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Producer shares story of ‘family saint’ with new generation of Catholics

Susan Agostinelli shows Pope Francis a picture of her great, great uncle, Bl. Grimoaldo Santamaria of the Purification, during a meeting at the Vatican on Oct. 6, 2022. The audience was part of a conference on holiness and sainthood hosted by the Vatican. / Credit: Vatican Media

Rome, Italy, Dec 27, 2023 / 10:30 am (CNA).

Susan Agostinelli said she has seen the stories about her great-great uncle, Blessed Grimoaldo Santamaria of the Purification, play through her head her entire life.

Though the strapping young saint died tragically at the tender age of 19, stories about the Italian relative — known to Agostinelli by the name “Brother Grimoaldo” — permeated her childhood and adolescence.

In this family archive photo, Blessed Grimoaldo Santamaria’s youngest sister, Vincenzina Panella (née Santamaria), poses with her daughter, Mary Agostinelli, and two great-granddaughters, Susan Agostinelli (far right) and Jeanne Beveridge. Vincenzina died in 1973 in Rochester, New York, where she had immigrated from Italy as a young adult. Credit: Photo courtesy of Susan Agostinelli

He was the go-to family saint, she said, recalling her young awe at his piety and the confidence he had in his calling to the religious priesthood.

As Agostinelli’s older relatives, many of whom championed Grimoaldo’s cause for years, have left this life, she has picked up the torch to share his legacy with a new generation.

A visit last year to the places where the blue-eyed, dark-haired young man lived during his short life also gave her a renewed impetus to share Grimoaldo’s life with a wider audience.

“The story flows out of me because I’ve known it forever,” the commercial and video producer told CNA about working on a docuseries and screenplay on the young blessed’s life.

The room in the Passionist monastery of Ceccano where Blessed Grimoaldo Santamaria died on Nov. 18, 1902, from acute meningitis at the age of 19. Credit: Hannah Brockhaus/CNA

A recent discovery added fuel to the projects: hundreds of historic photos and 20 film rolls from the exhumation of Grimoaldo’s grave in the 1960s were found in her father’s brother’s basement earlier this year.

A prayerful life

Grimoaldo (baptized Ferdinando) Santamaria was born in Pontecorvo, a small city in central Italy, in 1883. He was the son of a poor ropemaker and the oldest brother to four sisters, one of whom died in early childhood. From a very young age, Grimoaldo demonstrated an intense religious devotion that included frequent prayer and physical mortifications.

After years of resistance from his father, who wanted him to work in the family business, the strong, healthy, and studious 16-year-old was permitted to join the Passionist order of priests. He took the name Grimoaldo.

The front of the Passionist abbey and church in Ceccano, Italy, where Blessed Grimoaldo Santamaria was studying to become a priest at the time of his sudden death in 1902 at the age of 19. Blessed Grimoaldo has been buried in the church since 1962. Credit: Hannah Brockhaus/CNA

After a year of novitiate in a nearby monastery, he made his promises as a Passionist brother and moved 22 miles away to another monastery in Ceccano to continue his studies for the priesthood.

“I always think of Jesus when he ascended Calvary, and his most holy Mother who went after the Lord, and I want to follow their suffering,” he was known to say.

Sadly, just a little more than two years later, he contracted a sudden case of acute meningitis, dying days later on Nov. 18, 1902, at the age of 19.

Grimoaldo, already called “the little saint” during his life, was hailed for his goodness, humility, attention to others, and commitment to self-sacrifice. And since his death, many prayers — and what some even believe to be miracles — have been answered through his intercession.

A copy of one of the only existing photos of Blessed Grimoaldo Santamaria, taken shortly before his death in 1902 when he was a Passionist seminarian in Ceccano, Italy. The photo is in a small museum dedicated to the blessed in the Passionist monastery in Ceccano. Credit: Hannah Brockhaus/CNA

In 1982, in central Italy, not far from Grimoaldo’s birthplace, a 4-year-old boy was found to be miraculously free from serious injury or harm after his head and chest were run over by a tractor. The boy’s father, who witnessed the accident take place, had immediately prayed for Grimoaldo’s help for his son.

The Vatican verified and approved the miracle through Grimoaldo’s intercession in 1994 and the Italian venerable was beatified by Pope John Paul II on Jan. 29, 1995.

Susan Agostinelli snaps a selfie in front of St. Peter’s Basilica during a visit to Rome in October 2022. Credit: Susan Agostinelli

New project

Among the many stories Agostinelli’s relatives would tell about her great-great uncle’s life, she recalled one particularly poignant episode of a 6- or 7-year-old Grimoaldo who threw himself into a thornbush as a personal mortification.

The other kids taunted the young Grimoaldo for his strange behavior, and his mom cried when she saw him scratched and bleeding. “But she understood,” Agostinelli said, because the mother already knew her son was different from other children.

As a cynical teenager, this and other extreme stories about Grimoaldo shared by Agostinelli’s grandmother, Mary Agostinelli, the blessed’s niece, made her sometimes question whether the family saint was really holy or if he was actually crazy.

As she continued to grow up, however, Agostinelli’s interest in the family saint continued. And the confidence the adults in her family showed in his holiness, as well as his steadfastness in interceding for their and others’ prayers, assured her that he was special.

“Holiness is fascinating… he is fascinating,” Agostinelli said, reflecting on the life of her exceptional antecedent.

Susan Agostinelli holds a relic of her great-great uncle Blessed Grimoaldo Santamaria’s bone, kept in the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Pontecorvo, Italy, in October 2022. Credit: Hannah Brockhaus/CNA

An advertising producer, Agostinelli has had an interesting career, one that has brought her all over the world. 

After graduating from journalism school, she landed in the music world and became a production assistant for “Club MTV.” Later she was hired at “MTV Unplugged.”

After leaving MTV, Agostinelli produced music videos for stars including Sheryl Crow, Britney Spears, and the pop rock band Train before working in reality TV, direct consumer marketing, and, now, as a producer for commercials.

Today Agostinelli is using her television and production experience to work on a couple of passion projects in her spare time: a docuseries and, hopefully, a feature-length film of Blessed Grimoaldo’s life.

On Oct. 3–6, 2022, Agostinelli traveled to Rome to attend a Vatican conference with the theme “Holiness Today,” during which she had the opportunity to greet Pope Francis and give him an image of her great-great uncle.

Susan Agostinelli interviews hobby cyclist Simone Durante and his wife, Maddalena, new devotees of Blessed Grimoaldo Santamaria, at the Passionist Abbey of Ceccano in October 2022. Durante believes his life was miraculously saved through the intercession of Grimoaldo after he was hit by a car in a devastating road accident on his bicycle on Jan. 27, 2021. Credit: Hannah Brockhaus/CNA

Afterward, she traveled to her ancestral city of Pontecorvo, a town of approximately 13,000 people 80 miles southeast of Rome, to revisit the places where Grimoaldo lived and to see some of her Italian relatives.

Agostinelli first visited Pontecorvo in 1995 at the time of Grimoaldo’s beatification.

Though Pontecorvo was almost completely destroyed by bombs during World War II, the house of Grimoaldo’s grandparents — where he was born and where his father had his ropemaking business in the cellar — and the Church of St. Paul the Apostle — where he was an altar boy and received the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and first holy Communion — survived and were restored. A relic of Grimoaldo’s bone is preserved in the church for veneration.

In 2022, Agostinelli also visited the abbey in Ceccano, Italy, where Grimoaldo spent the last two and a half years of his life and where his tomb was transferred after the 1962 exhumation of his remains, part of the process of beatification.

Grimoaldo’s youngest sister, Vincenzina Panella (née Santamaria) was present at the exhumation, ceremony, and procession that followed. The doctors who examined Grimoaldo’s remains found in his pockets a relic of the habit of Venerable Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows, a Passionist saint who died days before his 24th birthday in 1862 and to whom Grimoaldo was devoted.

Grimoaldo’s mortal remains were moved from the cemetery of the Ceccano abbey to its church, where they were re-entombed in a round monument with a statue depicting the saint as he would have looked at the time of his death.

The tomb with the remains of Blessed Grimoaldo Santamaria in the church of the Passionist Abbey in Ceccano, Italy. Credit: Hannah Brockhaus/CNA

While he is from Pontecorvo, the town of the “curved bridge,” Blessed Grimoaldo also has a significant following in New York, where one of his sisters and later his mother immigrated. But the efforts to promote his cause for sainthood have slowed down in recent years, especially as his nieces have died.

Agostinelli, however, has not forgotten Grimoaldo’s dying promise to take care of his family “until the seventh generation” — her great-grandchildren.

“Even while he was alive he became this conduit to the heavens; it’s a big responsibility,” she said.

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