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Today we visit the American parish in Rome, Santa Susanna. The church was originally named Titulus Gaius for Saint Gabinus. Gabinus, Pope Saint Caius’ brother, owned the home over which this church was built. The current church is named for Gabinus’ daughter, Saint Susanna. Susanna is said to have been a very beautiful and well educated woman, so much so that the emperor Diocletian wanted her to marry his adopted son, Maximian. She considered herself a bride of Christ and refused to marry, so she was put to death. She was beheaded in her home alongside her father.
The church was first built in 330, but rebuilt in 1593. The Baroque façade was completed in 1603 by Carlo Maderno, just a few years before he began the façade of another church, Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Inside the church are the tombs of Saint Susanna, Saint Gabinus, Saint Felicity, her son Saint Silvanus, Pope Saint Eleuterus and Saint Genesius.
So how did this church become the American National Church in Rome? In January 1921 the Superior General of the Paulist Fathers, Father Thomas Burke, traveled to Rome to meet with Pope Benedict XV seeking formal recognition of the order. At the time the order was only recognized in the US. While in Rome, Father Burke also sought to acquire a church. Next door from the American Embassy was the church of Santa Susanna. The church was rarely used.
After returning to America, Father Burke spoke with his brother about the church. His brother, a priest who worked with American bishops on a national level, had access to President Warren G. Harding. He spoke with the president about his brother’s desire to have an American parish in Rome. A few months later, the Apostolic Nuncio visited the White House. The president told him that he wanted an American church in Rome and specifically mentioned Santa Susanna. The Apostolic Nuncio wrote the Vatican Secretary of State and recommended giving the Americans the church. A few months later, Pope Benedict XV authorized the Paulists to use the church and create a national church for American Catholics in Rome.
The priest assigned to the church, Father Thomas O’Neill began Americanizing the church almost immediately. First, he hired a carpenter to build pews. Most Roman churches brought out chairs only on certain occasions. To have pews in a church in Rome was quite uncommon. Next he installed electric lighting. This was a first in Rome. All other churches were lit by candlelight. There was a huge controversy and he was ordered to remove them. He was eventually allowed to keep the lighting system and soon other churches followed.
The first public Mass for the American community was celebrated on February 26, 1922. The celebrate was William Cardinal O’Connell of Boston, in town for the papal election of Pope Pius XI. Also participating in the Mass was the choir from the North American College.