominee, Winnebago and Potowatomi.  The memory of the Black Robes had been passed down by the Indian elders for decades, so to make his work more identifiable to the natives, Fr. Mazzuchelli received permission from Bishop Fenwick to lay aside his white Dominican habit in favor of a black cassock.  By the end of three years, Fr. Mazzuchelli could count a Catholic population of over a thousand among the Indians in Green Bay.

During his travels, Fr. Mazzuchelli met Fr. Frederic Baraga, the famous “Snowshoe Priest” of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and they were able to minister to and support each other.  Back in Cincinnati, Bishop Fenwick’s health was fading.  Because the Catholic faith was growing so rapidly in Wisconsin, largely because of Fr. Mazzuchelli’s efforts, it became evident that a new diocese was needed.  Toward this end, Fr. Mazzuchelli wrote his old friend in Rome, Fr. Cappellari, who was now known as Pope Gregory XVI.  In his letter, Fr. Mazzuchelli wrote of the many baptisms, the marriages, the lapsed Catholic catechized and the growing number of parishes, many of which he had personally founded.  Pope Gregory XVI responded by creating the Diocese of Detroit and naming Fr. Rese, who had first recruited Fr. Mazzuchelli to the missions in America, the first bishop of the new diocese.

In his effort to secure funding that had been promised by the United States government for a school for the Winnebago Indians, Fr. Mazzuchelli wrote President Andrew Jackson.  Fr. Mazzuchelli wrote Jackson of the great success he enjoyed educating the Indians and of the devotion the Indians returned to Catholic priests.  Gen. Zachary Taylor, the Indian agent at Prairie du Chien at the time, opposed supporting the work of an Italian Catholic priest, however, so the money went to a Presbyterian school that served not near as many of the native children.  Writing in his memoirs, Fr. Mazzuchelli suspected the the United States government had little interest in educating Indian children.  He wrote, “It will be their fate 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.”

Fr. Mazzuchelli’s greatest success would be in southwest Wisconsin, northeast Iowa, and northwest Illinois.  Here he would found over twenty churches as he preached the gospel to the German, Cornish and Irish people.  The Irish, unable to handle the name “Mazzuchelli,” christened the priest “Fr. Matthew Kelly.”  It was as “Fr. Matthew Kelly” that Fr. Mazzuchelli became the first Vicar General of the Diocese of Dubuque, serving Bishop Mathias Loras.  As well as designing and building many churches, Fr. Mazzuchelli designed a number of secular edifices, including the original Iowa State House in Iowa City and the entire town Shullsberg, WI, whose streets he named for the Christian virtues.  In 1846, Fr. Mazzuchelli founded a college for men in Sinsinawa Mound, Wisconsin and, with the help of the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, a community of women religious he founded, he established St. Clara Academy for girls in 1847.  Fr. Mazzuchelli was a dedicated educator, teaching his young charges the Catholic faith as well as astronomy, Italian culture, oil painting and even manners.  Catholic and Protestant families would send their children to Fr. Mazzuchelli’s schools, sometimes from as far away as East Coast, because they knew their children would receive the best education.

Fr. Mazzuchelli was known for his gentle manner, his fervent faith, his untiring work in spreading the gospel to all, and his deep devotion to St. Mary, especially Our Lady of Sorrows.  He would spend his final three years in Benton, WI, where he would continue his extraordinary ministries.  After one of many frequent sick calls in the dead of winter, Fr. Mazzzuchelli came down with pneumonia and passed away on February 23, 1864.  Of his last days, a Sister of Santa Clara College wrote,

“One bitter night he spent laboring from one death bed to another, and dawn overtook him creeping to his poor little cottage, no fire, no light, for he kept no servant, and benumbed and exhausted, he was glad to seek some rest.  When morning came, unable to rise, they found him stricken with pneumonia, and in a few days his hardships were at an end forever.  He who had served the dying in fever-haunted wigwams, in crowded pest houses, in the mines, and on the river, added this last sacrifice to the works of his devoted life.”

When his friends found him, they discovered a penance chain wrapped around his waist.  No one knew he had worn this chain, or for how long, yet skin had grown over some of the links.  Fr. Mazzuchelli is buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Benton.

Bishop William O’Connor, the first Bishop of Madison, began the compiling evidence for an investigation into Fr. Samuel Mazzuchelli’s cause for canonization in 1964.  Over the years, the investigation progressed, and Pope St. John Paul II declared Fr. Mazzuchelli Venerable in 1993.  Since then, and especially in 2006, the 200th anniversary of his birth, the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa have been particularly active in his cause.  In 2001, Mr. Robert Uselmann of Monona, WI, visited Sinsinawa Mound with his family to pray for Fr. Mazzuchelli’s intercession for healing from lung cancer.  Mr. Uselmann was able to pray with the Dominican Sister using Fr. Mazzuchelli’s penance chain.  Mr. Uselmann later learned that his lung cancer had disappeared.  In 2008, after concluding his own diocesan level investigation, Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison sent the findings to Rome to be considered by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

“Let us wake up then … and set out for any place where the work is great and difficult.”  Fr. Samuel Charles Mazzuchelli.

Sources:  “The Apostle of the Upper Midwest: Fr. Samuel Charles Mazzuchelli,” by Christopher Check, Crisis Magazine, July 1, 2013; “Samuel Mazzuchelli,” Wikipedia; “Father Mazzuchelli,” by John C. Parish,; “Lasting Impressions of Fr.  Samuel Mazzuchelli,”

Be Christ for all.  Bring Christ to all.  See Christ in all.

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