STAMFORD—More than 500 people came out to support St. John Fisher Seminary and honor its founding rector, Msgr. Stephen DiGiovanni, and a Stamford couple whom Bishop Frank J. Caggiano praised as the “spiritual parents of a generation of priests.”
“Forming Fishers of Men,” the Second Annual Rector’s Dinner held on Saturday, recognized Stamford residents Phil and Judy DeFelice for their longtime commitment to the seminary and the Diocese of Bridgeport.
Bishop Caggiano praised Msgr. DiGiovanni and the DeFelices, who he said have faithfully served the ‘Fishermen’ for more than 20 years.
Pastor of the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist, Msgr. DiGiovanni was founding rector and vocation director, and his tenure produced 27 priests currently serving in the diocese.
“To form priests is a sacred art; it is not something that can be easily or totally taught and requires some basic human gifts that grace informs to do God’s will,” the bishop said. Msgr. DiGiovanni possesses those gifts, he said, including a strong faith in Jesus Christ, deep wisdom, compassion and empathy in order to “feel what the men entrusted to his care feel so he can mold them into something beautiful for the Lord.”
Bishop Caggiano said the seminarians have been blessed to have as “spiritual parents, a remarkable couple who have formed a generation of priests in this diocese, not by any great eloquent theological discourse but an integrity of life, humble sacrifice and great love for the men who have come through St. John Fisher.” He added, “They know very well that Phil and Judy love them dearly and there would be nothing they would not do for them.”
Ms. DeFelice was receptionist and secretary for 23 years before retiring in 2017.
Mr. DeFelice, who is a general contractor, carpenter and woodworker, was instrumental in the construction of the seminary’s main chapel and adoration chapel, along with major renovations done to St. Augustine Cathedral.
In accepting the award, they expressed their gratitude, particularly for being able to work so many years for the seminary. “The Fisher house has been a great experience for both of us,” Mr. DeFelice said, “especially to look out here and see all our baby seminarians who grew up to be full-grown priests.”
Bishop Caggiano also praised the eight seminarians at St. John Fisher and said, “The Lord has given us this great moment of challenge, which will become a great moment of renewal in the life of the Church, and these men, who will one day be priests, will help lead us in that renewal.”
He talked about the hope he has for the future and added, “I know we are facing challenges in the Church, and many times in the darkness of night when I am wide awake, I wonder to myself how we are going to move forward in faith, and the Lord reminds me that I need look no further than that house and the men who have gone through it and live there now and—please God—the ones who will come after, for there is great hope that the Church is being renewed and transformed by a new generation of priests to join those who are already living holy, sacrificial lives.”
Bishop Caggiano expressed his confidence that the current rector, Father Paul Check would “continue the miracle of the Upper Room for generations to come so that the gift of the ministerial priesthood will be in the best of hands, ordaining the best of men, who need not be perfect but must be humble, loving servants of the one true God.”
When Father Check entered St. John Fisher in 1992, Msgr. DiGiovanni was vocation director and rector. He later served as parochial vicar under him at St. John the Evangelist for six years.
In his comments, Father Check said, “Your presence this evening expresses your love of the priesthood and your belief that Jesus established the priesthood as a sacrament and an identity in showing us the goodness of God, even if we priests do not always live up to the dignity of our vocation and even if we fail….With our many imperfections and abundant human weaknesses, you continue to love and support the priests and those men who are preparing for Holy Orders.”
He said that before he entered the seminary, he had no idea where priests came from or how they became priests. “Now, I have a much better understanding of and gratitude for how priests are made and that starts in marriage and family life. The Fishermen all come from parents who are giving their sons to the Church, and those parents show us something of the quality of their hearts in doing so.”
He recognized his own parents, Paul and Dianne, who came from Texas to attend the dinner and said, “I would not be a priest were it not for formation in the Gospel that I received at home, so thank you, Mom and Dad.”
The master of ceremonies Alessandro Marchetti, alluding to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, said, “A small group of men can change the world…Consider how the Church first started with twelve mediocre bishops and priests, a handful of deacons and a few hundred lay people. These people who were willing to give up their lives for Christ lit the world on fire. And that’s the kind of men I get to introduce to you tonight.”
One of them was his childhood friend, Ferry Galbert, a seminarian in formation at St. John Fisher for the past 2.5 years, who moved to the United States from Haiti at age 11 and received the call to the priesthood after he began a career in nursing at Stamford Hospital.
Galbert asked for prayers for the seminarians and for more vocations. He said that Father Check regularly tells them, “Jesus Christ lived an intensely happy and fulfilled human life. Jesus lived a joyful life because he lived a life of self-giving love for his Father and for us. We see his self-giving and sacrifice expressed most powerfully on the cross.”
He talked about his devotion to St. Philip Neri, known as “the Apostle of Joy,” whose life manifested the Gospel truth of the relationship between self-giving and joy. Sixteen years ago, when Galbert chose him as his confirmation patron saint, he told Msgr. DiGiovanni, his pastor. A friendship developed between them, and Monsignor invited him to work in the parish office and regularly urged him to consider the priesthood. In addition, Father Check was his confirmation sponsor.
“Today, sixteen years later, I marvel at the providence of God as I stand here in this room with the same two priests, but now as a man in formation for the priesthood,” Galbert said.
“We live in a world that is obsessed with self, where one can remain unaware of the needs and the goodness of those around them,” he said. “And we can neglect the love of God, who created and redeemed us in love. As a result, we lack joy and a sense of fulfillment.”
Photos by Amy Mortensen
Describing the mission of the seminary, he said, “At St. John Fisher, we strive to grow as a community of prayer and charity, to seek the Truth, to empty ourselves in service to one another so that we can put on the mind of Christ and be filled with the love of his Sacred Heart. I have come to embrace all the more the joy of living the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for the priesthood is a sign to the world, a sign that one can live for something, indeed, Someone, and not just for earthly things.”
The evening began with an invocation by Father John Connaughton, vocation director. The dinner, which was held at the Italian Center of Stamford, was chaired by Kathy Tafuro and her husband Steve, and was sold out for the second year. The meal was prepared by the Marchetti family, owners of Columbus Park Trattoria in Stamford.