My Cousin the Saint: A Search for Faith, Family, and Miracles


An inspiring story of faith and family across two continents

Like millions of other Italians in the early twentieth century, Justin Catanoso's grandfather immigrated to America to escape poverty and hardship. Nearly a hundred years later, Justin, born and raised in New Jersey, knows little of his family beyond the Garden State.

That changes in 2001 when he discovers that his grandfather's cousin, Padre Gaetano Catanoso, is a Vatican-certified...

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An inspiring story of faith and family across two continents

Like millions of other Italians in the early twentieth century, Justin Catanoso's grandfather immigrated to America to escape poverty and hardship. Nearly a hundred years later, Justin, born and raised in New Jersey, knows little of his family beyond the Garden State.

That changes in 2001 when he discovers that his grandfather's cousin, Padre Gaetano Catanoso, is a Vatican-certified miracle worker. After a life of serving the poor and founding an order of nuns, Gaetano had been approved by Pope John Paul II to become a saint, the first priest from Calabria ever to be canonized. A typically lapsed American Catholic, Justin embarks on a quest to connect with his extended family in southern Italy and, ultimately, to awaken his slumbering faith.

My Cousin the Saint charts the parallel history of two relatives—Justin's grandfather, Carmelo, and his sainted cousin, Gaetano. While Carmelo leaves his homeland to pursue New World prosperity, Gaetano stays behind to relieve Old World misery. Justin reunites the two halves of a sundered family by both exploring the life of the saint in Calabria and uncovering the untold story of his grandfather's family, raised in New Jersey between two world wars.

Justin confronts his own tenuous spiritual moorings in the process. After meeting with Vatican officials in Rome, he is astonished by the complexity of saint-making. After hearing one miracle story after another, he struggles with the line between the mystical and the divine. After seeing his brother fall ill with terminal cancer, he questions the value of prayer. And after reveling in the charm and generosity of his newfound Italian relatives, he comes to learn what it means to have a saint in the family.

A compelling narrative written with grace and honesty, My Cousin the Saint is a testament to the challenge of being Catholic in twenty-first-century America. More than a biography, more than an immigrant memoir, more than a chronicle of renewed faith, it is a love letter to a family now reunited across oceans and years.

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Editorial Reviews

America: The National Catholic Weekly
“Glorious. . . . It’s a great story: part travelogue, part detective story, part spiritual journal, and beautifully told.”
Greensboro News & Record
“Worth worth reading for the travelogue alone.”
“A fascinating quest for ancestry and an illuminating wrestling with faith.”
The Catholic Standard & Times
“Vividly brings to life one of the Church’s newest canonized saints.”
America: The National Catholic Weekly
“Glorious. . . . It’s a great story: part travelogue, part detective story, part spiritual journal, and beautifully told.”
Cape May County Herald
“A book for history lovers. . . for students of theology, for those who question their faith, or for anyone stumbling down life’s highway.”
Publishers Weekly

After learning that his grandfather's late cousin would soon be canonized (declared a saint), Catanoso, a journalist, made several trips to southern Italy, taking part in family feasts and funerals and listening to stories about Padre Gaetano Catanoso's holy life and amazing miracles. Back home again, he researched the American branch of the family founded by his grandfather, Carmelo, Born eight years and half a mile apart, the two young men would take differing paths. Gaetano stayed in Calabria and became a priest; Carmelo emigrated to America in 1903, fathered nine children and rarely spoke of his Italian roots. The book starts slowly, with a barrage of information about the saint, the province of Reggio Calabria and the immigrant experience. A hundred pages in, the writing becomes more personal: Catanoso meets his Italian cousins and begins reflecting on his own experience as a Catholic Italian-American. Informative and thought provoking throughout, the chapters on his brother's bout with cancer are especially poignant. Why, he wonders, would a family saint answer some prayers for healing, but not others? (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061231025
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/20/2008
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Justin Catanoso is a journalist who also teaches writing and editing at Wake Forest University. Since 1998, he has served as the executive editor of The Business Journal, based in Greensboro, North Carolina. A Pulitzer Prize nominee, he has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Business Week, and appeared on National Public Radio. He lives in Greensboro with his wife and their three daughters.

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Read an Excerpt

My Cousin the Saint
A Search for Faith, Family, and Miracles

Chapter One

Cousins in Chorio

Not everyone can become a saint. Aurelio Sorrentino and Giuseppe D'Ascola knew that. But the two priests, fellow seminary students and native sons of Calabria, believed they knew someone with the rare qualities to become one.

It was late fall 1978, and the priests were in a hurry, striding down Via della Conciliazione in Rome toward St. Peter's Square. They were on their way to an important meeting. All the bishops of Calabria, the southern-most region of the mainland of Italy, had been summoned to the Vatican. John Paul II, the newly elected pope, had called a series of such meetings to greet church leaders from Italy and share with them the priorities of his emerging pontificate.

Sorrentino, stocky and thickset with a round face and dark eyes, was the archbishop of Reggio Calabria-Bova, the largest diocese in Calabria. D'Ascola was not a bishop at all. He was a monsignor who lived in Rome and worked for the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Sorrentino had invited his friend D'Ascola to go along with him to meet the first non-Italian pope in centuries, Karol Wojtyla, a former Polish cardinal, young and vibrant at age fifty-eight.

The new pope, though, was not on their minds at the moment. Sorrentino began talking instead about a beloved fellow Calabrian, a humble parish priest who had left an indelible mark on both their lives and their shared vocation. His name was Padre Gaetano Catanoso. He had died in Reggio Calabria fifteen years earlier at age eighty-four. He had been their teacher during their seminaryyears in the 1940s, an enduring inspiration to them. He had been their confessor, as well, the priest they trusted most to hear their sins. Sorrentino had never forgotten Padre Catanoso's spiritual bearing and sweet, benevolent example. The archbishop had quietly organized a commission in Reggio earlier that spring to begin gathering information on the long life of his late mentor. He now divulged the reason.

"What do you think of a canonization cause for Padre Catanoso?" Sorrentino asked, knowing full well that the route to sainthood was long and laborious, never assured.

Monsignor D'Ascola, shorter and with a bit less girth than the archbishop, was a Vatican insider. He knew the long odds associated with attaining sainthood. He knew there had not been a saint declared from Calabria in more than four hundred and fifty years. He also knew that Padre Catanoso was different. He was special. D'Ascola embraced the idea as if it were his own. "Excellency," he said, "what are we waiting for?"

Arriving a few minutes later at the private offices of the pope near the basilica, the two priests joined their Calabrian peers for a small reception. Pope John Paul II, resplendent in his long white cassock and matching shoulder cape and skullcap, made sure to spend a few moments with all those attending. The pope was intrigued to hear that D'Ascola worked just across the square in the unheralded office of saint-making. He asked D'Ascola what aspect of his work with saints interested him the most.

"I am interested in all the saints of the world!" D'Ascola blurted, eager to demonstrate this enthusiasm to his new boss.

John Paul II gave him a peculiar look. Then raising a finger to accentuate his point, the pope offered some advice. It was the kind of advice he would later share with others of spiritual authority in Rome and around the world, advice that would lead to the most dramatic changes in the office of saint-making in hundreds of years, advice that in time would make the new pope the Catholic Church's busiest saint-maker in history.

"You must be interested in the saints of your land, your region," John Paul implored. "That's what I am interested in."

D'Ascola nodded solemnly, then looked to Sorrentino as the pope moved on to speak with others. The archbishop had heard the remarks and thought immediately of Padre Catanoso. The last saint named from Calabria had been St. Francis of Paola, a hermit known for strange miracles such as being able to levitate and sail across water using his cloak as his only means. He died in 1507, the year before Michelangelo began painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. What a shame, Sorrentino thought, that the Church of Calabria, rich as it has been for ages with priests, monks, and nuns of extraordinary holiness, could not lay claim to a single native-born pastor from the region who had risen to sainthood. He and D'Ascola knew who should become the first.

If you are not familiar with the technical, Vatican-sanctioned definition of a miracle, you might be inclined to say that it was miraculous that a future saint could emerge from a remote and impoverished Calabrian mountain village such as Chorio, a place so small that it's usually excluded from Italian maps. Its history dates back to the fifth century and the Byzantine Empire following Roman rule. "Chorio," meaning "town" or "village," has its origins in Greek; indeed, Greek influences on the language and culture of the region ripple through the centuries.

Chorio sits in a swale of the lower Aspromonte, the mountain range that rises through the middle of Calabria. The Aspromonte, or "sour mountains," are so named because the steep, rugged terrain, prone to winter mudslides, made farming difficult for endless generations. The name fittingly describes the plight of the people there in the late 1800s and early 1900s when millions fled southern Italy for a chance at a better life in America. Chorio's western edge is tucked in against a mountainside that is brown and barren with gnarled fig and olive trees, and patches of prickly pear, which spread like cactus weeds. Its eastern edge is hugged by the bend of a small river, the Tuccio, which, like most rivers in southern Italy, rages in winter with heavy rains but is dusty-white and dry during the . . .

My Cousin the Saint
A Search for Faith, Family, and Miracles
. Copyright © by Justin Catanoso. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 16, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Couldn't put this book down

    I got a copy in the mail a few weeks ago and devoured this book. It's just that good.<BR/><BR/>What would you do if you found out that your grandfather's cousin in southern Italy was about to become a saint?<BR/><BR/>When this happened to Justin Catanoso, he went on a mission to find the miracles his cousin performed (both Vatican-sanctioned and internal family stories), his long-lost extended family in Calabria, and his own lapsed Catholic faith.<BR/><BR/>What emerged from his journey is a wonderfully written, engaging book that reminded me a lot of Gay Talese's Unto the Sons, one of my favorites in this genre, not only because of the Calabrian setting but also because of the family tales told from impressively objective viewpoints.<BR/><BR/>Even though Justin is in Italy for much of the book, his family back in the States plays a large role; they are so obviously a cherished, integral part of his life. The parts of the book about Justin's brother Alan, who died of cancer leaving behind a wife and young children, are some of the most poignant and touching in the book, and rightfully so. It seems this event, possibly more than all the other reasons Justin might have had, pushed Justin to come to Italy in search of miracles-particularly as it seemed one had been denied his own family despite prayers to their cousin the saint.<BR/><BR/>As for the saint, Justin does a fantastic job of detailing Padre Gaetano Catanoso's rise to sainthood from his early days as a traveling parish priest to the founder of an order of nuns. I'm not religious, but I admit I love saints and their stories-and now I particularly love Padre Gaetano. Sure the fact that he's the first saint from Calabria in 500 years means he has a special place in my heart, but it's more than that.<BR/><BR/>Padre Gaetano was, to me with my Roman Catholic upbringing, what priests should be-humble, devoted, pious, and, quite simply, simple. Not simple-minded by any means, as he was obviously an intelligent man with his volumes of writing, but simple. He lived in near poverty his entire life when surely he could have moved on to higher offices and better conditions than those in Calabria.<BR/><BR/>But Padre Gaetano remained faithful and committed to preaching to his fellow Calabrese-they who have such interesting mixes of beliefs from intense devotion to the Virgin Mary to the belief in malocchio. He even shunned the appellation "Don," keeping the humble term "Padre," showing his deep connection with his parishioners.<BR/><BR/>I also enjoyed Justin's tales of finding of his Calabrian family and becoming one of their own. I laughed out loud when Justin was presented with a box of family photos by his aunt; I had a remarkably similar experience when I started researching my family history.<BR/><BR/>"Take whatever you want," his aunt said, as did mine.<BR/><BR/>I found my great-great-grandfather's US citizenship papers, which started my path to Italian citizenship and to living in Italy; Justin found a photo of his Uncle Tony, who had gone AWOL in World War II to go find his aunt in Calabria only knowing her name-and he found her! This is often referred to as the first miracle of Padre Gaetano among family members.<BR/><BR/>Through Justin's words, I was right there with him and his Calabrian family in both good times and bad from the canonization ceremony in St. Peter's Square to his newly found relative's funeral. Justin's descriptions are vivid and moving but not over the top, offering the perfect balance so that scenes

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2008

    A Sentimental Jorney

    This is a GREAT read. At first I thought the author was trying to sell me on the greatness of Catholicism but the more I read the more I learned that he was/is on a spiritual quest himself. For anyone interested in family history like me, this is a very interesting book to read. It was a thrill to journey to the 'old country' and become familiar with Italian culture and the Catanoso family. This book is full of emotion as one shares the joys, the frustration, the fear and the pain of author Justin Catanoso as he searches for his 'lost' Italian family and his cousin the Saint. A beautifully written book that is well worth the read. Thank you Justin for sharing your family's story with me and the rest of the world.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2008

    Couldn't Put it Down -

    I couldn't put it down, and when I did I couldn't wait until I started to read it again. Justin Catanoso paints a picture of Italy with his words that you almost feel like you are there.

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