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This article was published 14/3/2019 (444 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It’s a good thing Rev. Sam Argenziano loves hanging out with people over good food and great wine, because this weekend he gets to do just that.
The spiritual leader of the city’s Italian Roman Catholic community will eat dinner with 1,200 people on Saturday night when he is honoured with the inaugural Heart of the Lion Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual gala of the Sons of Italy.
"It’s for just being there for anyone who needed someone to speak with and opening the doors of the church to anyone and everyone regardless of denomination," explains gala chairman Mario Posillipo of the reason for recognizing the long-serving priest of Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church on River Avenue.
After years of cracking jokes as the gala’s master of ceremonies, Argenziano will sit on the other side of the table as people honour him.
"They see something in you and just accept it with grace and humility," he says, adding he got teary-eyed when he first heard about the award.
Known in Osborne Village and beyond as Father Sam, the Staten Island native with the big smile and broad New York accent landed in Winnipeg on a cold winter day more than four decades ago. He was ordained to the priesthood on Feb. 15, 1979, at St. Edward the Confessor Parish on Arlington Street, and later served as pastor of St. Anthony of Padua in West Kildonan, before moving to Holy Rosary in 1995.
A second-generation Italian American, Argenziano only became fluent in the language when he moved to Winnipeg to serve the Italian community at Holy Rosary, where he still performs one Sunday mass in Italian.
"I speak Italian with a New York accent," he explains with a laugh. "That’s never going to change."
What’s also never going to change is his genuine interest in people, both in his parish of 700 families and beyond. The 71-year-old self-described extreme extrovert surrounds himself with his large adopted family of Winnipeggers, jokes with folks he meets in the neighbourhood, and engages in interfaith conversations across the city.
"If you see someone you don’t know, just take the plunge and go" talk to them," he says about communicating in person in the age of digital devices.
"I want all of us to be ministers of welcome."
Argenziano models that sort of welcome by opening his second-floor duplex at the south end of the church parking lot to friends and acquaintances for holiday dinners or poker, explains a friend, Sister Michelle Garlinski, who first met him several decades ago.
"He generally is fully alive when he is with people," says Garlinski, director of mission at St. Mary’s Academy, where Argenziano has performed mass regularly during the past 40 years.
"In my opinion, you see God at work when he is with people."
Totally committed to the duties of the church, which include saying daily mass except on Mondays and officiating at about 70 funerals annually, Argenziano accepts people for who they are and where they are in life, says his colleague Tonina Fiorentino, pastoral assistant at Holy Rosary.
"If you don’t go to church, he doesn’t judge that," she says.
Although he hates using computers and prefers people telephone him — he will even have his secretary reply to incoming emails with a message to call him — Argenziano has embraced the smartphone and texts regularly with Fiorentino’s two adult sons and other close friends. He also keeps in touch with former parishioners who request his pastoral services, says Fiorentino.
"People from all over the world come back to get their children baptized or to be get married by him," she says.
Both Garlinski and Fiorentino have witnessed his generosity as he hands out a fistful of spare change from a spare dish on his kitchen counter, slips $20 to someone obviously in need, and visits strangers in hospital who request a priest.
"When he sees somebody and they’re asking for money or a prayer, he always responds," says Garlinski. "He always responds with dignity."
Proceed from the $250-a-plate dinner, now in its 33rd year, will be directed to the Bruce Oake Recovery Centre. The evening features a five-course meal and entertainment by illusionist Darcy Oake, younger brother of Bruce. Bruce Oake died of a drug overdose in 2011 at age 25.
The service organization of people of Italian heritage voted late last year to open membership to women and will be rebranded soon as the Sons and Daughters of Italy, says Posillipo.
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.