They called him ‘Capo’
A Hidden Gem
On one of my business trips to Kolkata, I caught up with an old school friend. We were just delighted to chat about old times while trying out a delicious Chinese in the sort of China Town haunt of Kolkata, Tengra. In fact we chatted away the hours on that December afternoon, in late 2010, focusing mainly at the profound past of a hidden gem, a teacher who had left a lasting impression on our lives. His passing away in May 2009, at 82, in a Kolkata hospital after a period of illness borne with great patience, was the starting point for our recall. In his earlier days my friend had worked alongside this great teacher whose colourful career had truly endeared him to us.
‘By the way, Chetan,’ I started off after a sip of green tea, ‘why did they call him Capo?’
‘Oh that’s the name everyone liked to call him. Not quite sure why. And I think he too liked it,’ said Chetan.
‘I thought Capo was part of a guitar, or perhaps it meant Head, in Italian?’ I replied.
‘Yes, you’re probably right. He might have gone with it because he felt happy to be the sort of ‘available man’ (in a good sense), ready to help anyone who needed assistance…He kind of knew how to take charge of the situation when someone needed help in his areas of ‘availability’, or was in a sort of tight corner.’
‘Sounds plausible,’ I said. ‘But, another thing: why did he blush all the time?’ I asked again.
‘Well, that’s his shyness. I think he must have missed out on drama classes at school,’ said Chetan.
‘Now, that’s silly. I’m sure he’s had solid training before coming out to India.’
‘Yes, you’re right. In fact he’s did what some would call ‘solid training’, back in Italy, including a Licentiate in Philosophy. ’
‘Then why was he sent to a school? Of course we were lucky to have him, but shouldn’t he have been sent up there to the Darjeeling College to teach Philosophy and some of the more serious stuff?’ I prodded again.
‘Well, well. You’re a bundle of questions today…Actually this is what happens in religious Orders. You just have to do what you’re told to do. You don’t really have a choice. Well, we know he got there eventually. He spent more than 20 years teaching in the Darjeeling College.’
‘So, what shall we order?’ Chetan asked.
‘I think I’d like chicken noodles in oyster sauce. How about your order?’
‘Maybe I’ll order a stir-fry mixed veg, and then we could kind of try a little of each other’s dishes.
‘Sounds great to me. And if we want we could order again,’ I suggested.
‘Yes, perhaps that’s the way to go, since we’ll be in here for a while.’
For the devout Italian couple, Tomaso and Zorsi, and their seven children, living in the somewhat remote hamlet of Santa Giustina in Colle, only 6 km from Padua, in northern Italy, nothing could have been more gratifying than to have had four of their children devoting their lives to the service of others. Tomaso occasionally brought home a few files from his work as a clerk, only at weekends of course. Usually it was some unfinished notes or plans he had to work on that his eldest son, Feliciano (without any confidentiality being broken), might have helped him tidy up. Yet, somehow when the children were growing up there was noticeable a sort of a focus of the parents, and of the elder children, on Beppi, the youngest boy. He seemed a plucky kid quite the ‘faithful companion’ of his mum, keeping her company with some of her chores or perhaps walking her occasionally to the grocer’s or the stores on the side streets of Santa Giustina.
Everyone in the family noticed that in spite of his helpful ways and his humorous spirit there seemed to be a serious streak in him, a quiet and thoughtful side that he never seemed to reveal. Until, one day, our little hero surprised them all. He had seen his two elder sisters go on to lives of commitment and that perhaps strengthened his resolve to do something special for God! In fact, he took the boldest step of all: to devote his life and energy to the service of people in distant shores. The loss of his elder brother during World War 2 in 1942, when he was in training to serve in foreign lands, did shake Beppi’s composure but not his commitment.
The Quiet One
At school he was friendly with his mates, even if only in a gentle way , good at his books and trusty as a mate, as his younger sister, Imelda, (now a nun) reported, ‘He didn’t really stand out as being someone special in school or in the Verzotto family when he was young. But he was one we were all really fond of.’ Many years later she added, ‘We couldn’t believe he would actually go off to distant lands. It nearly broke the hearts of Mum and Dad when he left for India. They took a long time to get resigned to the fact that they might never see him again.’
His parents found him a most genial child to have around, pious, affectionate and devoted. He was glad to run errands for his mum and even in his early years showed rare patience in helping his dad with his off-duty chores. In spite of all their fondness for him, his religious parents and his elder siblings did not put any pressure on him to make his life choices. However, it would seem quite probable that when the two elder sisters joined up religious Orders the seed of religious dedication must have been planted in the heart of Beppi. Perhaps what he didn’t realize then was that he too would inspire his younger sister, Imelda, to join a convent.
When he felt that the time was right for him, in 1953, Beppi had to have that memorable conversation with his parents that was the equivalent of a fond farewell as well as of a quiet proclamation of one setting out on the journey of a lifetime! He had decided to devote his life to people he hadn’t met, to lands he hadn’t seen and to commitments he didn’t have a clue about. He was in some ways like Damien° of Molokai, Teresa° of Kolkata, Flanagan° of Boys’ Town, or perhaps Ravalico° of Assam: people who totally dedicated their lives for others. In reality, Beppi’s dedication was no different. Even after years of untiring work and selfless service he decided he would not take the ‘home leave’ legally granted to those who chose to work overseas, which in his days was a two-month leave every five years. He was giving up his life for others and he wanted it to stay that way!
‘Mama,’ he said as he embraced his mother, ‘I’m going to miss you, but I’m going to have you in my thoughts and in my heart…You have shown me how to love, and I want you to believe that I want to share that love with other people.’
‘Papa,’ he said as he asked for his father’s blessing, ‘I want you to be proud of me. I want you to know I have loved every moment with you, and have learned from you more than I can ever give to others…You have been a shining example to me by your dedication to work and by your love for me. You will be with me every day of my life because you taught me how to live.’
‘But, we’ll see you again,’ said his mother. ‘You must come on your holidays, after five years.’
‘I’ll do my best, Mama, but it’s so far away.’ As he saw his mum’s tears rolling down, he tried to assure her with, ‘But I’m going to try….I don’t want you to worry. I’ll be fine, and you’ll always be in my thoughts and in my prayers…Mama I don’t know how to thank you….’ His assurance apparently didn’t really help as she let her feelings be drowned in copious tears.
‘Beppi, you’ve got to make it back sometime,’ his father reminded him. ‘The other priests and nuns all take their turns for home-leave. Come at least for a few weeks, for a bit of a breather in the middle of all the hard work you will no doubt be doing….at least to find out how our pasta tastes and how our wine keeps us healthy and cheery!’
Well, the fact is that even when his bosses, his Provincials and Superiors, did their best to coax him to return for a holiday he believed that staying around, at his regular chores, or perhaps at some special activity of administering to the sick and those in need of spiritual assistance, was his holiday. Deep in his heart it was unshakable commitment: it was Damien, Teresa, Xavier° and Thomas° (the Apostle) all rolled into one!
In fact from 13th August, 1953, when he first landed in Mumbai till his passing away in Apollo Hospital in Kolkata, on 6th May, 2009, Beppi, (meaning Joseph), the name Father Joseph Verzotto was affectionately known by, never really took a holiday. However, as records show, he actually did a few forced battle retreats! On a few occasions, almost under orders from his Provincial Superior he was almost ordered back home: once for the funeral of his father and at other times because of family pressure. On these occasions his colleagues almost had to pack his box and push him off (sort of waiting till the plane actually took off), because true to his ideals he was always reluctant to abandon his post and his obligations. Quite in keeping with his style he stayed barely a month each time and was back at duty once again: almost in inimitable total dedication shutting off even grieving and closure, e.g. at his father’s passing away, to be where he felt urged he had to be –at his duty or at his accustomed post of availability.
He seems to show a sort of strong resemblance to ‘the boy stood at the burning deck’ in Casabianca. He didn’t have to stay that totally bound. In large organizations there is always provision for support, replacements and standbys. But he just felt he didn’t want his burdens of duty thrown onto others (in this case his teaching commitments at college and his ministry to the local Nepali people he lovingly catered for). But that was the brand of steel that this blessed sword (Capo) was made of. Its sharpness and its simplicity also cut through the complicated battle lines of arrangements and conventions, or even of doubts and uncertainties. He wasn’t hampered by any cramped style or hedged in by others’ opinions. He did what he felt inspired to do for his community and the people he served, always ensuring he was at peace within his own soul. Perhaps he went with one of the sayings of the great Saint Francis of Sales°, ‘Niente ti turbi’, which in Italian means ‘Let nothing ruffle you.’
Beppi was not just a regular at his church obligations back home when growing up. He was eager to listen to the talks and discussions by ‘returnee’ pioneers who used to speak at Churches in Padua. Padua, the home of the holy man of Padua, Saint Anthony, was also quite a focal point of social and religious activity in the north east of Italy. We could be led to believe that the life of simplicity of Anthony of Padua must also have left an impression on his own desire to strive for holiness in simplicity. Sometimes some of these special talks from pioneers who were on home leave or on promotion tours got their sessions outsourced to Santa Giustina, a sort of outpost to the main centres of Padua. Beppi would give up quite a lot of his free time, sometimes hurrying back after school, to listen to and often talk to some of these great men and women who came to speak at his church or parish hall. It all helped to feed and strengthen his desire to go overseas to serve others.
Back on his own he tried to find out more about India, which seemed to fascinate him more than Africa perhaps. It wasn’t just the elephants and the Himalayas there. It was particularly the challenge of the cultural and social diversity that the country seemed to offer that attracted him. For him they were people who might benefit from his friendly presence and his tiny contributions. He also believed that he could learn valuable lessons and teachings from these great peoples, their beliefs and traditions. He was eager to learn some of their languages and customs. Above all for him they were souls he wanted to gain for Christ. That is where the zeal of Xavier and of Ravalico° (one of the great Salesian° missioners from Italy, who did pioneering socio-educational work in India) truly showed. It all soon became a reality when he opted for the ‘Salesian’ missions In India when he took his vows in the Order of Saint John Bosco, (also known as Don Bosco), the modern educator whose life had more than captivated his heart.
In fact, it would take several volumes to speak of the incalculable good this humble priest did for adults as well as children, to simple folk as well as to academic specialists over the half-century he spent in India. As a priest he spent most of his life in India teaching at Seminaries: first, for a few years in Bandel (near Kolkata) in the Junior Seminary as Head of Studies and Spiritual Director and then for 22 years as teacher of Philosophy, Spiritual Counsellor and Capo (as we’ve described him) in the college in the Darjeeling area. Here in his own unassuming way he also worked with the local people, learning Nepali and dealing with people’s issues of ordinary family living, something quite different from the disciplined lectures on philosophy and ethics to the college students.
He then spent the last 20 years (of his 56 years in India) serving very much as almost the ‘anchor’ man (or ‘Capo’ perhaps) in the Provincial House in Kolkata helping out (almost unobtrusively) with his expertise in different areas (from postal advice to funding tips) and especially offering his priestly ministry (and spiritual counselling) to his fellow priests and religious and to several convents of nuns, particularly to the Sisters of Mother Teresa. Besides his Bandel and Darjeeling days he also did a stint in what could be called (socio-educational)‘rural centres’, in the Krishnagar area, about 100 km outside Kolkata, where he had to learn a new language, Bengali, to be able to do his work.
His family will certainly miss Beppi, their fond relative, while his friends and students will feel the loss of their affectionate ‘Capo’. His presence used to light up any room even if he stayed in the background. And even if he seldom projected himself or his views his winning smile spoke volumes. He always kept busy doing things for others and helping his community. If our ‘Capo’ were alive in 2013 he might have looked to Pope Francis°, the Pastor whose humility and simplicity are as powerful as the great teachings he presents to the world. He might have been Capo’s model and inspiration. I’m sure Saint Peter° , who for me is the ‘Minister for Home Affairs’ in the Lord’s kingdom, will have figured out a role for this tireless worker, this hidden gem, who could very well function as ‘Capo’ even up there!
–Trophy D’Souza – www.trodza.wordpress.com
°Damien (1840-1889): Belgian priest who spent his life working for lepers in Molokai, Hawaii.
°Flanagan (1886-1948): Irish priest, Joseph Edward Flanagan who started Boys’ Town for orphan children in Nebraska, USA.
°Francis de Sales (1567-1622):The French Saint known for his calmness, amiability and kindness, after whom some religious Orders have been named, including the Salesians of Don Bosco (‘Salesian’ comes from ‘Sales’).
°Peter:Saint Peter –Apostle (d.64 AD). He was the sort of ‘Prime Minister’ among the Apostles: the one Christ chose at crucial points in His life. This is perhaps what let some traditions fondly believe that he is the ‘bouncer’ at Heaven’s door!
°Pope Francis (b.1936): the present Pope of the Catholic Church, Pope since March 2013 (originally from Argentina): has shown by his humility and simplicity of life that he cares for the poor and those who need God’s mercy and compassion.
°Ravalico (1906-1967): Italian priest, Aloysius Ravalico: who joined the Salesian Order (sdb: Salesian of Don Bosco) and did tireless pioneering socio-educational work with several groups in North-Eastern India.
°Salesians: The Order founded by Saint John Bosco (1815-1888) in 1857, known as ‘Salesians of Don Bosco’ (sdb), working in over 130 countries, with over 16,000 members: in schools, colleges, universities, orphanages, youth centres and parishes.
°Teresa (1910-1997): Albanian nun, Mother Teresa, who set up works of charity in Kolkata for the poor and the destitute. Her 4500 Sisters (nuns), and the other Orders she founded, now work in 133 countries around the world..
°Thomas: Saint Thomas: (d.72 AD) one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus Christ, who brought Christianity to India (in 52 AD).
°Xavier: Francis Xavier (1506-1552): who spread Catholicism in India and in the Far East and was also the –co-founder of the Order of the Jesuits (with Ignatius of Loyola) –a religious teaching Order.