Everyone's Gaga For Gonzaga

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I’m really, really sorry about the title, but ever since the private Roman Catholic university out of Spokane, Washington, became a March Madness bracket darling, it’s kind of true. Also, it rhymes, so there.

Anyway, who or what is Gonzaga and how did it find its way to the Pacific Northwest? Well that story begins with a sixteenth Century Saint of the Holy Roman Empire who lived a charitable life and died young. It ends with a Sicilian-American Jesuit priest who also did good deeds, but lived to be a venerable old man.

The latter was Joseph Mary Cataldo, born in Palermo, Sicily in 1837 and admitted to the Jesuit novitiate at the precocious age of fifteen. Though still a young man when ordained, Cataldo’s first gig was not exactly an entry level feat. He was sent on a foreign mission to the Rocky Mountains in the United States. The nation was less than a century old, and its first settlers in the great and untamed West had scarcely a decade’s worth of roots there.

Sickly Saint

The rugged wilderness was tough on Cataldo, who fell into ill health early in his missionary career. He had this vulnerability in common with Aloyisius Gonzaga, a nobleman from northern Italy who was first in line to inherent his father’s title of Marquis. It was not to be though.

Aloysius was a sensitive young man who came to abhor the violence that surrounded him in Renaissance, Italy. After witnessing the murder of two of his brothers in 1576, Aloysius immersed himself in the comfort of prayer, even taking a vow of chastity at the impressionable age of nine. For much of his early life, Aloysius aspired to join the religious order but his family attempted at every turn to dissuade him from a decision that would require him to cede his inheritance and title.

Aloysius didn’t care. He surrendered his future title when just seventeen years of age. He was, however, confronted with an ominous warning as he studied toward ordination. The pious young man was visited in a vision by the Archangel Gabriel, who told him he would die within a year. That year was 1591, and the plague had arrived in Rome. Aloysius had long suffered the effects of ill health, including kidney disease, chronic headaches and insomnia. He was still a student when the Archangel’s prophecy came to pass. Aloysius died days before his twenty-third birthday, and was canonized more than a century later.

Cataldo Rallies

Unlike Aloyisus, Cataldo recovered from his illness while working in the more hospitable climates of Panama and, thereafter, Santa Clara College in California. When Cataldo had made a full recovery, he returned to the northwest, this time to serve as a minister to the local Spokane Indians. He opened his first schoolhouse there, called Saint Michael’s Mission, serving both Native and white students.

Seeking to expand, Cataldo bought two new parcels of land totaling 320 acres for the princely sum of $936. Relocating the Mission on the first parcel, he used the remaining forty acres to establish a college for the area’s growing Catholic population. Gonzaga University was officially established on this parcel in 1887, taking its name from the sainted young man who gave his life in service of his fellows while still a student.

If Gonzaga sets an inspiring example for the students attending his namesake college, perhaps Cataldo’s example is even more inspiring. Indeed, he worked as a missionary throughout the Western US until the day he died, at ninety-two years of age in 1928.

Today, the university that he founded is home to more than seven thousand graduate and undergraduate students.

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