Frs. John Louis Mariapragasam and Antonio Fernando have provided a fresh Salesian presence in Edmonton.

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Frs. John Louis Mariapragasam and Antonio Fernando have provided a fresh Salesian presence in Edmonton.

March 23, 2015
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Father Romano Venturelli grew up on a farm in Italy. He put so much dedication into his farm chores that people thought he would make a good farmer.

But the young boy's heart was in the priesthood. He wanted to be a missionary in Latin America and minister to indigenous people.

However, the young Venturelli was recruited by the Salesians of Don Bosco and ended up in Canada instead. In fact, he has spent most of his priestly vocation in Canada, primarily in Montreal and Edmonton.

Venturelli, the 74-year-old pastor at St. John Bosco Parish in Edmonton's Clareview region, is one of four Salesians serving in the Edmonton Archdiocese. Until two years ago, he and Father Bernard Gilliece, now retired, were the only Salesians left, so the order was ready to close shop.

At the request of the archdiocese, however, the Salesians rescinded their decision and, in addition to leaving Venturelli here, they imported two priests from India: Father Antonio Fernando, serving at St. Andrew's Parish, and Father John Louis Mariapragasam, at Annunciation Parish.

The Salesians are a religious congregation of priests and brothers founded in Italy by St. John Bosco in 1859. Even before becoming a priest, Don Bosco would gather poor and abandoned boys from the streets, educating them to becoming "good Christians and honest citizens."

"In the footsteps of our founder, we work preferably among the young as educators," noted Venturelli. "Our educational practice rests on three pillars, inherited from Don Bosco: reason, religion and loving kindness."

Accordingly, the Salesians operate schools, colleges and institutes around the world. The only Salesian-owned school left in Canada is in Sherbrooke, Que., but Salesian priests are active in the schools of the parishes they serve.

They always have programs for children and youth in their parishes. In the late 1990s, Venturelli built a large youth centre in the Montreal parish he served. He wanted to do the same at St. John Bosco but his idea was eventually taken over by city council, which built a recreation centre near his church.

Fr. Romano Venturelli is the Salesian pastor at Edmonton's St. John Bosco Parish.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Fr. Romano Venturelli is the Salesian pastor at Edmonton's St. John Bosco Parish.

At St. Andrew's Parish, Father Fernando, 48, is actively working with young people in the schools and in the parish, providing seminars and retreats for the young and formation for youth leaders. He was rector of a Salesian college in India and knows how to motivate kids.

"We have lots to do because there are lots of young people here," he says. "My experience in visiting the schools is that kids are really open (to working with the Church)."

Today the Salesians are present in 128 countries, with 16,560 members, including about 25 in Canada. They are the world's third largest order after the Jesuits and the Franciscans. About 120 bishops and five or six cardinals are Salesians.

Most Salesians are in Europe. The next largest region is India, where 3,700 Salesians operate almost 580 institutions, including schools, colleges, youth centres and community centres, Fernando said.

There are currently 10 Salesian provinces in India and eight in Africa.

The future of the Salesians rests with the youth of India and Africa "because that's where the population still has a basic foundation of spirituality," Venturelli said.

"Independently of whether they are Christian or non-Christian, they still have an attitude of reverence to God, whereas in our (Western) society we don't need God."

Venturelli said the Salesians flourish where the need is great, "for example, in countries where the government doesn't provide proper health care and education."

ST. MARY'S BOYS SCHOOL

The Salesians came to Edmonton in 1951 to run St. Mary's Junior High School.

Consecrated Life

"Maybe a dozen Salesians came to work in the school, which also had lay teachers," said Venturelli.

In addition, the archbishop asked the order to take care of some parishes, including St. Dominic Savio in north Edmonton. In 1978, the Salesians also took St. John Bosco Parish under their wing and oversaw the building of its church in 1984.

Salesian priests have also served at Our Lady of Fatima Portuguese Parish and Mary Help of Christians Chinese Parish.

When St. Mary's School closed in 1993, Archbishop Joseph MacNeil asked the Salesians not to abandon the archdiocese and to continue working at the parishes under their care. Gilliece took care of St. Dominic Savio for 15 years until 2010. He is now at Youville Home in St. Albert, where Venturelli visits him every two days.

Venturelli has been at St. John Bosco for nearly 15 years and has no plans to retire.

THE LORD DECIDES

"I'll retire when the Lord decides," he declared. "We priests usually work until we are no longer able to provide services to the community and the Church. I would feel miserable if I was able to do something and not have the opportunity to go ahead and do it."

Born in 1941 the third of five children in a small rural village near Verona, Italy, Venturelli used to dream of being a missionary priest in the Matto Grosso, horseback riding through the forest to bring the faith to indigenous people.

That dream was transformed after two Salesians visited the Venturelli home and spoke to his parents about a wonderful boys boarding school in Trent, some 125 km away. "The boys don't have to become priests if they don't want to," the Salesians said.

JOURNEY TO TRENT

As soon as they finished elementary school, the Venturelli boys were packed into a car and sent to the Trent boarding school.

During his last year of high school at the junior seminary, Venturelli asked to join the order. He made his temporary vows in 1958 at the age of 17 and was ordained in Rome in 1968.

The following year he was assigned to east Montreal's St. Dominic Savio Parish, where he worked primarily with young people in schools. In the late 1990s he was tasked with setting up a youth centre in his parish and coordinating youth ministry for the Salesians across Canada.

He came to Edmonton in February 2000 originally to coordinate youth activities in the city but soon became pastor at St. John Bosco.