Father Salvatore Cordaro, 50, came to the religious life relatively late; the new pastor at St. Joseph Church in New Paltz was almost 40 when he answered the call, he says. “I was baptized a Catholic as a baby, and went to Catholic schools, but then I was away from the church for many years. It was only in my early 30s that I came back to faith, and even then it wasn’t a direct return; I came back to faith through other religions. I was interested in Hinduism and Buddhism and Islam, all kinds of things.”
At one point he considered joining the cloistered Trappist monks. But when he encountered the Capuchin Franciscan friars at a church he frequented in lower Manhattan near where he worked at the time, Cordaro knew he’d found “the kind of life I was looking for; a life of prayer, a life of community but also a life of active service to the people. That’s what I always wanted, I think, and was searching for. But it took me several years to come to that decision.”
The Capuchin Franciscan friars are unique within the Catholic church, Fr. Salvatore says. Known for being very “relational,” as he puts it, “We’re approachable; of the people, with the people, so to speak. At St. Joseph’s, our friary, where we live, is on the same property as the church and we bring that spirit to our ministry in the parish. Many people have told us that’s what they really like about us, that we’re so open and welcoming. That’s what Franciscans bring to it.”
He is both an ordained priest and a brother. “Being Franciscans, we see ourselves as brothers, first and foremost. St. Francis… one of his insights, is that we’re all brothers and sisters to one another, all God’s children. Some of us are ordained priests, as I am, and some of us remain lay brothers. Different roles, different ministries, but we’re all equal.” Lay brothers, he explains, spend their time in the order as teachers, social workers, administrators or in any capacity they’re needed based on their skills and “how they choose to express their Capuchin identities.”
The path for Fr. Salvatore began in Jersey City where he was born. He went to school at Baruch College and the City University of New York, earning his undergraduate degree in accounting and business administration. He went to work for Barnes & Noble, first as a manager in a Manhattan store and later as an executive in the company, becoming a buyer for the 700-plus stores they had at the time. He remained with the company for nearly 25 years.
But encountering the Capuchins at that church in Manhattan on West 31st Street changed everything. He entered the Capuchin order of Franciscans in 2005, spending his first year in Brooklyn. “The first year, called ‘postulancy,’ is where you basically learn the life and what makes us Capuchin,” he explains. The next year as novitiate was in Pittsburgh, followed by his studies at the Jesuit-run Boston College School of Theology, where he earned two graduate degrees, one in divinity and the other in theology. (One is a professional degree and the other academic.)
He was ordained a priest in June of 2012. His first assignment was in White Plains, where he served as chaplain at White Plains Hospital and assisted various parishes with Masses and ceremonies. Within the year he came to St. Joseph Church in New Paltz, where last month, on October 26, Fr. Salvatore was formally installed as pastor.
When asked whether he’d been sent to the church or chosen New Paltz himself, Fr. Salvatore explains that “it’s more of a dialogue.” The churches are grouped in provinces, he says, where the provincial (the person in charge) works with the friar to decide “where we’d like to go and what our skills are. We discuss what the needs of the individual parishes are, then we discern together what’s best for the friar as well as for the local church.”
Fr. Sal professes a bit of “shock” that they made him a pastor so quickly — within two years of becoming a priest — saying that it used to take many years for a priest to become a pastor. “But they know I’m not doing this alone, there are great people here. And all these incredible parishioners… I can’t tell you how much support and affirmation they’ve given me from day one.”
His approach to ministering is based on his belief of the interrelatedness of all people and all things. “That’s a very Franciscan thing,” he says, “that everything in the universe is connected in some way.” He sees his role as helping people to make the world around them a better place. “It’s like John Donne said, ‘No man is an island.’ We’re human beings, and relational beings. And I see the parish community as everyone bringing what they can to the table. Coming together to worship and to make our community a better place; both our parish community and the New Paltz community.”
He says that people don’t get enough affirmation, or hear enough encouragement. “The church, in the most fundamental sense, is its people. I try to get people to realize how good they really are, how much they can contribute. They need to be challenged, too; it’s not all sweetness and light, of course, but people need to realize how much they are the church, which they don’t always hear.”
Down the road, Fr. Sal — as many parishioners refer to him — sees the long-term picture at St. Joseph’s as “continuing to build on what we have now and becoming even more welcoming and inviting to people. We want to be responsive to the needs of our parishioners, but also the needs of the people around us in New Paltz, because again, we’re not on an island, here. We’re very much a part of the New Paltz community.”
In light of that, Fr. Salvatore says he participates in a church council made up of all the Christian congregations in New Paltz, who gather once a month to talk about what they can do working together.
And finally, he says, it’s about “reaching out to people on the margin who are not part of a faith community; people who don’t care about religion, who are apathetic. My big thing is listening to people, about what they feel, what they’re thinking. We can’t assume we know what people are thinking. We have to have an open ear, an open mind to what they’re experiencing.”
Specifically, he’d like to hear from those in their twenties and thirties, he says. “We’re losing a generation of Catholics. We have to hear from them what they need, what we’re not doing, what we can do better. A person has to want to go to church. It’s not about numbers; I don’t care about numbers. I just want to make people know the joy of faith. Getting people to come back to a community of faith and making them realize it’s a great thing to be a part of.”