Mark Wiggins, a member of the Don Guanella Divine Providence (DGDP) Communities, receives Holy Communion from Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Senior at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Secane during an Oct. 24 Mass for the feast of St. Luigi Guanella. The 19th-century priest, an early advocate for the welfare of the intellectually disabled, is the patron of the DGDP Communities, through which archdiocesan Catholic Social Services provides a continuum of care to hundreds of adults with developmental disabilities. (Photo by Gina Christian)

Some 400 men and women served by the Archdiocese’s intellectual disabilities division gathered for an Oct. 24 Mass at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Secane to honor a beloved patron saint.

The Communities of Don Guanella and Divine Providence (DGDP), part of archdiocesan Catholic Social Services (CSS), marked the feast of St. Luigi (also known as “Don,” or “Father”) Guanella, a 19th-century Italian priest who ministered to children with physical and intellectual disabilities.

Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Senior, the principal celebrant, said in his homily that he was “grateful for the charism of St. Luigi Guanella,” adding that it was “a special gift to our local church.”

As chaplain of the Divine Providence Village from 1995 to 2010, Bishop Senior said that his ministry to those served by CSS’s intellectual disabilities programs (which are beneficiaries of the annual Catholic Charities Appeal) “had a huge impact” on his life.

“I pray to Don Guanella every day, asking him to shape me as a bishop,” he said.

Don Guanella’s patronage of CSS’s intellectual disabilities programs reflects the historical context in which DGDP communities were formed.

As a priest and founder of the Religious Orders of the Servants of Charity, the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence, and the Pious Union of St. Joseph Prayer Association, Don Guanella advocated for increased acceptance of individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities. Through his writings, homilies, public speeches and charitable initiatives, Don Guanella promoted social and spiritual care for his “good children,” whom he regarded as blessings from God.

Members of the Don Guanella Divine Providence Communities attend an Oct. 24 Mass at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Secane that was celebrated in honor of St. Luigi (“Don”) Guanella, a 19th-century Italian priest whose advocated for the dignity of those with intellectual disabilities. (Gina Christian)

In the late 1940s and 1950s, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia invited Don Guanella’s religious orders to establish facilities in the region.

The expansion of the mission over the years, along with more recent state initiatives to downsize large institutional care settings, has shaped the current structure of the DGDP Communities.

Licensed by Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services as intermediate care facilities (ICFs) for individuals with intellectual disabilities, the DGDP communities now provide a continuum of care through community and campus-based living arrangements, life sharing through family living, in-home supports, respite care and day programs.

DGDP executive director Francis Swiacki described Don Guanella, who died in 1915, as “visionary” in his concern for those with intellectual disabilities.

“He was ahead of his time in viewing them not simply with pity or tolerance, but with love, and as a gift,” said Swiacki, who presented 20 DGDP volunteers and staff with Don Guanella Awards just prior to the liturgy’s conclusion.

Father Denis Weber, DGDP’s director of mission identity and integration, said that the celebration was a “homecoming for Bishop Senior,” whom the ladies of DGDP still remembered fondly.

Visibly moved, Father Weber quoted Matthew 25:40 to those present, saying, “I see all of you, our partners in mission, as fulfilling and following Christ’s words: ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

Father Weber also presented an image of Don Guanella to Bishop Senior in gratitude for his ongoing support of the DGDP Communities.

“If we really want to celebrate Don Guanella, let us recommit ourselves to love,” said Bishop Senior, noting that “love is lived out” in the DGDP Communities.

“The same can happen when we let it be lived out in the little things in our lives,” he added. “It is the little things, and the little ones, that change the world.”

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The following individuals received Don Guanella Awards at the Oct. 24 feast day Mass:

Elizabeth Diaz (Community Programs)
Violane Gillyard (Community Programs)
Rosanne Taylor (Community Programs)
Joanne Brown (Don Guanella Homes)
Elaine Doebo (Don Guanella Homes)
Peg Hewitt-D’Angelo (Don Guanella Homes)
Daisy Kamara (Don Guanella Homes)
Gibrilla Turay (Don Guanella Homes)
Ibriahim Turay (Don Guanella Homes)
Gail Gloster (St. Edmond’s Home)
Pam Samuels (St. Edmond’s Home)
Julia Vivanco (St. Edmond’s Home)
Steve Noykoff (Day Programs)
Candi Foell (Day Programs)
Chris Summers (Day Programs)
Abimbola Alao (Divine Providence Village)
Josephine Barbuto (Divine Providence Village)
Marie Julmice (Divine Providence Village)
Vicki Soldatos (Divine Providence Village)