In the late 1890s, the Italian community of Utica had become so large that Monsignor Lynch of St. John’s Church assigned his assistant, the Rev. Antonio Castelli, to work with them.
It was he that urged the new immigrants to establish their own parish. With meager donations from the parishioners and the help of Syracuse diocese’s Bishop Patrick Ludden to get a loan, Father Castelli was able to initiate the construction of the new place of worship’s foundation. He began celebrating the Mass in December 1896 in the basement of the yet unfinished building.
Once debts had been cleared on their rudimental church and adjoining rectory, a cornerstone was laid and blessed by Bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini on Sept. 15, 1901. The modest building was completed by June 1902, and Father Castelli required an assistant and future successor to his nascent parish. Bishop Ludden, through Bishop Scalabrini, found the Rev. Joseph Formia to aid, and later assume the duties of Father Castelli.
So, who was this Bishop Scalabrini and how did he and the other priests of his order play such an important role in the life of our parish for 89 years?
Giovanni Battista Scalabrini was born the third of eight children on July 8, 1839, in Mornasco, province of Como, in northern Italy. His biographers say he was a brilliant student and was ordained a priest at age 24 in 1863. He longed to be a missionary, but his bishop assigned him to teach at the minor seminary. He later became its rector. His gifts at administration and command of church doctrine were rewarded when he was appointed the Bishop of Piacenza.
As a witness to the mass immigrations of Italians to the Americas and elsewhere, he realized there would be a real need of the pastoral care of those good Catholics spread across the globe. On Nov. 28, 1887, he founded the Congregation of the Missionaries of St. Charles, which now is recognized as the Scalabrini Fathers and Brothers. The goal of this newly formed order was to “maintain Catholic faith and practice among Italian emigrants in the New World.”
Bishop Scalabrini’s personal philosophy truly was in keeping with the hopes and dreams of the hard-working Italian immigrants striving for the American dream. His motto was, “Make yourself everything to everyone.” He was well known for his tireless work ethic. He was known to have said, “We are in the hands of God, but we must not sit there idly.”
He clearly was a “doer,” yet, he was considered accessible, open, direct and, at times, vulnerable. He handled his business rationally and knew how to measure any impulsive decisions.
Pope John Paul II beatified Scalabrini in November 1997. Our former parish school is named in his honor.
As many parishes in our diocese and indeed, across the nation, have been forced to shutter their doors, this parish — our parish — has endured. Perhaps it has something to do with a distant Italian bishop and his followers who helped sustain us for almost nine decades and his spirit, like a good godfather, who watches over us still.
By A.J. VALENTINI