Profile: John Capozzi Marks 50 Years as a Friar

Stephen Mangione Friar News

This is the first in a series of profiles of friars commemorating their anniversaries of profession this year. The 2017 silver and golden jubilarians will be honored this summer at a Provincial Mass.

MARGATE, N.J. – Born into a family of railroad workers in Salamanca, N.Y., a small town in the western part of the state, John Capozzi, OFM, was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and uncles – two generations of Capozzi family members that made a living at the Erie Railroad Company. Apparently, John – and the Holy Spirit – had other plans.

No matter how many times he sat at the controls of a steam engine, or the number of scale model train sets he received for Christmas, ever since grade school John vowed to become a Franciscan brother (“not a priest, he points out, “a brother”) even though it would mean the end of the line for the Capozzi family in the railroad business.

“I may have heard ‘Franciscans’ mentioned at a vocation day, but I didn’t know anything about them. I just knew I wanted to be a Franciscan brother – and I knew I didn’t want to work for the railroad,” said John, who is celebrating 50 years as a professed Franciscan friar this year and since 2011 has been stationed at the Jersey Shore.

John attended Catholic grade school at St. Patrick’s in Salamanca and the local public high school before entering the two-year, pre-novitiate program for Franciscan lay brother candidates in 1964 in Croghan, N.Y.

In addition to taking theology, spirituality and other academic classes, candidates were placed in apprenticeships for occupations such as chefs, gardeners and electricians. John landed in the tailor shop and became quite adept at making the habits worn by friar candidates.

But it wasn’t sewing skills that would shape his formation. John was a gifted artist – a talent and interest that played a significant role in his formation and ultimately in his ministries.

In 1966, John was received into the Franciscan Order at St. Raphael’s Novitiate in Lafayette, N.J., where he received his habit and the next year made his first profession.

‘Mr. Hospitality’
His studies continued at St. Francis College in Rye Beach, N.H., from 1967 to 1968 before he was assigned to St. Stephen of Hungary Parish on 82nd Street in Manhattan. While at St. Stephen’s for one year, John studied art at The Art Students League of New York City under mentor and renowned African-American artist Jacob Lawrence.

He was again assigned to Rye Beach, serving in the unofficial title of “Mr. Hospitality.” The Province had converted St. Francis College into a retreat house, so John was responsible for maintaining the building, organizing retreats, preparing rooms and welcoming guests.

In 1970, John made his solemn profession at his childhood parish in Salamanca. That same year, he began a four-year assignment as treasurer at the novitiate in Lafayette, which had been converted into Christ House, a retreat center.

In 1975, he headed to Allegany, N.Y., to begin what would be a 19-year assignment at St. Bonaventure University. Early on, he served as director of the Reilly Center, which then was the largest building on campus, housing key institutions like the student union and basketball arena.

A photo of John, second from left, with his “adopted” brothers, the Giovinos – Paul, Chris, and the late Michael, all of whom went to St. Bonaventure University. This photo was taken in the 1980s.

During this time, he completed his bachelor of fine arts degree at nearby Alfred University and then a master’s of education degree in community counseling from St. Bonaventure’s School of Education.

Gift of Art
At Alfred University, he studied with professor and dean emeritus Mario Prisco, who once told John that his paintings were museum quality and even compared him to one of Italy’s most acclaimed artists, Sandro Botticelli. But the high praise didn’t go to John’s head; his fellow friars wouldn’t allow it!

“They had a special way of keeping me grounded in reality. They admired my work and told me it was all well and good, but the walls needed painting, too,” he said with a laugh.

John was appointed curator of St. Bonaventure’s 1,000-piece permanent art collection, an impressive array of paintings, drawings, sculpture and porcelain spanning the Middle Ages to the 20th century. He served simultaneously as adjunct professor, teaching art history courses related to the extensive collection, including Flemish Baroque painter Sir Peter Paul Rubens and Italian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini.

He retired his tools of the trade (he painted with palate knives and oils) a number of years ago – his last painting a birthday gift to Mathias Doyle, OFM, whom John called his Franciscan mentor when he was in formation and who was one of the youngest presidents ever appointed at St. Bonaventure.

Before leaving the university in 1994, he also served as guestmaster, maintaining a suite of guest rooms and greeting and taking visitors on tours of the campus. In addition, John served as minister in residence for students who lived in the dormitories. A little known fact: the words “St. Bonaventure,” spelled out in shrubbery on the lawn in front of the chapel and visible from the road, were John’s creative artistry at work.

Such a beautiful day on campus before Fall Break! #Bonas

A post shared by St. Bonaventure University (@stbonaventureuniversity) on

From 1994 to 2011, John had several assignments that included: Holy Name Friary, Ringwood, N.J.; St. Francis Counseling Center, Long Beach Island, N.J., where he counseled families and individuals; St. Francis Chapel, Providence, R.I., where he was director of facilities operation, hospitality and house management (and later, vicar) of the 11-story building; St. Anthony Shrine, Boston, where he served as director of facilities and hospitality, and oversaw a major renovation; Quam Bonum house in West Falmouth, Mass., where he was caretaker and charged with refurbishing the residence; and St. Anthony Friary, St. Petersburg, Fla., where he was guestmaster at the retirement house.

In between these assignments, John literally got to experience how the other half lived when, during a leave of absence, he landed majordomo and personal assistant positions for a pair of corporate titans in New York City and Greenwich, Conn. But six-figure incomes, manicured estates, world travel, an apartment on Manhattan’s swanky Sutton Place and a room at the renowned Albany on Piccadilly in London, couldn’t keep him from returning to the simple life (“and more substantive life,” he says) and from being what he always wanted to be – a Franciscan brother.

Caretaking and Caregiving
In 2011, John began his current assignment as caretaker of the friary in Margate, the house for friars seeking a little rest and relaxation – “and hospitality!” John says.

Like a captain who goes down with his ship, John rode out Superstorm Sandy in 2012 because he was too busy helping neighbors prepare for evacuation to leave himself.

“It was too late for me to leave, so I had to stay put. The house was already shuttered, so I just relaxed and listened to the waves hitting the second story. The house didn’t sustain any serious damage, although it did create a new renovation project for me,” John quips.

With an eclectic ministry that has centered on art education, counseling and hospitality, John sees a connection among all three.

John welcomes friars to visit the house in Margate, N.J. (Photo courtesy of John)

“My Franciscan life has uniquely enabled me to bring God’s presence to all that I come into contact with – and over the years that has been students, individuals in need of counseling, and those seeking rest. It’s a blessing when you can show God’s presence in the most simple ways – something as thoughtful as finding out what someone likes to eat and serving it for dinner when they arrive,” John said.

“It has been 50 long and joyful years, most of which I have had very little to do with. It has been God at work. I talk to Him every day. There are no miracles, no visions. I ask Him to do something for someone that I know needs help, and most of the time He answers. There are times I feel like I am talking to myself, when suddenly I see a star falling from the heavens and I know He’s listening. I know I am supposed to be doing what I am – and what I have been for the past 50 years.”

Stephen Mangione is a longtime public relations executive and writer based in Westchester County, N.Y. 

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