Sunday, January 17, 2016

Fr. Gennaro "Jerry" Sesto, SDB (1921-2016)

Fr. Gennaro “Jerry” Sesto, SDB (1921-2016)

Fr. Jerry Sesto in 2010 at the province jubilees celebration
Fr. Gennaro “Jerry” Sesto, the senior member of the province of St. Philip the Apostle, died on January 15 at Villa Marie Claire Hospice in Saddle River, N.J., following a cerebral hemorrhage suffered on January 5. He was assisted in his last moments by his director, Fr. Jim Heuser.

Fr. Sesto was 94 years old and had been a professed Salesian for 75 years and a priest for 65 years. He was a member of the Don Bosco Prep community in Ramsey.

Jerry Sesto was born in Biddeford, Maine, on August 1, 1921, to Mary and Thomas Sesto and was baptized at St. Mary’s Church there. After the family moved to Portland, he was confirmed at St. Peter’s Church in that city. He recounted that “fascination with Don Bosco, fostered by my pastor [Fr. Teresio Dimingo] during a year in preparation for Don Bosco’s canonization” induced him to enter the aspirantate at Don Bosco Seminary in Newton, N.J., in 1935.

Jerry was impressed immediately by the happiness and family spirit of the Salesians and by a mural in the chapel that quoted St. John Bosco: “I promise you bread, work, and paradise.”

Between 1935 and 1939, he was an A student in the high school seminary. He entered St. Joseph’s Novitiate in Newton on September 7, 1939, and professed vows on September 8, 1940. His was part of the illustrious class that included the future Frs. Paul Avallone, Ed Cappelletti, Joe Occhio, Chet Szemborski, and Leo Winterscheidt from our province and Frs. Salvatore Giacomini, Art Lenti, Larry Lorenzoni, John Malloy, and Armand Oliveri from the West, as well as Bros. Dominic Casiraghi and Roy Vetari. Their master was Fr. Joseph Romani.

He graduated from Don Bosco College in Newton in 1943 with a B.A. in philosophy, summa cum laude.

Three younger brothers—Constantine, Anthony, and Thomas—followed him to the Salesian seminary between 1939 and 1957, but all of them discerned a different calling in life.

Bro. Jerry did his practical training at Salesian High School in New Rochelle from 1943 to 1946; it was strictly a boarding school at the time. He taught geometry, general science, and French, directed the band and choir, and coached baseball in addition to general assistance duties.

Fr. Jerry around the time of his priestly ordination
(Salesian Communications Office photo)
In 1946 Bro. Jerry and many of his classmates were the first postwar class to travel to Turin for theological studies at the Pontificio Ateneo Salesiano (the “Crocetta”). He earned an STL and was ordained in the basilica of Mary Help of Christians on July 2, 1950. He remained in Turin after his ordination to study canon law, completing his JCL in 1952, magna cum laude; his dissertation was entitled “The essence of the Sacrifice of the Mass according to M. Lepin.” He continued his canonical studies at the Catholic University of America, earning a JCD in 1956.

While doing his studies at CUA, he also served as prefect at Don Bosco College (1953-1955), where he also taught Latin in the college and theology in the novitiate; and then as a respected professor of canon law at the PAS in Turin (1955-1957) and Rome (1957-1963). The Roman campus of the PAS was located at Sacro Cuore in those years.

In 1956 CUA appointed him a corresponding member of the Institute of Research and Study of Medieval Canon Law in view of the “groundwork for the edition of Huguccio’s Summa, one of the foremost objectives envisaged in common by this institute and the Canon Law Institute of Turin,” study that Fr. Sesto was conducting in collaboration with Fr. Alfons Stickler, SDB (who was made a cardinal by St. John Paul II). He was admitted as an advocate/procurator before the Sacred Roman Rota in 1960, entitled to practice Church law anywhere in the world.

Fr. Sesto was recalled to the province in 1963 to serve as director of the Salesian community in Newton and president of Don Bosco College. Following the College’s Middle States accreditation, Fr. Joseph Bajorek became president in 1965, but Fr. Sesto continued as director until 1967. He also taught theology to the novices and was a member of the provincial council during the four years that he was director. For the novices he was adept at explaining what had just occurred at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

In 1967 the two U.S. provinces began to send their theology students to the Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, Ohio. Consequently, Fr. Sesto went there to teach canon law and be part of the formation team for the Salesian community, in residence first at the PCJ and then at the Salesian Center in Columbus. At the PCJ he also served terms as dean of students (1968-1970) and associate academic dean (1970-1981). He was a popular and highly regarded professor.
Fr. Jerry, standing, speaking at the 1976 provincial chapter
Two phrases that he often repeated while teaching were “Suprema lex salus animarum” (The salvation of souls is the highest law) from the Code, and “Bad theology is bad pastoral practice.” One of his students wondered whether bad pastoral practice was bad theology but never dared to ask in class.

In 1981 Fr. Sesto was named director of Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J. After completing two three-year terms there, he returned briefly to Don Bosco College as director of religious activities (1987-1988) and treasurer (1988-1989). In 1989 he came to the provincial house in New Rochelle with two responsibilities: coordinator of the Salesian Lay Missioners program and provincial secretary (1989-1995). The SLM program progressed so well that in 1995 it could be turned over to lay leadership.

Fr. Sesto took up the role of coordinator of the Marian Shrine in Haverstraw-Stony Point, N.Y. in 1995, serving until 2003, when he moved to St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Elizabeth, N.J., to serve the Italian apostolate in the area. He remained there until declining health compelled his retirement in 2013. He moved to Don Bosco Prep, where he maintained a lively interest in student and Salesian activities and rendered pastoral assistance when he could.

On January 5 he suffered a major cerebral hemorrhage in his room at the Prep, with paralysis of his left side. He was quickly taken to Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, where efforts to stem his bleeding were not completely successful; three days later he was moved to hospice care at Villa Marie Claire.

Throughout my Salesian life,” Father Sesto wrote at the time of one of the province jubilee celebrations, “I’ve tried to live the spirituality of three devotions: to the Blessed Sacrament, to Our Lady Help of Christians, and to our Holy Father. I’ve experienced daily the love and kindness of the Lord.” He maintained that the highlights of his long Salesian life were “teaching canon law, working with the SLMs, and his years at Don Bosco Prep.”

Fr. Steve Shafran, provincial, said that when he visited Fr. Jerry in his last days, “despite his suffering, his thoughts turned to the boys, to ‘Don Bosco’s boys,’ as he would refer to them. He had them constantly on his mind and in his heart.”

Fr. Shafran added: “Fr. Jerry was always known for his joyful Salesian oratorian heart, his welcome and affection. We all know of his great intellect, capacity for languages, and experience as a wonderful and engaging teacher, but it was his sensitivity to the person, to the confrere, that made him especially endearing. He wanted to be connected, either personally or with a card or email. Like Don Bosco, he was forward thinking. It was not unusual to find him on social media to be present in people’s lives.”

Fr. Sesto is survived by his sisters Lucy Burke, Ann Gribbin, and Virginia LaCroix of Maine and his brother Thomas Sesto of Germany, numerous nieces and nephews, his confreres, and his former students.

The senior member of the New Rochelle Province now is Bro. Gerard Richard, 92, of the Sherbrooke community.

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