Since 1887, the congregation of the Missionaries of St. Charles, Scalabrinians, has been serving the spiritual needs of immigrants, helping them to assimilate to an unfamiliar culture while preserving their unwavering faith.
In 1903, the Scalabrinians helped ease that migrant transition in Johnston.
“The community was founded in Italy and basically was to send priests to America to accommodate immigrants,” said Father Charles Zanoni, who this year celebrated 50 years in the priesthood.
Zanoni was the last Scalabrinian priest to lead St. Rocco Church, and left on July 1 for a position at St. Bartholomew’s in Providence.
The work of the Scalabrinian missionaries at St. Rocco is complete, but the parish is shaped in large part by this religious community’s commitment to making Catholicism accessible.
Personally, the work of the Scalabrinians was a natural fit for Zanoni. His uncle from Italy, with whom he was very close, was a Scalabrinian priest, and Zanoni grew up around their missionaries outside of Chicago. The congregation employed his father as a gravedigger, and when the Great Depression hit, the Scalabrinians pledged to keep jobs for men with families.
“It really saved [my father] during the Depression,” Zanoni said. “He was really grateful.”
The support of the Scalabrinians inspired the young Zanoni who, at the age of 13, asked his parents if he could move into a seminary to begin his religious studies. He made his first profession of vows in September of 1955 and was ordained at the Our Lady of Pompei Church in New York in 1962.
Scalabrinians are educated in their own seminaries, where there is an emphasis on language. Zanoni learned Latin and Italian as a young priest in training.
“We had to learn languages because we were working with immigrants. When we reached philosophy and theology, all our books were in Latin,” he said.
Zanoni learned some French as well, after serving in Toronto for just over one year, and another 11 years in Montreal.
By the time Zanoni arrived at St. Rocco, he was interacting with second generation Italian Americans. They knew the language for the most part, but still clung to the traditions of their ancestors. Zanoni continued to say one of the Sunday masses in Italian.
“It was for nostalgic reasons, and also their music is very beautiful,” he said.
He recalls that for many years, it was the parish mothers who attended the early Italian mass, getting home in time to begin cooking for their big family dinner that evening.
“They had to put the gravy on,” he said, smiling.
Zanoni fell in love with the parish, both for its strong Italian traditions and for its people, whom he found more than willing to give of their time and talents to strengthen the church.
“I found a strong cooperation and sense of working together, more than any other church where I worked,” he said.
Saying goodbye to the parish was bittersweet for Zanoni. The Scalabrinians were called away from St. Rocco because of a lack of vocations, leaving St. Bartholomew’s as the last Scalabrinian parish in the state. Fifty years ago, Zanoni estimated there were 1,000 Scalabrinian priests in the United States; there are only a third of that left today.
The missionaries continue to grow in other countries, however.
“We’re moving ahead in different directions. Our strength now is in the third world, as far as vocations are concerned,” he said, explaining that Asia, Central America and other Spanish-speaking countries are attracting more and more Scalabrinians.
At his new parish home, Zanoni works alongside a Spanish-speaking priest, and many of the parish activities are in Spanish. As he settles in, he looks forward to tackling these new challenges, and maybe even learning another new language.
Still, he looks back fondly on his time in Johnston, and is confident that the parish will preserve the Italian-American identity that first attracted the Scalabrinians. He keeps a photograph of St. Rocco Church on the wall in his Providence office.
“It’s a beautiful church, inside and out,” he said.