When he was 13 years old, Charles Zanoni asked his parents if he could move into the seminary to officially begin his religious studies. They worried that he was too young to commit to a life of service, but even then, Zanoni knew he was called to be a priest.
The Church of Saint Rocco celebrated that calling Sunday as Reverend Zanoni presided over the mass that marks his 50th anniversary in the priesthood.
“Anyone who has known Charlie has no doubt in saying that Charlie is a man of God,” said Provincial Father Matteo DiDoné, who presides over the Scalabrinians’ Eastern Province that extends from Canada down to Venezuela. DiDoné turned to Zanoni and added, “You have been an example to us and we admire you for having reached this important day in your life.”
Born in Melrose Park, Ill., not far from Chicago, Zanoni’s childhood was characterized by his family’s faith. His uncle was a priest and his family’s livelihood depended largely on work his father received from a Scalabrinian priest at their local parish. Zanoni was immediately taken with the idea of being a member of the clergy.
“For some reason or other, it fascinated me,” he said.
When Zanoni was just a baby, he fell gravely ill with pneumonia, and the doctors feared he would not make it. His parents, ever faithful, placed religious medals on his body and he miraculously recovered, which DiDoné said was “the first time that God was calling Charlie to be a priest.”
“My parents were very devout Catholics. I look up to them continually,” Zanoni said.
And Zanoni didn’t let them down. He was young when he went to the Sacred Heart Seminary, but followed through. 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 April of 1962.
From there, Zanoni’s ministry brought him to Canada, Rome, New York and Washington and then, in 2006, to the St. Rocco parish, one of Rhode Island’s original Scalabrinian parishes. Friends and colleagues from around the country traveled to Rhode Island to celebrate with Zanoni.
John Ricci, a lifelong parishioner who was baptized as St. Rocco, said the turnout this weekend was a tribute to Zanoni, a man he said has invigorated and inspired the congregation.
“He’s such a great guy,” Ricci said. “I would describe him as a priestly priest. He’s a very humble individual. He’s always trying to please people; he’s always there for them.”
Ricci has worked closely with Zanoni, as he is an altar server and the longtime co-chair of the St. Rocco’s Feast & Festival. It was the reverend that came up with the idea to make a colorful brochure promoting the festival, and also recommended that the committee update one area of the festival each year.
No matter what challenges come their way, Ricci said Zanoni navigates the parish to safety. For example, when the church had to come up with $400,000 to fix the bell tower, Zanoni led the charge. When fire code updates dropped another $300,000 bill on the church’s lap, the community rallied under Zanoni’s leadership.
“With his personality, everyone came to help and we got that done. He was able to get the people behind him,” Ricci said.
Zanoni doesn’t like to take much credit, though.
“When you love something, you do anything for it. They have a love for the parish,” he said. “This parish is a very vibrant parish.”
Deacon Bob Troia and his wife Arlene, as well as Anthony Valente and Claire Barattini, organized the 50th anniversary celebration. During the mass, Troia presented Zanoni with a congratulatory plaque from Pope Benedict XVI. Afterwards, parishioners had baked up a feast for a coffee hour in Café Rocco, which was also contributed to by the Original Italian Bakery next door. As greeters walked in to congratulate Zanoni, 400 handmade rosaries were passed out by the women’s guild. Later in the day, guests and parishioners continued the celebration with a dinner at the Alpine Country Club.
Troia has been a deacon in the church for 35 years and said Zanoni is second to none at keeping the focus on Jesus.
“I think he’s brought a lot of spirituality to the parish,” Troia said. “He’s kept the parish calm in times of turmoil and he’s been an inspiration to a lot of people.”
A life in Christ is all Zanoni knows. Reflecting on his achievement, he said he is “indebted” to the Scalabrini priests and asked the congregation to pray to keep the priesthood strong with ample vocations. He is also indebted to his family. When asked what his parents would say if they were still alive, Zanoni said, “They would be happy that I was faithful. You’ve got to be faithful in whatever you’re doing.”
Zanoni, who will soon turn 77, will bring that sense of faith to the St. Bartholomew parish in Providence. He will not be the presiding priest, but will assist a younger priest there. Beyond that, he is not sure what the future will bring.
“I live day by day like the rest of the world,” he said, smiling.
The parishioners at St. Rocco, on the other hand, are holding tight to each day leading up to July 1.
“We will miss that demeanor of his,” Ricci said. “I can’t speak highly enough of him.”