At home on our range

A group of Italian teens find the heart in the heartland


by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org 

TOPEKA — America? Sure, Italian teenagers know about America. They’ve seen America on TV, in magazines, and in the movies.

Recently, however, a select group of 21 Italian teens and three chaperones from Adro, Italy, discovered another America seldom seen in international news — Topeka, Kansas. They were here at the invitation of Father Tim Haberkorn, pastor of St. Joseph-Sacred Heart Parish.

During the Italians’ sojourn in middle America from Aug. 7 to 20, they had the opportunity to practice their English, perform works of service, pray, and encounter all kinds of Americans — and a few surprises.

The accidental ambassador

What brought the young Italians to Topeka was pure serendipity. About 10 years ago, Father Haberkorn got lost while on a trip to the northern Italian city of Brescia.

“I, being the relic hunter that I am, was in Brescia looking for the convent of the Ursuline Sisters to view the incorrupt body of [their foundress] St. Angela Merici,” said Father Haberkorn.

Instead, he got turned around and wandered into a parish served by the Carmelite friars.

Being the convivial sort that he is, Father Haberkorn hit it off splendidly with the Carmelites and was “adopted” by them. During subsequent visits to Europe, he often managed to go to Brescia. It was during one of those visits that he got to know the Carmelites at a school, La Madonna della Neve (Our Lady of the Snows) in the nearby town of Adro.

“I was talking to the priests there, and I said, ‘Why don’t you bring some kids over [to Topeka] sometime?’” said Father Haberkorn.

Lay teachers from the school visited Topeka in January to lay the groundwork. Father Haberkorn helped with the itinerary and finding host families for the students from among his parishioners.

At home on the range

The students, ages 15 to 17, were led by two Carmelite priests — Father Claudio Grassi, OCD, and Father Elie Massad, OCD — and a lay teacher, Francesca Tamimi.

Only the very best students were allowed to go. All of them could speak some English, but with varying degrees of fluency. Most had some travel experience, but none had been to the United States before.

“Everyone wanted to come to the USA, but we couldn’t afford to bring them all,” said Father Grassi.

The student’s 14 days in the heartland of America were filled with activities.

The group itinerary included a swimming and barbecue party; a trip to the World War I Museum, the Nelson Art Gallery, the Country Club Plaza, and Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Mo.; a tour of the state Capitol and the Kansas Museum of History; and a visit to Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Topeka.

In addition to seeing the sights in Kansas City, the Italians made a side trip to the old and new cathedrals in St. Louis, and a quick pilgrimage to Our Lady of the Snows Shrine in Belleville, Ill.

The Italians’ curiosity about Native Americans was satisfied by a visit to the Potawatomi Reservation, where they found something in common with Adro — the Our Lady of the Snows Shrine.

They also encountered American food — pizza, tacos, hamburgers and barbecue. On the whole, consuming American food was a positive experience and several teens said they liked American food very, very much.

One boy, however, acquired a horror of fried chicken. Apparently, a rogue fowl left him with a daylong tummy ache.

American impressions

The Italian students did their homework before coming to Topeka.

“I dealt with the cultural aspect,” said teacher Francesca Tamimi. “We did some lessons about Kansas, and charted the social problems, and the geographical and historical context.”

She organized the students into study groups and they did research on various topics. Nevertheless, there were surprises. They had some ideas about America, said Tamimi, but the degree of difference between Italian and American culture left them “positively astonished.”

“They had some expectations, but the impact was a new one,” she said.

The impressions were largely positive.

“The people are very funny, and kind, and the place is very beautiful,” said Luca Sartorio.

“They are kind and nice with us,” said Giulia Messina.

By way of contrast, one student said most Italians are “too solemn.”

It’s bigger

“Everything is bigger than in Italy,” said Claudia Berardi, “the cars, and the

shampoo. The shampoo is smaller in Italy. The houses in Italy are smaller than the American houses.”

“I love the houses of Kansas,” said Filippo Tonelli. “They are very different. In Italy, they aren’t made of wood, because it is too expensive. I love the cars of Kansas, and there are the big streets you can drive.”

Even the people are bigger in Kansas.

“Because you eat a lot of sweets,” said Giulia. “Everything is good here.”

One thing in Kansas isn’t larger than in Italy: the elevation. Kansas, they noticed, is rather flat.

“In Kansas, there aren’t any mountains, and no sea,” said Claudia. “I thought that there might be some mountains, but there aren’t.”

One thing the Italians expressed repeatedly was the warm welcome extended to them by the friendly Kansans.

“I think the hospitality is better in America than in Italy,” said Claudia. “In Italy, the people are not so hospitable.”

The wide-open fields and pastures of Kansas made a big impression, as did the long distances. They were also impressed by the amount of green spaces and trees in cities and towns in Kansas.

Land of many churches

Italy is overwhelmingly Catholic, so it was a surprise for the students to come to Topeka and see the religious diversity of America.

“They were very surprised,” said Father Grassi. “We are not used in Italy to so many different religions.”

“[The students] ask me what is the difference from one to another, and sometimes I am not able to answer them,” he continued, “because there are so many different churches. For instance, here on one street you can find many different churches. In Italy, maybe one or two in town, but not so many.”

Italy, like the United States, has different ethnic groups. In Adro and Brescia, however, they do not have ethnic parishes. They noticed that American Catholicism is strong, and a bit more conservative than in Italy. Americans have many more religious objects in their homes, and are more prone to make the sign of the cross. Italians, however, sing more during Mass.

A grimmer side of America

Although they had opportunities for fun, the Italian students were not here primarily as tourists. They did chores for host families and volunteered for tasks at Father Haberkorn’s parishes.

The students also saw a grimmer side of America when they volunteered at Let’s Help, a social service agency in Topeka. They helped prepare and serve noon meals, sorted donated clothes, stocked the food pantry, and assembled packets of school supplies.

“I think it is a good job for us to help the poor people, who are less lucky than we are,” said Luca Sartorio. “In all the world, America is seen as a technological country, but here are also poor people in the big city.”

“I think the United States is very big and modern, but there is another reality,” said Clarissa Paletti, “because there aren’t only rich people, but there are also poor people, with their needs.”

The whole point of going to Let’s Help was to gain a sense of solidarity with the poor and a feeling of brotherhood with those who live far away from Italy, explained Father Grassi.

Kansas souvenirs

The Italian students returned home with photographs, souvenirs, and lots of good memories.

“We told them to expect to learn how Americans live, the culture of American people, and to make new friends,” said Father Grassi. “And they expected to make good friends, of course. They need friends.”

And not just friends, he said, but friends in faith. The Catholics of Topeka and the Catholics of Adro had an opportunity to share hospitality and their shared faith. The end result was a shared benefit.

“I want them to come back [to Italy] and tell their friends that we can live the faith everywhere in a good way, and people are of the same heart, the same need to be loved and in contact with God,” said Father Grassi. “That, I would like.”

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