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Sunday, 15 December 2013 17:59

Scalabrinian worker for Christ

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Father Emilio Vaccaro could easily have ended up as a successful businessman, but an encounter with the Scalabrinian Fathers when he was a young boy and a desire to be “with people” led to what he calls “a life of working for Christ” for over 50 years spanning across three continents, writes Jenny Brinkworth.

As the son of an Italian furniture maker, Fr Emilio Vaccaro could easily have followed a different career path and more than likely would have ended up a successful businessman.

Born in the town of Cologna Veneta in the province of Verona in 1938, Fr Emilio and his brother had a comfortable, middle-class upbringing and were encouraged to take over the family business which included a flourishing small furniture factory and a shop front run by his mother.

But an encounter with the Scalabrinian Fathers when he was a young boy and a desire to be “with people” led to what he calls “a life of working for Christ”.

It’s a decision he has never regretted: “I made the right choice, I have no regrets, I am very happy,” he says emphatically. “And I play golf.”

His philosophy in life is simple: “In pastoral work you have got to be down to earth with people.” This applies to everyone he is associated with – from the workers on his church building project to parishioners and fellow clergy.

He credits his parents with his pragmatic approach to life and thanks God for “guarding over him” during his 50 years as a priest.

Needless to say it wasn’t easy for his parents when 12-year-old Emilio told them he was going to join the seminary college at Bassano, 50km from his home.

There were 130 or so young people in his class and Fr Emilio says only 24 went on to become priests. After completing his novitiate at 18 and two years of philosophy at Piacenza, he was given the chance to go on exchange for four years and undertake his theological studies in the United States.

“I was 20 years of age when I landed in New York with another classmate and was taken to Staten Island – they call it the garden of the US,” he says.

His mother was not too sure about her son’s move to New York but when he arrived back home in 1963, three months after being ordained at St Peter’s Church in Staten Island, the locals put up a sign saying “Welcome back to the American priest”. He celebrated his first Mass in his home town church and there was a “big festivity” afterwards. “My parents were very proud and very happy,” he recalls.

Originally destined for a missionary placement in Australia or Canada, Fr Emilio received an urgent phone call telling him to go to Bedford in England because there was no English-speaking priest among the Scalabrinian Missionaries there. He was only 25 but spent the first eight months on his own acting as parish priest before being joined by a priest from the US.

After two and a half years in the Northhampton diocese his “great adventure” began when his Superior General decided he should come to Australia to join the staff of the Apostolic Delegate (a diplomatic post of the Holy See). For five years he was based in the delegation’s headquarters in North Sydney and his duties of being mainly personal Secretary to then Apostolic Delegate, Mons Enrici, included going to the airport once a week to receive all the diplomatic mail from the Vatican. When Pope Paul VI visited Australia for three days in 1970 he had to organise the visit from behind the scenes and stay up until the early hours to send telexes to Rome. The Pope was staying in the room next to his office and dropped in a few times for a chat to ask him questions about Australia. “He was a very humble person,” Fr Emilio says.

Although he had some “very interesting experiences” in this role, including meeting the Prime Minister, William McMahon, on several occasions, Fr Emilio was not convinced it was the right job for him so his superior told him to take a break back in Italy for three months. When he returned to Australia he was assigned as administrator of the Shepparton parish for four months and then at the age of 33 he was made parish priest of Dee Why, on the north coast of Sydney.

There were Italian market gardeners in the area and Fr Emilio set up a committee comprising Italians and Australians. “We had professionals such as doctors and solicitors as well as the Italian migrants from the tomato gardens – it was very successful,” he says.

After five years there, he volunteered in 1976 to run the Scalabrini Italian Centre and the Seafarers (Stella Maris) Centre in the port of Newcastle. In 1979, while still running the Italian Centre, he was made a member of the Provincial Council and Vicar Provincial for the Scalabrinians in Australia.

But the role of parish priest beckoned once again and he was called to St Luke’s parish in the Melbourne suburb of Lalor where there was a very large Italian community, two primary schools with 800 children and a regional college with 1400 students. In his last three years there he was administrator of the college, further indication of his business acumen.

The Scalabrinians have a policy of not working more than nine or 10 years in one place, hence Fr Emilio found himself back in New South Wales in 1991 as the priest for the Italian Mission House in Liverpool. It was back to Melbourne in 1992 to take charge of the congregation’s aged care facilities, San Carlo, and develop another aged care facility, St Francis of Assisi, which comprised 250 beds and 150 employees. The position was an important part of the Italian community and even led to an involvement in RetaItalia (a national Italian radio station).

Fr Emilio continued his commitment to pastoral care of the aged when he was put in charge of pastoral care at St Hilarion’s Aged Care here in Adelaide in 2003. At the same time he became assistant priest at the Seaton parish which was established by the Scalabrinians after they were invited to Adelaide by Archbishop Beovich in 1961.

He took over as parish priest in 2006 at the same time as the Mater Christi Primary School’s amalgamation with Nazareth College triggered a major restructure of parish properties.

When speaking about the building works that have taken place under his watch, Fr Emilio modestly admits that he “likes to be involved” but it is clear that he has been a driving force behind the renovation of the Mater Christi Church, the extension of Mater Christi Parish Centre including four large meeting rooms and two parish offices and the leasing of the old school building to Centacare Catholic Family Services.

His fundraising efforts have enabled the project to be completed nearly $1 million under budget and the generosity of parishioners has been recognised.

More importantly, he has been successful in following the Scalabrinian tradition of “building a bridge, not a ghetto, between our community and the ethnic groups within it”.

“We (migrants) bring the best of our traditions so that we can become part of the society we live in.”

As well as serving the ethnic groups within the parish, Fr Emilio and the other three Scalabrinian priests at Seaton provide chaplaincy to the Filipino, Spanish-speaking and Chinese migrant communities. “The parish is the footing and from there we go out to other communities,” he explains.

Having reached retirement age of 75 earlier this year, Fr Emilio is adamant about three things – that he will retire (as a parish priest) soon, to continue his dedication to his priesthood as a Scalabrini missionary and that he will remain in Australia.

“This is more than my home, it is my family” he says.

This article is used with permission and first appeared in the November 2013 edition of The Southern Cross, the publication of the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide.

Read more about the Scalabrinians in Asia Pacific.