Father Walter Tonelotto’s voice is a familiar presence on Radio Maria, a Christian-based radio station that broadcasts in English, Spanish and Italian. Tonelotto is the director of Italian Radio Maria.
BY ALBERT AMATEAU | Father Walter Tonelotto, pastor of Our Lady of Pompeii Church since July 2013, brings to the church in the heart of Greenwich Village the experience of 40 years as a priest who has been serving in places near and far.
He has led parishes in Canada, Mexico and Haiti, and closer to home on Staten Island, in Queens and most recently at St. Joseph’s Church in Chinatown.
Father Walter told a visitor last week how he discovered the strong attachment that Villagers have for Our Lady of Pompeii.
“A school crossing guard stopped me and said, ‘Oh Father, welcome to our church. My grandfather was married here, my father was married here and I was married here. Now my daughter is getting married here.’ This church is really family for parishioners,” he said.
Former Villagers often come back to their home parish for Sunday Mass and point out the memorials.
“They say, ‘That’s my uncle, that’s my grandfather.’ This is where their roots are,” Tonelotto said.
The church is in the process of reaching out to worshipers via the Internet. As part of its Web site, Our Lady of Pompeii will be streaming Sunday services and other events.
“We streamed our beautiful Christmas Mass online,” Tonelotto noted.
As befits the shrine church of the Missionaries of St. Charles — Scalabrinians, who are dedicated to serving migrants and refugees — on Nov. 28, Our Lady of Pompeii opened an office of the Scalabrini International Network for Migrants.
“We have on staff a lawyer and two legal representatives who are certified in immigration law,” Tonelotto said. “We also have five or six volunteers who will be doing intake. This is especially important as immigration reform comes in,” he added.
In addition to English speakers, the immigration center will help clients who speak Italian, Tagalog, Portuguese and Spanish.
Tonelotto recalled when he himself was an immigrant, arriving in New York on July 4, 1970, a 22-year-old seminarian from Italy. He attended St. Joseph’s Seminary, in Dunwoodie, N.Y., and a year later transferred to the University of Toronto’s Divinity School, graduating in 1974.
“I went back to my hometown to be ordained,” he said. Sant’Eulalia is a hamlet of about 600 souls in Treviso, north of Venice. “The ordination was supposed to be at 6 a.m., but they had to reschedule it for 8 because the farmers who wanted to come to the ceremony had to milk the cows first,” he recalled.
His desire to become a priest started as a child. When he was 11, a priest asked him if he wanted to go to a seminary. Father Walter’s father, the village cobbler, said the family would be able to afford the expense if he went to the Scalabrinians because “they wouldn’t cost too much,” he recalled.
Father Walter’s first parish was in Hamilton, Ontario. He then served a parish on Staten Island and later one in Jamaica, Queens.
“I lived in the chapter house here on Carmine St. for three years when I was in the Italian Apostolate Office of the New York Archdiocese,” he said. The office coordinated Italian-speaking parishes in the region. He began L’Italiano, an Italian-language magazine, and also produced Italian-language radio and television programs during that period.
A parish in Guadalajara, Mexico, came next — “a beautiful experience,” he said.
A church in Montreal was perhaps the biggest responsibility of his career.
“There was a vibrant community of Italian immigrants, almost 8,000 families and more than 30,000 people,” he recalled. “We had two choirs. The church was packed on Sundays, people came early to get a seat and we had a summer camp.”
Father Walter recalled one event in a Montreal park that attracted thousands of people.
“The police were anxious about crowd control,” he said. “But I told them, I knew my people and they knew me. The police were amazed that it ran so well.”
A parish in Haiti where he served for three years beginning in 2005 was a different sort of challenge. Tonelotto recalled that the church ran a medical clinic where the doctors worked 12 hours a day.
“It was the only place in the area for people to get medical attention,” he said.
When he discovered that some neighborhood children were not going to the local school because it was too costly, he organized a free school, raised the money for it and found teachers.
“I had $10,000 and paid the salaries for seven teachers,” he said.
He also located a source of powdered milk and biscuits to provide lunch for the students.
For the past six years, before replacing Father John Masari at Our Lady of Pompeii, Tonelotto was the pastor of St. Joseph’s Church.
“We came to love each other very much,” he said of the Chinatown parish on Monroe St. between Catherine and Market Sts.
Tonelotto is the only priest at Our Lady of Pompeii but he has two lay assistants. He has been trying to get another priest assigned to help, but the shortage of clergy makes the prospect uncertain.
“I think there is a purpose to the crisis of priests and the crisis of the Church,” Father Walter told The Villager. “People have lost the beauty of spiritual life and we have to restore it.”