From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Father Cataldo: Son of Terassini, Father of Spokane

by Father Kevin Codd, for the Inland Register

(From the Feb. 7, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

Anyone who has lived in Spokane for any length of time knows the name Cataldo. A street, a college dining hall and even a small town just across the Idaho line all bear the family name. Considerably fewer residents of the area are familiar with the man behind the name, but with just a bit of searching through the history of Spokane, they would discover the picture of an extraordinary person.

For Spokane’s Catholics in particular, the story of Jesuit Father Joseph Cataldo is one that inspires plenty of pride in that one of our best did so much to make this city what it has come to be.

In brief, Giuseppe Cataldo was born and baptized in the small town of Terrasini, Sicily, not far from Palermo. He was a sickly youth who even after joining the local Jesuits had to be excused for his poor health. Undaunted, he later presented himself to the Order a second time, was accepted and then found himself caught up defending his novitiate from the armed forces of Garibaldi. He escaped the turmoil brought on by the unification of the Italian state by fleeing to my second hometown, Louvain, Belgium. Here he learned enough English to get by, was ordained and shipped off to the Rocky Mountain missions in North America. That providential turn of events is how he came to the Spokane area. When no other missionary was able to care for the Spokane Indians, Cataldo felt drawn to minister to them. It was not too long before he also established little Gonzaga College and did much to bring the railroad into the small town that was growing up beside the falls. Despite his frailty as a youth, he lived to a ripe old age, having served many years as Jesuit superior in the area and, of course, having dedicated himself as much as his time would allow to the care of the Spokane tribe. Upon his death in Spokane in 1928 there was a sense that there had been a very special and perhaps sainted man in our midst.

Spokane can rightly make a special claim on Father Cataldo as one of its own, but the city must share that claim with the small Sicilian fishing town located on the Mediterranean coast where he was born and is still revered to this day, Terrasini.

Jesuit Father Anthony Via of the Gonzaga-in-Florence program, David Kingma, archivist for the Oregon Jesuit Province and I were treated to a most remarkable experience of how deep is the claim to that town’s favorite son. We were welcomed to Terrasini in the days following Christmas 2001 to participate in a Convegno Giornate di Studio or a sort of congress that the town leaders had organized to honor the life and work of Father Cataldo. Spokane’s mayor, John Powers, had planned to attend as well but at the last minute was not able to make it due to poor flying weather back in Spokane.

When I arrived at the Palermo airport, I was happily whisked to Terrasini, just 15 minutes away. Driving through the winding streets of the village, it was clear to me that this homage to Father Cataldo was being taken seriously: large green posters were glued to walls along the way announcing the program with a grainy photograph of a very young Father Cataldo staring out towards a distant horizon (perhaps across the Mediterranean Sea to his future in Spokane?). I was greeted at the hotel by a committee of young girls formally uniformed in black and white whose primary job seemed to be to greet people like myself who were clearly honored guests. Father Via had arrived the night before but had been out when I checked in. Just in time for lunch, he returned to the hotel accompanied by the organizing power behind the congress, Dr. Ino Cardinale. Dr. Cardinale is a man filled with non-stop energy and, as we would discover, a master at bringing people together to work on a common project. A former mayor of Terrasini himself, he had spearheaded the committee of 100 citizens to prepare the town’s celebration of the millennium, of which the Cataldo Congress was the finale. After a fine pranzo and a bit of a reposo, Father Via and I were driven back to the center of town to the little church of Santa Rosalia, the Cataldo family’s home parish. We were ushered in to the nave of the church where the final preparations for the first session of the congress were being made. Beautifully prepared folders adorned with a wonderful photograph of Father Cataldo in his old age sitting with several elders of the Spokane tribe were given to each of us. Next we were led to the sanctuary of the church, which had been converted into a dais, and shown to our places by the same uniformed young ladies who had met us at the hotel. Dr. Cardinale was orchestrating everything in a flurry of activity, but before long he had competition with the arrival of two archbishops, the first being the local ordinary, Archbishop Pio Vigo of Monreale, and moments later, Archbishop Luigi Bonmariti of Catania, himself a native son of Terrasini. The former had almost as much energy as Dr. Cardinale as he greeted and welcomed old friends and finally got the program going with an impromptu and heartfelt prayer.

Speeches were given, congratulatory letters read, thanks offered and even poems recited as part of this first convocation. I was given a translator both to help me follow the action and to share with the assembly my words about Father Cataldo. I was introduced as a double representative: that of Bishop Skylstad and the Diocese of Spokane, as well as that of Louvain and its great university, where Father Cataldo had found haven after being driven from Sicily and had studied before going to the United States. I said through my interpreter that though Father Cataldo was a good Jesuit and a good priest and clearly had no sons or daughters of his own, in another way, every Catholic of Spokane is his son or daughter, since he was the founding father of our church. Father Cataldo’s ability to cross cultural thresholds and to minister to those of another race and language, together with his zeal for sharing the Gospel of Christ, are great witnesses to all of us. I continued that his spirit lives on both here and in Spokane and I would take that spirit back to the seminarians in Louvain with whom I live so that they and I might bring his kind of missionary zeal to their own parish churches as priests.

It must be noted that this first session of our Cataldo Congress was not the ordered and serious affair that we as Americans might imagine. Terrasini is a small town and this is Sicily, where life always bubbles with an almost volcanic energy that defies rigidity or any manner of sullenness. Throughout the 90 minutes of the session, activity abounded: people arrived and left, the Archbishop of Catania gestured magnanimously from the dais towards his old friends as he signaled his pleasure in seeing them again. Dr. Cardinale energetically moved about the church with mobile phone always at hand managing the whole affair. A television crew from nearby Palermo pulled us from our seats and brought us to the back of the church for impromptu interviews, (“How did you first hear of the work and teaching of Father Cataldo?” and then, without thematic transition, “As an American what do you think about Sept. 11?”). Thereafter we walked to Father Cataldo’s home, a simple structure a few blocks away, now with a fine commemorative stone above the door giving homage to the great missionary priest who was born within its walls so many years ago.

All the while, the honored guests from Spokane were moving quickly into a more important social category in the town: amici. My translator, Dr. Cardinale, his assistant, officials from the town government and even the young people helping out on the sidelines were welcoming us more and more deeply into their world. Formal handshakes had given way to the traditional Sicilian embrace and double kiss. Chatter among us (even with the language difficulties) became ever more animated, informal and personal. Meals in fine local restaurants (seafood being the specialty, of course), were opportunities for getting to know the details of one another’s lives. This was becoming an adventure!

The following day, the second session of the Congress began. I was informed the night before that I would be giving yet another intervention in the coming session, though I had no idea what I more I might say. Luckily that same night David Kingma, the archivist of the Oregon Province of the Jesuits, had arrived from Spokane with important gifts to be given. The first was a beautifully framed photograph of Father Cataldo at a great feast in the lobby of the Davenport Hotel on the occasion of his 75th ordination anniversary, which David presented on behalf of the Mayor of Spokane. He also brought along an official congratulatory letter from Bishop Skylstad which I was designated to read on the bishop’s behalf, as well as a lovely afghan adorned with images of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes and several churches and institutions from Spokane’s Catholic history. It became my responsibility to present the afghan to the community as well. The letter was well received, of course, but the presentation of the afghan earned the most oohs and ahhs of the entire weekend. As it was unfolded before everyone’s eyes, the ever-ebullient Archbishop of Catania proclaimed, “All the churches founded by Padre Cataldo!” Though that was not quite the historical case, from that moment on such was the story of the afghan which continued to garner the praises of all, especially the ladies, whose “Che bella!”s were most plentiful as their knowledgeable fingers examined the woven details of the afghan.

That afternoon, the final session of the Congress didn’t happen, as we were taken by Dr. Cardinale instead to see the magnificent mosaics of the cathedral church of Monreale. The entire interior of this Norman-era church is covered with glimmering mosaic images taken from the Scriptures. In the apse is a massive image of Christ, the Pantocrater, the central focus of the church. We were told that just the nose of Christ alone measures about nine feet in length from top to bottom. The extraordinary beauty of the images that surrounded us takes one’s breath away and left us feeling very small below the stern gaze of our Savior. Afterwards, we were invited into Archbishop Vigo’s palace next door and shown around by the gracious prelate. The cavernous rooms were adorned with fine art and precious antiques from another age. The humble archbishop, who is also noted throughout Italy as a spiritual poet, seemed to move through the grand place with little attention to its aged opulence. He told me with a smile that I must learn Italian so I can understand his poetry, and then handed me three books of his writings to take home with me.

The following day was Sunday, the Feast of the Holy Family and the final day of the celebration in honor of Father Cataldo. A most solemn mass was celebrated in the larger church of the town, the very one in which Father Cataldo was baptized. Again, both archbishops were present as concelebrants and besides the beautiful homily by Archbishop Vigo, the native son, Archbishop Bonmariti also had prepared some words for the overflowing congregation. They came too fast and furious for me to understand much of what was being said, but as he arrived at the emotional arc of his peroration, the two words, “canonization” and “Cataldo” clearly became conjoined. I thought to myself, Terrasini is going to get its own saint — and Spokane as well!

The now-famous afghan from Bishop Skylstad was unfurled before the gathered faithful, again with the explanation that this gift from the archbishop of Spokane (another small error of fact, not able to be corrected under the circumstances) displayed all the churches founded by Father Cataldo. It was passed on to the pastor of the parish, who immediately promised to have it framed and displayed in perpetuity on an important wall of the mother church of Terrasini.

The liturgy was followed by the final great act of the day: the unveiling of a new monumental work of art in the town park overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. After all had made the short journey from the church to the park, further speeches were delivered, then the sculptor, Giuseppe Palazzolo, pulled back the tarp covering the grand work to reveal a bronze sculpture featuring elements from the common life of Terrasini, the history of Spokane (a steam engine), and of course Father Cataldo with his beloved Spokane Indians. Also in the mix of images was the smiling face and waving hand of the town’s other favorite son, my new friend, Luigi Bonmariti, the Archbishop of Catania. My other episcopal friend, Archbishop Vigo, blessed the work with a dash of holy water and that was the end of the program.

Well, almost the end: for the 100 citizens who had organized the Jubilee celebrations and in particular the memorable Cataldo Congress just completed, and for us, their honored guests and new friends, a five-course dinner was yet to be served. The day was completed with plenty of pasta, seafood, wine dessert, and of course (after the archbishops had retired), dancing!

I left lovely Terrasini and its wonderful people feeling very much like a friend of this sunny little village. Even more, I had come to know much better Padre Giuseppe Cataldo, our own founding father, by coming to know his people. And when all is said and done, looking back on this remarkable adventure in Sicily, I don’t feel the need to politely wait until Archbishop Luigi Bonmariti gets Father Cataldo canonized to call on the holy missionary for a little saintly help in my work now and then.

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