A traveler in Wisconsin need not stray far from the Interstate before he gets a good sense of the wild and uncut territory that greeted the explorers, traders, and missionary priests who first brought European civilization and its Faith to the American Midwest. To the freshly ordained Samuel Mazzuchelli, O.P., the untamed Wisconsin Frontier of 1830 could not have been more different from the culture, society, and wealth of his native Milan, all of which he renounced for love of Jesus Christ. Coming from a country teeming not only with culture but also with clergy, Father Mazzuchelli found himself, at the age of 23, the only priest in a region half the size of Italy. He would tirelessly fill the next 34 years spreading the Gospel in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois, accomplishing the work of scores of priests.
Carlo Gaetano Samuele Mazzuchelli was born on November 4, 1806, the 16th of 17 children. His father came from a family that had given Milan artists and writers, captains of commerce, and many priests. Although named for St. Charles Borromeo, on whose feast he was born, the boy came to be called Samuel and was destined for a career in politics. Or so his father thought. Growing up but a block from Milan’s magnificent Gothic cathedral, Samuel cultivated a burning piety from an early age. At 17, having obtained his father’s reluctant permission to enter the religious life, he renounced his inheritance. By 19 he was in Rome studying at the Dominican college at Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill. While in Rome, Samuel forged a bond with the future Pope Gregory XVI. Ordained subdeacon at the Lateran in 1827, Samuel was recruited for missionary service by Fr. Frederick Rese, Vicar General of the Diocese of Cincinnati, who, years later through Mazzuchelli’s intervention, became the first bishop of Detroit. In the summer of 1828, Samuel made for Paris to improve his French, and, that autumn, crossed the Atlantic. Of New York City, his port of arrival, Mazzuchelli would later write, “The splendors of this world are always closely associated with general moral corruption.” He did not linger.