TORONTO - The Church and her congregation are losing more and more of their irreplaceable asset, the men and women who heed a calling, a vocation.
Ralph Paonessa, American born and bred, came to Toronto to do God’s bidding in the city’s Italian community in 1964.
The vocation was consistent with the long-standing mandate of the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans) in the development of the Canada’s Catholic community in the country’s largest city. Their focus was, and continues to be, its vibrant Italian demographic.
They built and staffed churches everywhere in the City [and its boroughs]. They “owned and operated” Canada’s first and only National Church, St. Mary of the Angels (founded in 1915) at the corner of Dufferin and Davenport. It was absorbed by the diocese in 1983-84. In 1982 they built their first high school, James Cardinal McGuigan, in 1982 in partnership with the MSSB and the Diocese.
Father Ralph was a part of all of that, in the service of the communities at St Mary of the Angels, The Immaculate Conception, St Lawrence, The St Francis Centre, St Jane Frances and most recently as Chaplin at the Villa Colombo.
Lawyer, Tony Pascale who met him for the first time in 1964 remembers him as the traditional Franciscan “who walked the beat; he was ever present”. He would visit every household in the parish multiple times per year, said Tony, he knew who needed help and made sure it arrived in a timely fashion. If he somehow did not know, he made it his business to find out.
Father Ralph (in the pic above, from Twitter - @ImmaculateTo) was born into a generation when much was expected of priests as administrators and ministers to the mental and physical health of their congregation. Like many of his co-clerics he gave much more than he was asked to provide. Totally selfless.
I remember his booming voice during his sermons. How could anyone not believe the message of the Gospel he elaborated and made relevant to parishioners he served? He was engaging, understanding and forgiving. For many post -war immigrants from Italy and later from Portugal he was a God-sent rock on whom they could build sense and purpose.
Don Raffaele was that way as well with his colleagues in the diocesan clergy, with men like Father Sbrocchi, Father Papais, monsignor Iverinci and others who shared his love of the Italian and devotion to Catholic values.
I remember him as a stalwart supporter and mentor to a young Franciscan Leader and longest serving Provincial of any province of the Order of Friars Minor, Fr Roberto Campagna.
Father Robert and his colleagues will preside at Ralph Paonessa’s funeral today at 10:00 AM at St Jane Frances on Jane St and bid their brother and friend goodbye. May he rest in peace.
Thank you, Don Raffaele, friend and servant.