Fr. Robert Alphonse Savage, SDB, completed his 97-year-long earthly pilgrimage on May 23, at the Jeanne Jugan Residence in the Bronx, N.Y. He had resided at Jeanne Jugan since Sept. 12, 2007, under the loving care of the Little Sisters of the Poor and their staff. During our notoriously long and difficult winter he hadn’t had any significant health issues, but in the spring his kidneys began to fail, and by early May it was evident that he wouldn’t recover.
Fr. Savage was born in Paterson, N.J., on Jan. 18, 1917, to Robert and Margaret Foy Savage. He was baptized at the church of St. Mary Help of Christians on Union Avenue—an augury, perhaps, of his future ministry as a priest in the religious congregation founded by St. John Bosco under the patronage of the Help of Christians.
Young Bob grew up as a parishioner of St. Bonaventure’s Church on the other side of the Passaic River, however, and attended the parish school through ninth grade. He had made the acquaintance of Fr. Carmine Manzella, SDB, of St. Anthony’s Church in Paterson and, when Bob’s father died, the kindness of Fr. Manzella deeply impressed the Savage family. That induced Bob to choose Don Bosco’s sons when he felt a call to the priesthood. He enrolled in the high school section of Don Bosco Seminary in Newton, N.J., as a sophomore on Sept. 11, 1932. One of his classmates was the future coadjutor brother John Versaggi (1917-2004). During Bob’s high school years the kindness of another Salesian priest, Fr. John Guglielmetto, the prefect (treasurer) of Don Bosco College, impressed him.
Bob entered novitiate, also at Newton, on Sept. 7, 1935. Fr. James Szaforz was master of novices. Of Fr. Szaforz Fr. Bob particularly recalled his constant cheerfulness, despite ill health. His novitiate classmates included John Versaggi and the future priests Aloysius Bianchi, Lawrence Byrne, August Bosio, Mario Carpanese, Alphonse DiCairano, John Faita, and Felix Martocchi
On Sept. 8, 1936, Bob and his classmates made their first religious profession. Three years of college studies followed, and Bro. Bob graduated from Don Bosco College in June 1939 with a B.A. in philosophy.
Bro. Bob did his practical training at Salesian HS in New Rochelle (1939-1940) and St. Michael’s School in Goshen, N.Y. (1940-1942). At St. Michael’s, a grammar school, he taught just about every subject. At the end of practical training Bro. Bob made his perpetual profession (Sept. 8, 1942, in Newton). World War II had made it impossible for Americans to travel to Europe to study, as had been the Salesian practice throughout the 1930s, so Bro. Bob and his classmates did their theological studies in Newton. Upon completing their theology in 1946, they were ordained in the Don Bosco College chapel on June 29 by Bishop Louis LaRavoire Morrow, SDB, of Krishnagar, India. In 1971 most of the class were able to gather at Fr. Bosio’s parish, St. Anthony’s in Elizabeth, N.J., to celebrate their 25th anniversary with Bishop Morrow.
Apparently Fr. Bob wrote a letter after his ordination to the Rector Major, Fr. Peter Ricaldone. In his personal papers we find Fr. Ricaldone’s response, dated Oct. 9, 1946:
My Dear Fr. Savage,
Your noble, filial sentiments have truly brought me satisfaction. Heartfelt thanks!
On you, your holy proposals [perhaps a plan of life?], and your priestly apostolate, I invoke abundant heavenly blessings.
Do you want to be a holy Salesian priest?
1. Live in union with God by means of a solid, humble Eucharistic piety, nourished by angelic candor and generous sacrifice.
2. Live in union with souls through the Catechetical Crusade and the gentlest charity.
3. Live in union with Don Bosco by means of the exact observance of the Rules, the Regulations, and our traditions.
Take courage. Be an apostle of our precious devotions to Mary Help of Christians and St. John Bosco.
Pray for me.
I bless you from my heart.
Yours affectionately in Christ Jesus,
Fr. P. Ricaldone
Whether it was because of the Rector Major’s three suggestions or because of his own inclinations and the formation he had already received, those three suggestions were the soul of Fr. Bob’s priestly and Salesian life.
|Fr. Bob's portrait in the Don Bosco Tech yearbook for 1957|
Fr. Bob’s first assignment as a priest was to Hope Haven, the New Orleans archdiocesan orphanage run by the Salesians in Marrero, La. (1946-1948). The first of two stints at Don Bosco Prep, Ramsey, N.J., followed (1948-1951), then six years at Don Bosco Tech in Boston. Those six years, which included the transfer of DBT from its original site in East Boston to its new site in downtown Boston, Fr. Bob thought were the best years of his Salesian life, largely because of the wonderful Catholic environment that he found in Boston. Four years back at St. Michael’s School, Goshen, followed (1957-1961); for the last two, he was principal. St. Michael’s was closed in 1961 to make way for the transfer of the high school seminary there from Haverstraw, and Fr. Bob returned to Ramsey for a long assignment that he very much loved, teaching algebra, biology, and religion there until 1978. Ever after, he retained an active interest in the doings at the Prep, particularly the accomplishments of the school’s football team.
At age 61 Fr. Bob retired from the classroom and took up parish ministry, serving at Holy Rosary Church in Port Chester, N.Y. (1978-1980), and the Salesian parishes in Birmingham, Ala. (1980-1982 and 1987-1988), with a period also at the Sacred Heart Retreat House in Ipswich, Mass. (1982-1984). But for most of the period 1984-2006 he was part of the Salesian Provincial House community in New Rochelle (1984-1987, 1988-2006). He continued parish ministry in those years almost until he turned 90, going faithfully every Sunday morning to celebrate the early Mass at St. Theresa’s Church in the Bronx. Like the proverbial postman, he was deterred neither by “rain nor snow nor dark of night”—nor blizzards!—although illness occasionally intervened. He also delighted in offering Mass four days a week for the Christian Brothers at St. Joseph’s Nursing Home in New Rochelle. At both St. Theresa’s and St. Joseph’s his faithfulness was very much appreciated.
|Fr. Bob (right) with his close friend Fr. Joe Doran in 2006|
At the provincial house Fr. Bob was in charge of the province’s photographic archives. When he began that assignment, he was confronted with what was, effectively, chaos: a mountain of uncatalogued, mostly undated, and otherwise unidentified photos. Painstakingly he assaulted that mountain, identifying a very high percentage of persons, places, and occasions, organizing the files, and cataloguing them by computer. That work was never finished, of course, with new photos arriving regularly from all over the province—which was just the way Fr. Bob liked it. He also liked very much to put the fruits of his labors into the hands of provincials, editors, and other Salesians who needed pictures for letters, flyers, press releases, magazines, etc.
Until one goes looking for a document or photo, archival work is mostly unseen. Still more unseen was the service that Fr. Bob performed for many years at the provincial house of taking care of the brothers or priests who were sick—bringing meals to them, seeing what else they might need, taking them to the doctor. Those who experienced that service truly appreciated it, and the confreres who witnessed it were truly edified.
For Fr. Bob, life as a priest and as a teacher revolved around his Catholic faith. He believed that teaching religion was more important than teaching math. “The greatest thing” for him was “to say Mass and deliver the word of God” in its Catholic fullness. So he treasured his daily Masses with the Christian Brothers and Sunday Masses at St. Theresa’s. He was vigorous—some would have said too vigorous—in protesting any dilution of what he perceived to be the Church’s authentic magisterium in faith or morals and zealous in proclaiming the Faith “in season and out of season” in his homilies, Good Night talks, conversations, and writings.
|At his jubilee celebration in 2006 at Salesian HS chapel,|
Fr. Bob expressed his thanks to many people,
to God and Mary above all.
After poor health compelled his retirement in 2006 to a series of three nursing homes—the Schaffer Extended Care Center in New Rochelle, St. Cabrini Nursing Home in Dobbs Ferry, and finally Jeanne Jugan—the other services that Fr. Bob performed faithfully were prayer and example. In community he was always regular at times of prayer, besides his private prayer; away from the community he continued a regular prayer regimen that included daily Mass, Divine Office, the Rosary, Stations of the Cross, and more, as long as he was physically able, and his life and conversation edified sisters and residents alike at Jeanne Jugan. At the end of any visit at the nursing home, he would ask a priest for a blessing, and then he would give his own blessing to the visitor. Thus, to the end, he continued to be of service to the whole Salesian world, to the young, and to the rest of God’s people.
One of Fr. Bob’s former students in Ramsey, Fr. Louis Molinelli, SDB, writes: “I first met Fr. Bob as a young altar server at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church [in Mahwah]. He would often come for Mass and confessions. I remember a stirring and wonderful homily he gave at the May crowning in the parish in 1975. As the Algebra I teacher at Don Bosco Prep, he instilled in all of us a sense of discipline and fortitude. He insisted on quality work and helped us to give our very best. Always devoted to our Lady, he instilled that devotion in all of us, especially a great love for Mary Help of Christians. He really laid the foundations for my Salesian vocation.”
From Dec. 30, 2012, until his death, Fr. Bob was the senior confrere of the New Rochelle Province. That distinction now passes to Fr. Philip Pascucci, who is 95.
Fr. Robert Savage is survived by his brother Henry of Sparta, N.J., and several nieces and nephews.
|At his 2006 jubilee Mass, Fr. Bob extends the sign of peace|
to his brother Henry and other family members,
assisted by Fr. Jim Heuser, provincial
His wake is scheduled for Tuesday, May 27, at Salesian HS’s chapel from 3:00 to 5:00 and 7:00 to 9:00 p.m.
The Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at the high school chapel on Wednesday, May 28, at 10:00 a.m. Fr. Jim Heuser, a former provincial, preached the funeral homily and Fr. Tom Dunne, provincial, was the main celebrant.
Burial in the Salesian cemetery at Goshen followed the funeral Mass.