Here I intend to direct the attention of anyone who desires to imitate Christ Jesus to see in Saint Francis one of the simplest ways to become Christ-like; this should be, of course, the vocation of every believer.
I think that in this process the image of Francis of Assisi will be freed of the thick patina of romanticism that so many, for a variety of reasons including personal agenda, have applied to his persona.
By focusing on the challenges that Francis’ life offers to those who heed the call to holiness (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:2 and a dozen other biblical quotes), he will become more relevant as a true saint rather than a precursor of the PETA movement or the first environmentalist.
Hopefully, in the end, we should have a source of inspiration that will entice us to become docile to the inner action of the Holy Spirit.
Contrary to what so many believe, Francis’ conversion was not sudden and marked by a complete reversal. God’s grace had to almost “force” itself upon him in the course of events such as imprisonment and illnesses. While the allurement of the Gospel stirred in his youthful soul genuine enthusiasm, it did not keep him from returning to his former lifestyle. Yet with every return to his former ways, he found out that they had gradually lost their appeal.
Furthermore, at first his search for true happiness sent him down several paths that turned out to be only partially capable of quenching his spiritual thirst. However, what was common in all his attempts at finding true happiness was the absence of half-measures. Francis dove completely, without reservation, into whatever endeavor he tried. Thus, when he embraced “Lady Poverty” as his saintly bride in the true spirit of the Gospel, his love for her was radical to such an extent that he relished not only what true poverty entails such as hunger and making do with much less than adequate means, but also hardships, beating, scorn and loathing.
His love for Jesus became so intense that reasonable people found his radical and unreserved embracing of the paradoxes of the Gospel to be more than excessive. However, his sweeping imitation of Christ Jesus generated in his heart a most enviable degree of freedom. And, in turn, that freedom took many forms: sharing of his inner peace through concrete efforts to foster reconciliation, unparalleled simplicity of heart, genuine humility, heroic relishing of any trial with a most serene internal disposition, unimpeded recognition of Jesus in the sick and the poor, and purity of vision of God’s love in full display in all of His creatures, even the lowliest ones.
Francis’ total freedom from anything and anyone that might have stood between him and his Lord gave rise to many conversions, as his words as a preacher and his example left no doubt about the sincerity of his convictions. It also led him to embark on impossible feats like his bold interaction with the Sultan of Egypt. Ready for martyrdom, Francis even tried to convert the Sultan and his subjects to Christianity! His incredible courage and daring dialogue with Muslims authorities would result in the privilege granted to the Franciscans, in later years and to this day, to be appointed the only custodians of religious sites in the Holy Land.
In Catholic hagiography it is hard to find a saint who can project before our eyes a more accurate image of the Lord Jesus than Francis of Assisi. Indeed, even the marks of Christ’ passion were impressed on the flesh of Francis towards the end of his short earthly life (1181-1226). Yet, like in Jesus’ case, the stigmata were already impressed in the heart of Francis on account of some of his followers as they yielded to the lures of material possessions and could not live out the radical demands of the Gospel and of Lady Poverty the way he had done.
May St. Francis protect our Community of Faith and attain from God for us the grace of trying our best, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to embrace the paradoxes of the Gospel.
Fr. Dino Vanin, PIME
Pastor of San Francesco Church
HISTORY OF SAN FRANCESCO CHURCH
The beginnings of San Francesco Parish, like all good things in this world, were not without difficulties. There were moments of depression, setbacks, disappointments, only to be balanced by steadfastness and determination toward a God-worthy goal. The first steps in founding the parish were taken in 1896, when Rev. Benjamin Barto and his little chapel were established on St. Joseph Street between Russell and Riopelle Streets in Detroit. In the early stages, little progress was made toward the erection of permanent buildings, because the Italians were scattered far and wide.
When Father Beccherini arrived on October 31, 1897, the Italian community of little more than sixty families saw a new beginning. Within ten months, the cornerstone of San Francesco Church on Brewster and Rivard Streets was laid by the Vicar General of Detroit, Msgr. Edward Joos on August 7, 1898. Three months later on Sunday, November 20, 1898, the Most Reverend Apostolic Delegate for the United States, Archbishop Sebastian Martinelli, dedicated the new church. This was an eventful and blessed day for the Italians of Detroit. The whole city joined to honor them and the representative of the Holy Father. After two years, Fr. Beccherini built a rectory adjoining the church. All this entailed untold sacrifices for the good parishioners and their Pastor. His zeal for caring for the Italian immigrants led Fr. Beccherini back to Italy on several occasions to find missionaries for various parts of the United States. He was honored by officials of the Church and State. In 1904, the Queen of Italy presented him with a chalice and many beautiful vestments. Pope Pius X gave him a silver censer in recognition of his priestly enthusiasm. The Italian government also acknowledged his work by knighting him with the Order of the Crown of Italy in 1908, and later by elevating him to Knights Commander of the Order of S. S. Maurice and Lazarus.
Father Beccherini had a wonderful sense of humor and wit, which made him loved and respected by all. He was interested not only in his people’s spiritual wellbeing, but also in their welfare in society. Today, Italian names are as prominent in different professions and businesses as are those of other nationalities. Father Beccherini worked tirelessly for 46 years in the parish he founded. It was hard work; the Depression in the 1930’s tested his parish and took a toll on his health. In 1941, the 50th anniversary of his priesthood was fittingly celebrated with a solemn High Mass at which the Archbishop presided. Father Beccherini went to eternal glory on July 5, 1949.
Father Beccherini had not been without help during his years at San Francesco. The following are those who assisted as resident priests and made great contributions to the life of San Francesco parish, which was “modernizing” due to the needs of the children and the new generation: Rev. Albert Cippolini, a professor of theology at S.S. Cyril and Methodius Seminary; Rev. Philip LaRiviere, a professor at Sacred Heart Seminary who organized the Holy Name Society and the C. Y. O. for the parish; Rev. Louis Micalliff; Rev. Emil A. Capano; Rev. I. Poja and Rev. Livius.
Rev. Emil A. Capano followed Rev. Beccherini as pastor of San Francesco Church and revived the spirit of the parish. Despite many serious obstacles, including a disastrous church fire that occurred on April 24, 1944, Rev. Capano’s courage and enthusiasm were undaunted. In less than a year, and thanks again to the generosity of friends and parishioners, the church was restored. Rev. Anthony Bologna was appointed as assistant to Father Capano in January 1944, but was transferred in late 1945. For the three years that Rev. Capano served San Francesco as pastor, the debt was considerably reduced. He was transferred to Our Lady Queen of Peace parish.
Cardinal Mooney then invited Rev. Guido Margutti of the PIME Missionaries to Detroit, and the care of San Francesco was given to the Institute in 1948. Thus San Francesco, though continuing to serve as a parish, became the base in the United States for this Italian missionary institute. Fr. Guido Margutti came as pastor. He enlarged the rectory to house the priests who came to serve the community and to promote the needs of the people PIME served in its missions.
Father Dante Magri succeeded Fr. Margutti and was followed by the unforgettable Father Mario Dall’Agnol, who made so many friends for San Francesco. It was during Fr. Dall’Agnol’s time as pastor that the school was sold by the Archdiocese. When Fr. Mario returned to Italy, he was succeeded by Fr. Dominic Rossi. His term was brief, as he was soon replaced by Fr. Hector Bellinato, who was later replaced by Fr. Giulio Cancelli.
San Francesco Church celebrated its 65th anniversary during Fr. Cancelli’s tenure. The clergy, national and local officials along with King Umberto II, whose grandmother was Queen Margherita of Savoy, who had honored Fr. Beccherini, joined in the festivities. Fr. Hugo Sordo succeeded Fr. Cancelli, who was transferred to a parish in California.
In the end, the need for assigning a long term pastor was apparent if San Francesco Church were to continue as a stable parish. With that understanding, Fr. Dominic Rossi accepted the position in 1966 and continued to foster the growth of San Francesco Church.
Among the priests who served as associate pastors in the “old” church from when PIME began to care for San Francesco were Frs. Bruno Venturin, Luigi Colombo, John Marzorati and Luigi Viganò.
As land was being cleared in the area of the church for the Chrysler Freeway, Fr. Rossi began purchasing available lots in hopes of building an Italian Community Center. However, this did not happen and Fr. Rossi was surprised by the notice of the completed sale of the church building by the Archdiocese. Michigan’s oldest Italian Catholic Church held Mass for the last time and closed after Christmas Day Mass in 1966.
Fr. Rossi believed confidently and passionately that San Francesco could continue to satisfy the spiritual needs of the Italians faithful to the parish; he was certain that San Francesco Church would live on.
From 1966 until 1969, San Francesco served the expanding Italian community from St. Joseph Church, sharing the facilities of that existing parish. But two pastors serving two separate communities while sharing the same facilities presented difficulties that needed to be addressed.
In 1969 Bishop Thomas Gumbleton called Fr. Rossi to have a discussion about a church for his parishioners. Fr. Rossi invited the US Regional Superior of PIME, Fr. Henry Paleari, to attend the meeting with him. Bishop Gumbleton proposed that the chapel of a former convent be used for the parish. PIME had purchased the Monastery of the Blessed Sacrament for its Regional Headquarters, print shop and residence for its members. It had been the convent of the Dominican Cloistered Nuns and had a magnificent chapel. Permission to use the chapel was obtained and San Francesco was now in the PIME regional complex at 9800, Oakland Ave., Detroit.
The chapel was beautiful, inspired devotion and had convenient parking. The parishioners felt that they had their own church and were happy to make the move from St. Joseph. However, in 1978 the new Regional Superior of PIME, Fr. Charles Minck, decided to sell the facility on Oakland Ave. With the sale of the PIME complex, San Francesco’s search had to begin again. For the parishioners it was a shock.
The church committee with a small group of the faithful began discussions and planning. One point was very clear to them; they wanted their own church unaffiliated with any other. Realizing the disappointment of the parishioners, Fr. Minck escorted one of the committee members to see the church in the new building PIME had purchased on Quincy Avenue, near the University of Detroit. Fr. Minck thought that the parish committee could determine if the accommodations were acceptable. Their response was negative; a west side location and the lack of parking space were unacceptable.
The committee continued to meet and concluded that, since the Cardinal Archbishop had given other ethnic communities their national churches, San Francesco should have its own church as well. Fr. Rossi was urged to request that Archbishop Cardinal John Dearden allow the Italian parish of San Francesco to continue with its own church building and liturgical traditions. The Cardinal’s response was quick and positive. He would put Fr. Rossi in an American church to serve the Italian American community. But the plan was not entirely suitable. Two pastors sharing the same church with two different communities would present problems as in the past; so a second request via registered mail was sent expressing the desire of the Italian community to have its own church for its own people. Cardinal Archbishop Dearden understood the parishioners’ desires and gave permission to find a building for their religious services.
Since the majority of San Francesco’s parishioners had moved to the northeast suburbs, a reasonably convenient location was necessary. Gratiot Avenue was a well-known thoroughfare. The search began.
Finding a house in that neighborhood was difficult, a church almost impossible. Searching, checking, and inquiring on suitable non-Catholic church buildings went on for days. It was a tiring and discouraging search.
An available church building that had possibilities was found on l4 ½ Mile Road and Gratiot; but the price was excessive and the pastor was rather rude. The committee felt hurt and chose to stop all negotiations. But time was of the essence as the Oakland Avenue facility had to be vacated.
Then, God intervened through a friend working in a realty office on Gratiot Avenue north of Metro Parkway. He had found a church building for sale. It appeared abandoned. Tall grass grew all around it and it looked unkempt. But the realtor friend persuaded the pastor of “Park Alliance Baptist Church” to speak to his superior to encourage them to sell the building. They agreed to go ahead with the sale. But it was then necessary to speak to the Church’s Administrator in Toledo, Ohio. He, too, was willing to sell. Now, the problem of money surfaced. As San Francesco had none, the committee made a request for funds to the Most Reverend Arthur Krawczak, the regional bishop, who presented San Francesco’s request to His Eminence Cardinal John Dearden. Before committing himself, the Cardinal had to be assured that the purchase was suitable and good.
Arrangements were made to inspect both sites with the Archdiocesan representative: that on 14½ Mile Road and Gratiot and the little Baptist Church on S. Nunneley Road. The agent for the Archdiocese was pleased to learn that no commitment had been made for the first site visited, especially since the Archdiocesan Office did not favor having churches on main highways, as traffic was a potential danger. But he was completely satisfied with the second site. A loan from the Archdiocese was arranged and the contract for the purchase of the building was signed. Once again, the parishioners of San Francesco had their own church!
Soon the parish realized that a great amount of work needed to be done, but the parishioners of San Francesco were enthusiastic. While the building was dirty, the roof leaked and the tall grass needed to be mowed, there was no criticism of the pastor of the small parish. He had a small congregation and a big debt. Good luck, as there was work to be done! Many volunteered to help and spent many days cleaning, scrubbing, painting, etc., giving a new face to the building in time for the official dedication on September 24, 1978, the 40th Anniversary of Father Dominic Rossi’s ordination to the priesthood. Bishop Krawczak blessed the church. He was amazed to see the number of faithful who attended the revitalization of San Francesco.
Fr. Rossi and the Parish Council were ready to make the necessary improvements on the building. The church ceiling was very low, and the building was very warm during summer Masses. Two large fans placed at the front and rear offered little relief. When winter came they discovered that the heating system had a ruptured pipe somewhere under the floor that caused pools of water to accumulate. And in the spring, the building was surrounded by weeds and the children’s playground would become mud, which also mired worshippers’ cars. The mud made them somewhat reluctant to come back the following Sunday. So the first project was to pave the parking lot on the east and rear of the building.
As more and more attended services, it became apparent that the parking lot and the church building itself were too small. Fr. Rossi was pleased with attendance, and he made plans to enlarge the building.
Having a church for the Italian American community brought the people and many clubs and associations, old and new, back to their mother church where so many of them had been baptized, confirmed, married, received First Communion or buried their loved ones. San Francesco was alive; San Francesco was growing and continuing its mission of serving the spiritual needs of the Italian American community in particular, while being open and welcoming to all who wanted to come.
Of course as the parish grew, accommodations had to be enlarged. The parking lot, which had seemed large before, needed to be bigger so more property was purchased to expand it. In 1984, the work of enlarging the church began by extending the back and front of the structure. Though three brick layers were hired, many volunteers helped them, and Mrs. Lena Soma cooked every day for as many as 20 workers. The pitch of the roof was changed to correct the problems previously experienced. Donations from wealthy faithful provided beautiful stained glass windows, which depicted the statues of the “old” San Francesco on Brewster Street, Detroit. A generous donor provided the funds to buy the land for the parking lot to be extended on the east side of the church. Always spending as little as possible, Fr. Rossi was a “jack-of-all-trades” and spent time cleaning the church and the house, mowing the lawn, shoveling snow and many other chores. After a while, Father Rossi found valuable help from the Assessor family: Richard, Dolores and Elvira, who volunteered to do some of the work around the church and grounds.
Later on, a more suitable rectory and offices were needed. A vacant lot on the east side of the church property was owned by a man named Mr. Martini. So Fr. Rossi approached him jokingly suggesting that “Martini and Rossi” would be a good combination to help each other. In a short time the lot became church property. However, there was a house between the lot and the church that Fr. Rossi was eager to purchase. With the approval of the Cardinal Archbishop, Fr. Rossi made an offer to buy the house and the owner accepted.
Another loan from the Archdiocese made the purchase possible. The house needed some modification and an addition was necessary to join it to the church building. Soon the whole community of San Francesco became very grateful to a fellow parishioner and outstanding architect, Mr. August Caringi. He planned and supervised the work of installing a new and larger furnace for the old building and a cooling system. The community was also grateful to Mr. Richard Marino, who was always ready to be the jack-of-all-trades around the house; to Frank DiCintio and to Dominic Paone, who engineered the electrical work, as well as to the many unnamed volunteers who helped with the expansion and the joining of the house to the church building. It should also be noted that Mrs. Maria Sarti was hired as Fr. Rossi’s secretary and to ease his workload allowing him to do his priestly ministry, visiting the sick and counseling parishioners in need.
We are also very grateful for the wisdom and strength of Father Rossi, a tireless leader and planner, and for the PIME priests who assisted him in the “new” San Francesco parish: Fr. Bernie Rossi, Fr. Luigi Acerbi, Fr. Amatore Artico, and Fr. Giulio Schiavi who, returning from his mission assignment in Papua New Guinea, tackled his work at San Francesco with vitality and enthusiasm.
While no requests for donations were made, the people of San Francesco responded most generously, paying the debt and the cost of improvements with their contributions of time, talents and treasure. Their assistance left us many gifts: the beauty of the marble altar, the stained glass window, the tabernacle of the Blessed Sacrament, and the splendor of the lighted Grotto of Lourdes with its waterfall that was built during the 1988 Marian Year. In addition, there is the illuminated bell tower that completes and balances the appearance of the building, which was completed as a memorial for the parish’s centennial in l996. The tower bells remind people of the presence of God.
After many years of dedication to the parish, Fr. Dominic Rossi died on March 4, 2008 in his apartment in Tivoli Manor, Warren, Michigan, where he had retired soon after Fr. Giulio Schiavi had taken over as Pastor of San Francesco Parish.
Cardinal Adam Maida, Archbishop of Detroit, officially appointed Fr. Giulio Schiavi as Pastor of San Francesco Church in 1996, effective on January 1, 1997. In 2005, Fr. Giulio led a major effort to give to the Church a much-needed facelift: ceramic tiles were installed in the three aisles of the church and in the vestibule, Fr. Dominic Rossi Social Hall, cry-room, and kitchen. New oak pews replaced the old ones with new carpeting underneath them. The walls were repainted and new internal doors installed. The main entrance of the Church was equipped with a small enclosed lobby and the old Stations of the Cross were restored to their original splendor.
Under his leadership the faithful continued to show interest and felt closeness to fellow Christians who lived in mission lands, especially those in missions served by the PIME Missionaries. He kept close contact with fellow missionaries and helped them financially with personal money and money raised by parishioners. He talked often and enthusiastically about the missions, especially his two missions of Bangladesh and Papua New Guinea.
Fr. Dino Vanin, appointed Regional Treasurer of the US PIME Region in 2001, began to help Fr. Giulio celebrate Holy Masses, hear confessions and give retreats and talks on special occasions. Over the years, Fr. Dino got to know many of the parishioners and as Fr. Giulio faced health issues on top of his advancing age, he relied more and more on Fr. Dino’s help. In 2016, Fr. Giulio asked Fr. George Palliparambil, US Regional Superior at that time, to be relieved of the direct care of the parish. Fr. Dino was the logical choice as a substitute. The Very Reverend Allen H. Vigneron appointed Fr. Dino Vanin, Administrator of San Francesco Church effective July 1, 2017. Much to his surprise, a few months later he was appointed Pastor of the parish, and he was installed as such by the Most Reverend Robert Fisher, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit on December 16, 2018. Fr. Giulio remained at the rectory as Senior Priest in Residence, providing Fr. Dino with precious advice, help and assistance.
In 2019, the Very Reverend Ferruccio Brambillasca, Superior General of PIME, called Fr. Giulio back to Italy. A retirement celebration was held for Fr. Giulio on Sunday, January 26, 2020. The 12:00 noon Holy Mass was presided by the Very Reverend Ken Mazur, Regional Superior of PIME, and Fr. Giulio gave a very moving farewell speech before the conclusion of the Liturgy. He gave another heartfelt one at the reception that was held on the same day at Penna’s of Sterling Heights. He was escorted back to Italy by a member of the PIME General Directorate on February 9, 2020.
The work at San Francesco continues with Fr. Dino Vanin at the helm. He shares daily with his parishioners his love for God’s Word and the Eucharist. He reminds them repeatedly of their duty to be true missionaries by preaching with the example of good, Christian lives, and by thinking often of their less fortunate brothers and sisters who live and struggle in distant mission lands. San Francesco is indeed alive and well. San Francesco is more than buildings; it is the place in which to find solace for the heart and sound instruction for the mind. It is the place for peaceful meditation and solid learning about the Catholic Faith, where volunteers provide religious education and the community can worship and celebrate according to their customs and traditions. San Francesco is where the Altar Society, the Assunta Society, the San Francesco Orphans Club and the St. Joseph Group are flourishing. San Francesco is where several regional Italian Associations and Clubs gather for their meetings and special feast days and to honor their dead. It is where they hear the liturgy in their native language at the 10:00 o’clock Italian Mass and follow the Mass with leaflets printed in Italian.
San Francesco has never failed to take to heart the plight of the less fortunate the world over, be it in parts of the world where the missionaries work and the world of the needy also in the “old country.” Historically, San Francesco Church was even the source of funds when Italy was afflicted by terrible disasters and earthquakes as when a whole side of the mountain slid into the artificial lake created by the Vajont dam. It caused a massive amount of water to spill over the brim of the dam and it swept away entire villages especially the town of Longarone (October 3, 1963). Many villages and lives were lost in both northern and southern Italy. On both occasions, San Francesco’s sacristy served as the office from which people and associations worked to collect relief funds for personal distribution to the victims. Fr. Rossi made two trips to Italy to verify the extent of the damage and the needs of the survivors. The committee continued with Fr. Rossi as chairman, Mrs. Rebecca Ratel as secretary and Mrs. Corrine Giacomazzi as treasurer. Over the decades, it has remained quite evident that the hearts of the people of San Francesco have been always open to the plight of the needy and the poor. It is something that can be traced to the roots of San Francesco Church.
The “new” San Francesco kept some of the roots of the “old” one. It still uses the baptismal font from the old Church. The original cornerstone is outside, to the left of the front door of the church. San Francesco houses the authentic cord of the habit of St. Francis of Assisi and a relic of St. Anthony of Padua. San Francesco is more than an Italian American community and its outreach and warmth have attracted faithful of other backgrounds and ethnicities; people who desire ardently to serve the Lord Jesus under the humblest features of the least of His brothers and sisters the world over and who are ready to Unleash the Gospelacross the Archdiocese of Detroit in effective and concrete ways.
Revised and amplified from the original text written on the occasion of San Francesco Centennial Celebration 1896-1996.