Volume 17 • Issue 31 | Dec. 24 - 30, 2004

Pompei Church priest goes from Venezuela to Downtown

Father John Massari. Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

By Albert Amateau

Father John Massari, who became the new priest in charge of Our Lady of Pompei Church in October replacing Father Joseph Cogo, recalls the first time he came to the Village from Italy as a young priest.

“It was the same time the pope came to Yankee Stadium — Paul VI — in 1965,” he said in an interview last week.

“Father Cogo had tickets and took us there — we had seats in the last row and when the pope came out, everybody stood up and started whistling. I was shocked and I thought these people must be crazy, because in Italy, whistling is like booing. But Father Cogo told us that here, whistling is like cheering and I was reassured,” he said.

Culture shock must be an occupational hazard for priests in the Scalabrini order, which was founded to serve Italian emigrants, especially in the Americas. “Now our focus has widened to serve emigrants from the Philippines, Brazil and Asia,” said Father Massari.

His first visit to Our Lady of Pompei was brief. “The next day I was off to Providence, R.I.,” he recalled. Since then, he has served several Scalabrini missions, the latest being in Caracas, Venezuela, where he ran a congregation of English-speaking Catholics for the past nine years.

“We had expatriates from all over, Canadians, U.S. citizens, Africans from Nigeria, people from England. It was a very mobile community, so we didn’t own a church building but used a rented chapel in a Jesuit college,” Father Massari recalled.

Crime was a major problem in Caracas, he said. “The house next to the one I lived in had a wall and on top of that, wire — electrified wire and razor wire. It gives you some idea of the security problem,” he said. And in recent years, the instability of the government and the unpopularity of the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, whom Massari characterized as a “democratic dictator,” affected everyone.

During a general strike from December 2002 to February 2003, the situation was so uncertain that foreign companies called home their employees and the English-speaking parish that Massari served dwindled to 17 — all men.

He recalled that during the Aug. 15, 2004, referendum on Chavez, he saw voters lined up for as long as six hours waiting to vote. Chavez won approval by a margin of 1.5 million votes, but Massari said that many believed there was wholesale fraud. “The next day the city looked like it was in mourning. The government planned a victory celebration but no one was celebrating,” he said.

Nevertheless, he said, Venezuela is beautiful as well as richly endowed with oil and other natural resources. “It has 3,000 species of orchids and the weather is wonderful,” Father Massari said.

The Scalabrini missioners serve Italian emigrant communities in four cities in Venezuela as well as the English-speaking one in Caracas.

Father Massari was born in the Emilia region of Italy south of Milan in a working-class family. “My father was a street cleaner,” he noted. His interest in the Scalabrini order began when he was 10 years old.

“A Scalabrini missioner came to our school and told us about a parish in Brazil where the priest rode all over on horseback,” he recalled. “It hit my imagination and I told my parents I wanted to be a missionary,” he said. “They asked me if I knew what I was in for, I said yes. I entered the seminary when I was in the sixth grade,” he added.

Becoming a seminary student at such a young age is no longer possible, he acknowledged. While studying for the priesthood, he and a classmate visited England for a few months. That experience prompted him to ask for a posting to an English-speaking country after becoming a priest and he got Providence, R.I., as his first assignment.

“I never thought I would ever live in New York,” he said. “I love New York as a tourist, but the thought of living here scared me.”

Nevertheless, he welcomed the assignment to Our Lady of Pompei and spent a couple of months with Father Cogo learning about the parish and its challenges. Father Cogo is replacing Massari in Caracas.

The first challenge facing Father Massari is the repair of the church and school, a project estimated at $1 million to $2 million. “We are in the process of fundraising and I hope that the generous people who love this church will be moved to join the restoration,” he said. “It’s a beautiful church and I feel honored to be here,” he declared.


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