Born into a family of railroad workers in Salamanca, Brother John Capozzi, OFM, was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and uncles – two generations of Capozzi family members from Western New York that made a living at the Erie Railroad Company.
Those plans, to use railroad jargon, were derailed.
Apparently, Capozzi took the family’s long legacy in the railroad business to the end of the line and instead punched a ticket for a higher calling. He is among a group of Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province, the largest community of Franciscans in the United States, recently honored for their jubilarian anniversaries. Capozzi, celebrating his 50th year as a Franciscan friar, has always stayed close to his Western New York roots.
No matter how many times his father sat him at the controls of a steam engine – no matter how many scale model train sets he received at Christmastime – while other kids would have been bright-eyed and elated, Capozzi had no interest in the railroad. Ever since he was in grade school at St. Patrick’s in Salamanca, he vowed to become a Franciscan friar.
After attending Salamanca High School, he entered the Province’s program for Franciscan lay brother candidates in 1964 in Croghan, N.Y. – where, in addition to taking theology and academic courses, he was placed in a tailoring apprenticeship that made him quite adept at weaving the long brown robes worn by friar candidates. But it wasn’t sewing skills that shaped his formation. Capozzi was a gifted artist – a talent and interest that played a significant role in his ministries over the past five decades.
Caretaker of the Franciscan friary in Margate, N.J., for the past six years, Capozzi made his first profession as a Franciscan in 1967 and his solemn profession in 1970 at his childhood parish of St. Patrick’s in Salamanca. Five years later, he headed to Allegany to begin what would be a 19-year assignment at St. Bonaventure University, where he went on to serve as curator of the institution’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 studied art at Alfred University, where a professor said his paintings were museum quality and compared him to Sandro Botticelli, one of Italy’s most acclaimed artists. He also studied at The Art Students League of New York City under mentor and renowned African-American artist Jacob Lawrence.
Capozzi painted with palette knives and oils when he was using a canvas, but a good old-fashioned paintbrush was the tool of his trade when his duties as a friar called on him to spruce up the walls of the friary.
His eclectic ministry has centered on art education (he was also an adjunct professor at St. Bonaventure, teaching art history courses), counseling (he was a minister-in-residence at student dormitories), and hospitality (he oversaw the conversion of and maintained Franciscan facilities, and organized and ran retreats).
One year after arriving at his current assignment at the friary on the Jersey Shore, Superstorm Sandy devastated the area. He was so busy helping neighbors prepare for evacuation, that he forgot to seek safe shelter for himself before the storm touched down.
“It was too late for me to leave. The house was already shuttered, so I stayed put and just relaxed, listening to the waves hitting the second story. The house didn’t sustain any serious damage, but it created a handful of renovation projects,” Capozzi said.
Capozzi brings new meaning to the term “early riser,” as he explains: “I get up at two in the morning and have my coffee on the porch overlooking the ocean. Sometimes I feel like I am talking to myself, when suddenly a star shoots across the sky and I know I am doing what I planned as a youth growing up in Salamanca – and what I have been doing for the past 50 years,” he says.
Capozzi and other friars marking their golden and silver jubilees were honored in mid-June at a special Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Manhattan.