NEW ROCHELLE, (Mike Mendl) — Fr. Edward J. Cappelletti, SDB, long-time director of Salesian Missions in New Rochelle and a pioneer of fundraising through direct mail, died shortly before 10:00 a.m. on December 12, 2013, at St. John’s Hospital in Yonkers, N.Y. He was 92 years old and had been a Salesian for 73 years and a priest for 63 years. Mass of Christian Burial will be held on Tuesday, 17 December.
Edward Cappelletti was born in the Bronx on October 11, 1921, to Italian immigrants Alfredo and Giacinta Lemmi Cappelletti, originally from Tuscany. He was the last of four children. The family belonged to St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, where Edward was baptized on October 26, 1921, was confirmed in 1932, and was an altar boy. One of his early memories is of the “huge number of altar boys, over 80,” serving Christmas Midnight Mass at St. Thomas.
Giacinta Cappelletti hailed from a mountain village called Massa Sassorosso, where the pastor had introduced devotion to Don Bosco. When she came to New York, she lived in the Salesians’ Transfiguration Parish on Mott Street, in the heart of Little Italy. After their marriage, the Cappellettis moved to the Bronx.
Alfredo Cappelletti died when Eddie was four. Nevertheless, Giacinta Cappelletti was able to provide Catholic education for all her children—first at home and then in St. Thomas’s parochial school. In 1933, “to get me off the streets of New York,” she sent young Edward to board at the Salesians’ St. Michael’s School in Goshen, N.Y. “It wasn’t a bad school,” he told some Salesian seminarians in 2013. “In fact, it was a nice atmosphere, and a small school of about 65 kids. The Salesians were fine men and were like family to me.”
At some point, apparently in ninth grade, Eddie nearly transferred to the Salesian Institute (now Salesian High School) in New Rochelle, like many of his classmates. But Fr. Ambrose Rossi, the provincial, invited him to try the high school seminary at Newton, N.J. Since his experience with the Salesians in Goshen had been so positive, he was willing. Mrs. Cappelletti gave her consent provided that Eddie be allowed to come home for vacations, contrary to the Salesian practice at the time. “She wanted to make sure I got some dose of the real world,” he recalled.
Thus, as a sophomore he moved into the high school seminary in September 1936, where “life was just like going to a normal Salesian school, except you had a conference once a week,” he said. “I fit in right away,” and “the teachers were very good to us.” He was an outstanding student. He admired Fr. Rossi’s energy and inventiveness and was also impressed by Newton’s director, Fr. Alvin Fedrigotti, for his culture as well as his Salesian spirit.
Ed was admitted to the novitiate, also at Newton, in September 1939, part of a class that included the future Frs. Paul Avallone, Salvatore Giacomini, Arthur Lenti, Larry Lorenzoni, John Malloy, Joseph Occhio, Armand Oliveri, Gennaro Sesto, Chester Szemborski, and Leo Winterscheidt, and Bros. Dominic Casiraghi and Roy Vetari. They were guided by master of novices Fr. Joseph Romani, and they made their first profession of vows on September 8, 1940, in Newton.
At that time the novices were also first-year college students, loaded up with courses in English, Latin, Greek, Italian, education, and music. More English, Latin, and Greek courses followed later, along with religion, math, science, and a major in philosophy. Thus Bro. Cappelletti was graduated from Don Bosco College in Newton on June 20, 1943, with a B.A. in philosophy, summa cum laude.
Upon graduation Bro. Cappelletti was assigned for his practical training to remain at Don Bosco Seminary to teach the aspirants (high school seminarians), as well as to teach logic and metaphysics to the professed Salesian students. When the aspirants moved to the Ryan mansion in the Montebello section of Suffern, N.Y., in 1945, he moved with them. It was a happy year for him, as he recalled for some Salesians from the provincial house when he took them on a little tour through the property in December 2008.
Shortly after making their perpetual professions in September 1946, Bro. Cappelletti and his classmates were the first American Salesians who were able to go to Italy for theological studies after World War II. He was one of those who matriculated at the Salesian Pontifical Athenaeum in Turin (now the Salesian Pontifical University in Rome), better known as “the Crocetta” from the district where it is located. He greatly appreciated the learned and holy professors such as Fr. Giuseppe Quadrio (whose cause has been introduced), Fr. Nazareno Camilleri, Fr. Ugo Galizia, Fr. Domenico Bertetto, Fr. Alfons Stickler (the future cardinal), Fr. Eugenio Valentini, and Fr. Pietro Brocardo. Once more he proved to be an excellent student, earning his licentiate in theology, cum laude, in June 1950. His dissertation was entitled “The Thought of Bernold of Constance on Ordinations” and was rated magna cum laude.
Bro. Cappelletti found “life in Italy after the war rather trying physically due to the many after-the-war hardships,” but it was “rewarding” to be at “the heart of Salesian life.” The major superiors still lived at the motherhouse in Valdocco at the time. He also coached basketball in the youth center attached to the school of theology.
Fr. Cappelletti was ordained in the basilica of Mary Help of Christians on July 2, 1950. He took as his priestly motto, “The Son of Man came, not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).
For the first nine years of his priestly life he was assigned to the Salesian high schools in Newton, Haverstraw, Paterson, and New Rochelle, mainly as prefect of studies (vice principal). At the same time he earned a degree in classical languages from Fordham University (1958). He aimed at constant improvement of the programs in each school, including winning Board of Regents approval of Don Bosco Juniorate in Haverstraw and state Department of Education approval of Don Bosco Technical High School in Paterson.
In 1959 Fr. Felix Penna, the provincial, named him director of Salesian Missions in New Rochelle, succeeding Fr. A.J. Louis. The office was located in the basement of the provincial house and had just four or five employees and a donor list of about 10,000 names. When he stepped down in 1997, the office had been relocated three times, twice to larger rented quarters in New Rochelle and Mamaroneck, finally in 1972 to its own large, three-story building next to the provincial house. There were as many as 135 employees at one time, before automation and computerization reduced the need for so many. The donor list grew to 1,350,000 names. Fr. Cappelletti was among the first fundraisers in the country to use direct mail to make appeals. Donors responded warmly to books of inspirational poetry as well as to sweepstakes. Over 1,000,000,000 booklets were distributed in 40 years. He found ways to get the U.S. government involved, particularly the Agency for International Development, which could not support proselytizing work but could support trade schools, for instance. He also attracted foundations, such as Kellogg, to support projects like agricultural schools. People also wrote in (or phoned) with personal problems that were addressed, often by Fr. Cappelletti himself.
The success of Salesian Missions became a Congregation-wide phenomenon, of advantage to missionaries and the youths they served across the globe. Fr. Cappelletti constantly credited the excellent, dedicated lay staff—people such as Sara Tarascio, Fred Heckman, and Kay Santoro. He wrote later, “It is my firm belief that success is the reward, not so much of genius, as of hard work and perseverance, a little bit of luck, and the good Lord’s blessing.” There was also a small, hardworking core of Salesians assigned to the office, including Fr. Mario Tognocchi, Fr. Earl Bissonnette, Bro. Aldo Roman, Fr. James Chiosso, and Fr. Joseph Ros.
In 1996 Pope John Paul II honored Salesian Missions for its work by bestowing the Papal Cross “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” on Fr. Cappelletti and Miss Tarascio. In 2008 Don Bosco Catholic University in Campo Grande, Brazil, awarded Fr. Cappelletti an honorary doctorate in humanities.
His one regret about all his years in the mission office was a certain isolation from the confreres of the province, especially the young ones. “I only dealt with three other Salesians, the three that worked for me,” he told the seminarians in 2013. That never stopped him from doing whatever he could to promote vocations, which he remained interested in till the end of his very active life.
In tandem with his leadership of Salesian Missions, Fr. Cappelletti managed the province’s development office for 25 years. After his retirement from the mission office, he continued as development director for a few years and in 2000 became treasurer of the provincial house community, serving until 2007. He remained a member of the provincial house community, constantly looking for ways to contribute to the life of the house. Following several falls and other health incidents, on September 24 he moved to St. Cabrini Nursing Home in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.
In November the missions office decided to commission a short biography of Fr. Cappelletti, to be executed by retired history professor and author Bro. Matthew Dunkak, CFC, from Iona College. With some of the Salesian Missions staff, he was to interview Fr. Cappelletti on December 11 at Cabrini. But they found him struggling for breath and too feeble even to press the call button. He was taken to the St. John’s emergency room, where Fr. Shaw anointed him. He was diagnosed with pneumonia and admitted. During the night his condition deteriorated rapidly into congestive heart failure, leading to his death within a few hours.
Fr. Cappelletti’s three sisters, Susan, Julia, and Ida, predeceased him. He is survived by numerous nephews, nieces, grandnephews, and grandnieces, and his Salesian family.
As soon as word of his death reached Salesians in Rome and Salesian provinces around the globe, tributes began to arrive in New Rochelle.
Fr. Pascual Chavez, Rector Major, wrote: “The whole Congregation is very grateful to Fr. Edward Cappelletti for all that he did through the mission office to help our missionaries make their dreams come true, the dream of Don Bosco, the dream of God, who loves and cares with predilection the poorest and most abandoned. On behalf of all the Congregation I say a big thanks from the bottom of our heart to Fr. Edward for his generosity and total devotion to the missions, and also our gratitude to St. Philip Province.”
Bro. Jean Paul Müller, presently the Congregation’s treasurer general and formerly director of the Salesian mission office of Bonn, wrote: “I personally have to thank Fr. Ed so much, as he was the one who guided me as I made my first steps in the mission office in Bonn. I was with him two weeks at New Rochelle, where he trained me, and I never I forgot his counsels, ideas, and vision. We were often in contact in recent years, and every time I visited New Rochelle it was for me like coming home to see him and talk with him. Without the help of Fr. Ed, his marvelous, humorous, and fraternal orientation, we would never have had the success we have now in helping and supporting youngsters around the world.”
Fr. Vaclav Klement, general councilor for the missions, was grateful to God and the New Rochelle Province “for this extraordinary Salesian and his witness of a priestly life lived with a strong missionary touch that affected, inspired, and animated millions of U.S. citizens, thousands of Salesians, and a multitude of beneficiaries of our missionary efforts worldwide.” He cited Fr. Cappelletti’s zeal for vocations, his global outreach, and his assistance in setting up other major and lesser Salesian mission offices.
The director of Salesian Missions in Madrid, Fr. Augustin Pacheco, recalled the great assistance rendered by Fr. Cappelletti in setting up the Madrid office: “He was someone completely given, body and soul, to the Congregation and, in particular, to the works of the Salesian missions. His guidance and generous help at the beginnings of this mission office enabled it to become what it is today.”
Fr. Timothy Ploch, provincial of the San Francisco Province and a former provincial in New Rochelle, praised Fr. Cappelletti as “a Salesian giant for the New Rochelle Province, for the Salesian presence in the USA, and for the whole Salesian world. He is one of the few Salesians who can say that his ideas, his skills, his work, have had influences all over the world, especially in the poorest areas of mission lands and for the poorest young people.”
From Ecuador the province treasurer, Fr. Alfredo Espinoza, said simply, “He was a man who did so much good and gave generously to benefit missions everywhere.”
Fr. Edmund O’Neill, director of the Planning and Development Office of the Southern African Province, wrote: “In the Salesian world and in that of fundraising he was truly a colossus! Africa owes a great deal to this man whose heart, like that of Don Bosco, encompassed the whole (Salesian) world.”
Hans-Jürgen Dörrich, an official of the Salesian NGO Don Bosco Mondo, wrote: “When I was a young Cooperator, Fr. Edward impressed me deeply by his way of combining a personal relationship and friendship with our Lord with a highly professional way of organizing his mission. He certainly was preparing the way of many young people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to the Salesian society and to priesthood. He supported the growth of the Salesian mission for the young in these continents immensely and channeled the commitment of so many Cooperators and people of goodwill. I always will remember him as someone who really had an impact on my way of working with and for Don Bosco.”