FR. VINCENT SCUDERI (1902 - 1982).
Vincent Scuderi was born to Gaetano and Carmela Calcaterra in Ramacca, a rural town 40 km south west of Catania, on May 30, 1902. He was the first of the three children. He grew into a handsome intelligent boy moulded by his wise mother. On discovering that he was a child who showed great promise his parents entrusted him to the Salesians at the St. Phillip Neri School at Catania. The first months were not easy for him, but he soon overcame the difficulties presented by the new kind of life and became a brilliant student and a leader among his companions.
When, at the end of his high school, he opted to enter the Salesian novitiate, no one was surprised. His parents objected at the beginning because of his young age, but he soon convinced them that his choice was the will of God. Later this almost uncanny gift of persuading people developed and made of him a wizard at winning people over to his side even in most controversial situations.
As a Salesian cleric he excelled in studies and conduct. He also manifested an innate love for souls, never missing an occasion to do good to someone. He was a model of piety, cheerfulness and apostolic zeal even before he became a priest. In 1924, when he was in his second year of theology, his mother died. Vincent suffered the loss like no one else in his family but he stuck to his vocation with the rememberance of her encouragement to pursue his goal.
Within two years he was ordained at the age of 24. He was assigned to the house of formation of San Gregorio. But there was a dream that he had cherished from his early teens: the missions. Without informing anyone lest they should dissuade him, but with the encouragement of his confessor, he wrote to the Rector Major, applying for the missions. When the news broke, all put pressure on him to change his mind, but he never wavered. It was a tremendous sacrifice for all, especially for his father and family members, and for the local superiors who had plans for him. He was young and yet crowds gathered to wave farewell when he left.
He reached Shillong, capital of Assam at that time, at the end of December 1928 and Msgr. Mathias, Vicar Apostolic and Provincial assigned him to the theologate in Shillong with the advice: "Take your bearings, learn English and Khasi and get a feel of the place." Msgr. Mathias who had worked in Sicily before coming to India, knew Fr. Scuderi as a young man for whom nothing was too big. Fr. Vincent set to work at once, but after 18 months the superior who had watched him closely called him and said "You never said a word and that stands in your favour, but I know what is in your heart. I am going to send you to Guwahati. You will be in charge of all the territory of Assam outside the Khasi Hills. Will that be enough for you?" Fr. Scuderi was very close to bursting for joy.
He was given two other young Salesian priests to help him, Fr. Archimedes Pianazzi and Antonio Alessi. As soon as he took charge, they divided the immense territory into zones giving a place also to two veterans who had run the show so far: Fr. Piasecki and Fr. Marmol. It was June 1931. They scouted the whole area in a two month’s whirlwind tour. In late 1934 Fr. Scuderi was called from Guwahati to shoulder the task of Provincial. He left behind a consolidated and extended center at Guwahati and dozens of chapels and small centres all through the Goalpara and Kamrup. His contemporaries who had a chance to work with him during these years recall the experience: "Gruelling work, poverty, together with all the details of Salesian piety and observance. Scuderi? Yes, first up, last to bed and with everyone of us who could hardly keep apace but would not dare complain, the heart of a mother. But you had to work."
As a Provincial his jurisdiction extended to the whole of Assam and Bengal, with two houses in U.P., Saharampur and Roorky. He was 32, the youngest Provincial in the congregation. A few months later, he was also made Apostolic Administrator of the diocese of Krishnagar which at that time extended from Faridpur and Khulna, East and South to the Behrampore and Murshidabad region in the North. From now on he would be Msgr. Vincent Scuderi. He never really cared.
To attend to both charges better, he shifted the Provincial centre to Calcutta in 1935. Here too he used the same approach with the same restless zeal. His eyes wide open to any opportunity and the will to grab it. He often felt strained due to the pressure of having to account to his superiors for the decisions he took. But rarely, if ever, was he asked to retreat, because his choices were mostly appropriate.
On April 10, 1936, the whole Catholic Mission of Shillong, Laitumkhra was destroyed by fire. Eighty confreres, comprising novices, students of philosophy and theology and their superiors were left without a home and with just the clothes they had on and very little else. Fr. Scuderi was in Calcutta at that time. From there he moved with lightning speed. By the 14th of the month all were sheltered in a summer house of the Jesuit Fathers in Tung, a hamlet on the road from Kurseong to Darjeeling.
When in June 1940, Msgr. Scuderi was taken prisoner by the British as Italy entered the war on the side of Germany, he left behind a much developed province: new schools, missions, novitates, a philosophate, a theologate and shrines. In the Camps at Fort William (Calcutta), Ahmednagar, Deolali, DehraDhun, he had neither schools nor parishes so he turned his zeal towards promoting the welfare of his companions.
There was no time for moping, recriminating and frustrating thoughts instead he preferred to study, pray, and to work round the clock to ward off the worm of dejection and despair. A number of prisoners died in his arms, comforted and at peace. Many salesians studied and prepared for their ordinations.
He was then removed from them and sent to a parole camp for families at Purandarh (a trick planned by the British to break the morale of the Italian III Wing of the Camp, and to break him too). But his life style did not change. He began a school for children of the prisoners, one for the servants, one for the sweeper colony. He would give religious instruction to Christians and non Christians alike. A Dutch Lutheran pastor with his wife did not miss the message of this ardent man and were converted to Catholicism.
When the British made it clear he would have to go, he opted for the Portuguese territory of Goa, so as not to leave India. There a new saga of six years, with a group of volunteers who followed him, began. He started with the Oratory and a Portuguese primary school, followed by a technical school and English High School; two other festive and daily oratories in town; a technical school in Valpoi; he even bought a plot in Panjim, the capital, and built a chapel that soon became a centre of devotion for hundreds.
However, broken by two major hernia operations and a severe bout of typhoid, he was called back to Italy by the superiors. Undaunted and still afire with missionary zeal he returned to his beloved Salesian house at Catania.
Msgr. Vincent Scuderi was 24 years in India: He was roughly 12 years in Assam and Bengal(1928-1940); he spent 6 years as a prisoner (1940 to 1946) and the remaining 6 years in Goa.
Back in his own country and region, he did not waste time hugging the deep wound caused by his sudden removal from his field of mission. He looked around and began again. After a short interval spent at Catania, he was sent to Caltanisetta. There he built a church on foundations that had stood unfulfilled for years, enlarged the Oratory premises and made it flourish with hundreds of boys and young men attending daily. He bought a new plot of land and built a Technical School endowing it with machinery. The Sisters too were in and helped him make a start. After nine years he had to be changed, according to the Salesian Constitution, but not without leaving behind a half mutinous city: bishop, authorities and people, who wanted their "Don Vincenzo" to stay with them forever.
He was sent to Gela, a new town rising around a huge chemical concern of the E.N.I. on the south Western coast of Sicily. Msgr. Scuderi spent four years there. He substituted all the makeshift prefabs with beautiful buildings and endowed the school with first class machinery.
In due course of time an Oratory began. From here he accepted to go to Riesi. Riesi was a sleepy town, in a depressed central district of Sicily. The Waldenses were there, they had been active for decades. Msgr. Scuderi re-awakened the life in the central parish and opened two new parishes calling in the Sisters in both. He built a new modern hospice for the old, the poor and abandoned. In a short time he was the acclaimed father of the town. One day an emissary of the local Mafia, contacted a Salesian Brother in the market place and asked him to convey, discreetly, to Fr. Scuderi their message: "We are with him. If anyone tries to interfere with his work, let him just drop a word to us. We shall do the needful." (When the Mafia does the needful, it is generally, once and for all).
Msgr. Scuderi left Riesi in 1977. He was 75 years old. The superiors called him to the formation house of San Gregorio, Catania. He wrote in his diary: "Here begins the decline. It is five in the morning and I am leaving Riesi. No one knows it."
Salesians and students received him like a gift from heaven. The oratory felt his presence from the first day. "You can’t put a lid on a volcano." All commented. He could become uncomfortable. But all knew that it was his nature. One phrase he never used in his life was: "That’s not my business." For five years he also animated the Missionary movement in all the Salesian institutions of Sicily.
You cannot put a lid on a volcano, no you can’t. But God can. And God did that at 6.15 in the morning of November 22, 1982. A heart attack... and in a few minutes, before anyone could come to his help, his great heart stopped beating.
The simile of the volcano was used in Sicily where he was known and where the Etna can been seen from Catania, and miles and miles around, smoking and rumbling, never at peace. Wherever he worked all agreed that to call Vincent Scuderi a volcano was the best descriptionof the relentless activity of this man who, from boyhood to death, had one only ideal, to be like Don Bosco: a man given to God, body and soul and everything in him, for youth and all he could reach.