The Bacich Saga (An American Story)
In the California of the 1980s, the experience of a large family guided by the tenacity of a mother certain of finding a more human Christianity. An exchange of letters, some books in Italian, and finally an encounter…
BY ANNA LEONARDI
North of San Francisco is Napa Valley, the most famous wine country in America. This is the point on the globe where our story starts, in the mid-1980s, in the small town of St Helena, where a family with a Dalmatian-Croatian surname was living: the Bacichs–mother, father, and six children. But the parents’ relationship was troubled and they decided to separate. Life became even more challenging for the mother, Christine, alone with six children. Her loneliness grew even deeper when their closest friends, scandalized at the subsequent annulment proceedings, turned their backs on her. “In the Church in the United States at the time,” the eldest son, Damian, recounts, “there was fierce opposition between conservatives and liberals. My mother was the victim of an intransigent Catholicism lacking in charity.” And yet, Christine did not give up. “She was sure,” Chris, the second son, goes on, “that there was a human way to live Christianity.” It was this certainty that wove together the threads of an experience that would go far. In 1984, she read an article in the National Catholic Register on the Communion & Liberation Movement. It was like being struck by lightning. She took pen and paper in hand and wrote a letter to Italy, where the Movement had its headquarters. The reply was not long in coming. Damian still remembers the package in the mailbox: “It contained what was then Litterae Communionis, some books by Fr Giussani (in Italian!) and a letter in English that said, in so many words, ‘Dear Madam, we are sorry to tell you that at the moment there is no one from the Movement in the United States, but please be patient and you will see that something will happen soon.’” At that point, all Christine could do was tackle the books. She set Damian, who knew Spanish, to reading and deciphering “CL Italian.” Then, dissatisfied with her son’s results, she took all that printed matter to an Opus Dei center, where they translated some passages for her.
Time to move
A year later, it was time for Damian to go to college, cutting the umbilical cord with his family. In Damian’s case, maybe because San Francisco is so close-by, and maybe because Christine did not slacken the reins, this did not happen–indeed, quite the contrary. Their separation set off a chain of events that would make them inseparable. But let’s take things in order.
Going to San Francisco to study history, Damian had taken with him a piece of paper on which he had written an address: the parish of the Dominican House of Studies in Berkeley. The priest in his town had advised him to go to Mass there. Thus, Sunday morning, Damian went there, and “obviously” his mother joined him, bringing her daughter, Annemarie. After Mass, the priest invited everybody out for a pizza. Imagine if Christine hadn’t joined them! The only thing that bothered her was a man who had stared at her and Annemarie all during Mass. He looked like a foreigner to her. She was right: he was Italian, a researcher in astrophysics, whose friends called him “Binocolo” (“Binoculars”) but whose real name is Marco Bersanelli. He had watched them in church because he was amazed that a 13-year-old girl was following the liturgy so devoutly. During lunch, he got up and handed out some flyers. “He is here, like on the first day,” was written on them, with the date, time, and place for a meeting called “School of Community.” Christine’s eyes scanned down the page to stop only when at the bottom she read “Communion and Liberation.” Touché!
From that moment, Christine threw herself into this adventure. Meetings, parties, trips… It didn’t matter that she had to drive two hours to get to Berkeley and the tiny group of Binocolo’s friends, it didn’t matter that they were all young and she had children in college. Ah, yes, her children: how could she get them involved? Damian confesses, “I wasn’t really interested in this. Finally my mother managed to drag me to a dinner, where I came upon Binocolo–the freest man I had ever met.”
What about Chris? “At the time I was in my next-to-last year of high school,” he recounts. “I was very wild, and my whole life revolved around school, girls, and friends. I viewed the Church as a place of moralism, even though I had never doubted the truth of Christianity.” Indeed, Chris had grown up with the inner certainty that Christ exists. Born with cancer, he was close to death. His mother prayed and had all the relatives pray to Our Lady, and brought the baby a rosary given to her by a healing priest. Against all medical expectations, Chris got well within a month. “Ever since then, as long as I can remember,” Christ recounts, “every evening at our house we recited a Rosary on our knees. This is why my mother maintains that our family encountered the Movement through Our Lady’s intercession.”
The encounter with Binocolo forced Chris to rethink his position regarding the Church. “I saw a Catholic who not only was not a moralist, but was really cool.” He too began attending School of Community. But when Christine was forced to look for a new house for her family and decided to move to Sacramento to be closer to the community, Chris was against it. He wanted to stay in St Helena. He rented the family garage of a friend of his and found a job. His brother Martin, just 16 years old, decided to stay with him. Christine swallowed it, but as soon as she had the chance, she set out to get her children back. “It was time for the community vacation,” Chris explains, and this time my mother gave me no choice. ‘I am your mother, and you are coming.’ I returned happy, and certain that my life, the United States, and the whole world had to be like those three days. I left my garage apartment and my job and went to live in Sacramento.” Martin too, despite his reticence, gave in when he saw his brothers “transfigured.”
A rare pearl
1987 is a year that Damian and Chris remember well: Fr Giussani came to California. “We had read his books, we had heard our Italian friends talk about him,” Chris said excitedly, “but finding yourself in front of him was completely different. He had blown away all our expectations. The first was his name: we were convinced that Don, the title Italians use for priests [“Father”], stood for Donald!” Chris pulled out the question he was waiting to ask: “I want to come study in Italy; I want to get to know the Movement better.” “No,” Fr Giussani replied sharply, “you have to make the Movement here.” And this is what happened. Chris enrolled at the University of San Francisco as a history major and went to live with Damian at 3030 Turk Boulevard #8–the first “CLU” apartment. Together they had dinner at least once a week, housecleaned, prayed, and decided on not too much TV. These four golden rules seem to go against the typical American lifestyle, but they transformed the Bacich brothers’ apartment (in the meantime, Martin too had joined them) into a rare pearl on campus, and thus a magnet to many.
If you are waiting for the end of this story, relax–you won’t read it here. Here is a bare-bones report of life since then: Chris, a member of Memores Domini, teaches history at a Catholic high school in Brooklyn; Damian lives in Los Angeles, finishing his PhD studies in literature; Martin is married with two children, working as an architect in San Francisco, Greg is studying Computer Sciences at Fordham and is involved in CLU in New York; Annemarie has also joined a Memores Domini house (in Maryland) and is a high school teacher; and Marguerite is about to get her degree in Public Relations in California. What has happened to Christine? Paying no attention to her age, in her 50’s she earned a university degree and now works with learning impaired children (“special ed”). She is not afraid to talk about Christ even with them. And many of them, thanks to her, have found faith. She continues to live in the San Francisco area. And in the little free time that remains to her, to safeguard the fruit of her relentless entreaty that something real happen, she stays in touch with her California brood, and makes frequent bicoastal phone calls, very much involved in the adventure of life.