Joseph Sciame works hard to help others, appreciates his many blessings

Joseph Sciame (provided photo)

Joseph Sciame

Title: Vice President for Community Relations at St. John's University

Lives in:  New Hyde Park, N.Y., and employed in Queens, N.Y., at the university, which is located in the Diocese of Brooklyn. 

Sister Camille: Mr. Sciame, you recently received Knighthood in the Order of Pope St. Sylvester. [Editor’s note: The Tablet, the newspaper for the Diocese of Brooklyn, described this honor as "conferred upon Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who by their example in business, military, and society have lived exemplary lives. "] Were you surprised to receive this award from Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio? 

Sciame: Yes, I was in fact "shocked," for based on my Catholic training in Catholic schools all my life, and my involvement in Church activities, I knew it was a most high honor. And then when I reviewed it in detail, I became more awed to a point where for two days I avoided talking to people, until I called my sister in Florida, where she and the family now reside, and I just started to get choked up and cried a bit. When the honor was presented on November 1, 2015 at the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph in Brooklyn, all I could do was embrace the bishop in thanksgiving for all that I have been given. A Knight in the Order of St. Sylvester, Pope … what an honor is what I could only think!

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What a wonderful surprise that must have been! Can you name the contributions that attracted his attention?

Well, this is not easy for it involves how people see me, especially the bishop. Now, for some 25 years I have been involved with the Futures in Education program, formally a foundation of the Diocese of Brooklyn, where I have served on its board and, in the mid to late 1990s, I served a three-year term as its chair. The Futures' activity has evolved over the years and now we host an annual dinner that most recently has reaped in some $2.3 million in one night, complimented by our Angel program where one donates for the financial good of a child in a Catholic school to help offset the costs. As well, I have served on the Archives Commission of the Diocese of Brooklyn for the past 10 years or so, and that's important to me concerning the patrimony of the diocese, as schools and churches have been closed in the years past. I also am a member of the bishop's Coat of Arms Club that assists annually with donations that are used for Catholic Charities. And I believe that the bishop, knowing of my membership as a Knight of the Holy Sepulcher since 1982 when I was first invested, and then elevated as a Knight Grand Cross, must have included these works in his decision. Beyond that, I have been outspoken about my personal and collective support for Catholic schools, and I also served for six years on an education commission in the neighboring Diocese of Rockville Centre.

Your remarks in accepting it seem indicative of your generous character:

"I am deeply humbled to be recognized by the Holy Father and our Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, with such a high honor. As a Brooklynite by birth, educated in Catholic elementary and high schools, and complimented by my long Vincentian education as a student and administrator at St. John's, I feel blessed to receive this award. I pray God grants me the continued health and energy to do good work for all."

In addition, you credit your education with preparing you for the service you provide. What elementary and high schools did you attend?

I attended St. Malachy's elementary school in East New York from which I graduated in 1955, fully educated by Sisters of St. Joseph and, in fact, my third- and fifth-grade teacher, a Sr. Catherine Mezzacapo, CSJ, now at 96 and a half, boasts of grooming me in my faith and sense of ethics. I attended and graduated from The Power Memorial Academy in New York City in 1958, having been educated there by strong men of character, the Irish Christian Brothers. And to round it all out, I attended the Vincentian Fathers' and Brothers' St. John's University from which I graduated in 1971. I attended evening classes and then pursued some graduate level classes. My schooling was interrupted by my Dad's passing at age 60 in 1973. All of that Catholic education by sisters, brothers and priests is what reinforced me then and now, through each day of my life. The service that I provide in my own daily work at the university is and had been grounded in that formal education of religion and values learned and lived, and by an understanding of my own human frailties.

Can you name an influential teacher?

 In grammar school it was Sr. Catherine; in high school it was a Br. Delaney, CFC, and in college it was a Fr. John Fisher, CM, who got me initially involved in the then Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Those three were teachers of influence in my personal life.

Please describe the family in which you grew up?

My family life was a happy one. We lived right across from the Church of St. Malachy. Church was a part of my life from the time I was three years old. Mom always told me that we would visit during the week so that we would learn how to behave when attending Mass on Sundays. My Dad's family lived five blocks away and so I grew up in a supportive and caring family. My Mom and Dad's parents were Sicilian immigrants from the Provinces of Palermo and Agrigento, respectively, the towns of Prizzi and Palazzo Adriano, and Sambuca di Sicilia, Sciacca. They worked hard, had large families, and aunts and uncles helped care for us all. Holidays were every weekend, birthdays were celebrated and family was a valuable asset, oftentimes different from those of other children with whom I associated. And we were American always, proud of the 'old' country but always proud of being American. Some time in 1968 though, I did join the Order Sons of Italy in America, the largest and most geographically representative group of Italian Americans. I became its local lodge president in 1973-75, then state president from 1993-97 and finally the national president from 2003-05, coincidental with the 100th year anniversary of the OSIA. Since 2011, I have chaired the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations with some 40 groups, such as NIAF, OSIA, NOIAW, UNICO, etc.  So, my Italianita surfaced when I became an adult! 

Did you have any role models? If so, what was their attraction for you? 

My role models were my parents.  Dad was a U.S. customs inspector and import specialist who worked hard with long hours for the government. We knew him as a good man. Mom was loving and caring, and bound by her strong love of the church, the saints and more. She inherited all of that from her mother, Giovanina, a woman who made those annual walks, barefooted, with promises to Our Lady of Mount Carmel each year in New York City. As a kid, I did the walk with her! It was Grandma's love of the church, as she understood it, which made me feel responsible to my faith. I was an altar server from elementary thru high school, and even later at St. John's University for many years. My parents and grandparents were sound role models for me. They were the ones who brought me to church on Holy Thursday visiting several parishes and praying before the Blessed Sacrament. They were the ones who had statues of saints, and till today I have a special avocation in keeping up with the reading about the lives of the saints of the day.

Who are the members of your current family?

I am not married. I have but one loving sister Gertrude, her husband now of 48 years, Robert Dorries, and three nieces: Joann, an assistant principal in Kissimmee, Fla.; Beth Ann Padgett, married to Charles (Buddy) and with two sons Brice Robert and Garrett Charles (two of my thirteen godchildren); and Diana Panariella with five children, Anthony, Gabrielle, Zachary, Alexandria and Cameron. Complimenting all of them are eight other cousins and all their related families. Aunts and uncles are now gone on both sides of the family but they enjoyed long lives and even Mom lived until 94 and a half, and passed on in 2008, having survived her husband by almost 35 years. What a life!

What are your responsibilities at St. John's University? 

Since 1994, I've been serving as vice president for community relations. This broad-based position allows me to interact with and develop wonderful relationships with the neighbors of the second largest Catholic university in America. St. John's has always been a good neighbor, but since hosting dorms commencing in 1990 or so, we have to be even more aware of our responsibility to let students know that they reside in good communities and must be good citizens themselves.

In addition, over the past 21 years or so, I have served on numerous boards, such as: the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce, St. John's Preparatory, Providence Rest Home in The Bronx, the Queens County Division of the American Cancer Society and the NY Blood Services board. I chair a charter school in Bed Stuy that I helped to found, am chair of a board of the Southern Queens Park Association, and a former chair of the Holocaust Center at Queensborough Community College, CUNY. Many see me as a consensus builder and for that I am proud.

Prior to this career, as I call it, I had served as director, dean and vice-president for financial aid and information services, all related to enrollment management from 1967-1994. It was in that role that I had large staffs who met the needs of ever so many students, some of whom continue to pop up in my life with gratitude for the advice and mentorship provided at the time. I also held roles as president and chair of all three levels of the financial aid profession, I then reached the heights as chair of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) in 1987-88.

How would you describe today's students? 

The students whom I meet today are no different from when I commenced at St. John's myself as a student in 1958. Each comes, as I describe them (and myself) as an unpolished jewel, and we come to be "polished up and shine," with our degrees and credentials. The students today do have some challenges, but thinking back, we all had them as well. What I am referring to is the matter of part time jobs, balancing study and work, and maintaining our home lives with our families and friends. I also find that students today are far too dependent on technology which has taken out the investigative parts of their lives. In the past students spent times thumbing through books in libraries. We are all very dependent on technology, including myself. Another observation is that there is so much for young people to look forward to in terms of personal growth, and when I see them from freshman year to senior year, and on the stage for graduation, well, that is transformation. Yes, St. John's University transforms men and women.                                                       

Do they respond to opportunities to provide help to people in need? If so, how do they do this?

Oh my goodness, do they ever! There's a motto on the Administration Building that states "Ministrare non Ministrari" and that is enlivened each day at the university in any variety of ways. First and foremost, on the weekend of the Feast of St. Vincent de Paul each September, we always have 1500 to 2000 students who, along with our community of administrators and faculty, go out in teams of ten, and work at various sites. During the regular weeks of the academic year, we have "Midnight Runs" to the homeless in New York City, and then there is the work of members of the Ladies of Charity, the outreach done by the Office of Campus Ministry, and the offerings of food to the community, and even our work with Bread and Life Program in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. So yes, they do get the message of "serving," especially the poor. But for our students, the poor may not be just in the financial sector of need, but rather some are recipients of their mentoring. That all helps to meet the intellectual needs of those who need assistance to make the mark.

Can you name administrators or professors who share your academic vision?

There have been many who have shared my vision of where we need to be in educating the whole person. Since I have been at St. John's in administrative roles since 1962, when I transferred to night school, I have worked with the best of the best in a variety of ways. The vice-presidents and deans whom I knew, many who are long gone, all valued that academic vision. They included: the late personages in Rev. Thomas Hoar, CM, Drs. Blaise Opulente, Carl Robusto, James McCormick (my first English teacher at the university), my former boss and mentor, the late Henry F. Rossi, university registrar and dean of admissions, and then there are Drs. Margaret Kelly, Barbara Morris and now retired Dean Dr. Jerrold Ross, and so many others who touched my life along the way. That academic vision is to offer an opportunity, and have the student prove him or herself, allowing him or her to develop and be educated in full, not simply in one discipline but to have a love for learning, for life. That belief permeates everything we do at St. John's and can be seen in the work of our students, staff and faculty each and every day.

What about your faith is important to you?

My faith is most important, for it is where I am headed. What I mean by that is that I believe in God and from the earliest of years, I learned well, that "God made me to know Him, love Him and to be happy with Him in heaven!" It's been a journey, a journey at times of up and downs, but always looking towards that day when whatever will be and to hear Him say: "Good job … or you could have done better." The faith that I have has been inculcated in me by family and education, and is something that I value and cherish. I talk about it, oftentimes. Sometimes I'm criticized for being 'too Catholic," but that never bothers me. 

How does it energize you? 

Well, my understanding of my faith has been enriched by my involvement in parish life at the Church of Notre Dame, New Hyde Park, where I've served as a lector for some 33 years, and by my involvement in the university community that goes back to the mid '60s when some preferred a campus liturgy to what was offered in their parishes. That faith causes me now more than ever to want a deeper knowledge about the formal church that strengthens my faith. And so, yes, it does energize me more in ways that I think I never expected.

What does it ask of you?

I honestly think that my faith is asking of me to do more. Most recently and this year, I've connected with a group of good Catholics who are fighting for the reopening of a church in New York City where my own grandparents once worshipped, and to which they arrived from Sicily with a priest who founded that parish. I was invited to speak at a Mass to which all the parishioners came. And there I was at the close of Mass asserting that the parish was doing well, had money in its endowment, a sound liturgy, and that it was the place that needed to stay opened, not closed. Those people who heard me applauded so loudly I was crying a bit, thinking of the good fight.

Do you draw inspiration from any Scripture passage? 

Yes, I do read passages from St. Paul often, and think of the special line of St. Timothy as "…having fought the good fight."

What form of prayer is most helpful to you? 

The Rosary! Yes, and in the car I keep a set handy and when I want to just pull back, I recite that as well as especially when at the beach in the summer or on vacations in the winter. Meditating on the various decades of the Rosary brings to mind the sufferings of the Lord, the joyful times in the life of Mary and Joseph and the glory of the Lord and his Resurrection and Ascension. For me, the repetition focuses me on the Life of Christ.

Has the example and/or teachings of Pope Francis made a difference in your life?

Yes, who could not be inspired by this man who comes with a background similar to many Americans? Our parents struggled and he teaches us in simple words and lessons that which we all need to hear: a love and respect of the poor, a love of family, children especially, a respect for the church despite what the media would like to think. His values are akin to my own. Is he different that his predecessors? Yes, he certainly is, for he is stressing something that we might not have thought about enough … the simplicity of life. I want to meet him; I want to meet him for surely some day he will be a saint of our church. I was privileged on April 28, 2004 to meet and hold the hand of St. Pope John Paul II, when I visited with a group of 100 on the occasion of the 99th anniversary of the National Order Sons of Italy in America, of which I was the national president at the time. As he held my hand, all I could utter was "Holy Father, the members of the OSIA love you." And in his own words, he said: "God bless you and God bless them." I want to hold the hand of this Holy Father, for indeed Pope Francis would say the same … he is a blessing to our church.

Is there anything else you would like us to know about yourself or your dreams for the future?

Well, what I would want some folks to know is that I am a principled person, a person who loves life and loves others who need a friend, who need a helping hand, and that makes me happy. I try to be unambiguously 'just' in all my dealings with people, listening to them, understanding them and helping them and that is not always easy. Some have said I work too hard and wonder what I want to achieve by it all. Well, I would want them to know that I work hard at what I do but it is always to help another person for I have been blessed with much and want to share that energy and that enthusiasm. My dreams, well, they include a continued good and healthy life, for that allows it all. I hope for a mind that continues to imagine what could be, rather than what seems to be, some time for more relaxation when that happens and a continued journey until the day I can hear from Him: "Good job, humble and good servant."

I cherish this passage from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans: "Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law." 

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Sr. Camille's column, Conversations with Sr. Camille, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert signup.


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