Italian-born Father Vicenzo Ronchi is quite the character – he has a captivating personality, a biting sense of humor, an appetite for good food and an uncanny ability of bringing people together.
In the months since he assumed the spiritual leadership of the Brazilian community in Manhattan, he has been able to make a difference within its realm.
His baptismal fire there came when one of the community's best-known members, Amara Guimarães fell ill last summer. Father Vincenzo rallied the media (including this writer) in the search of Amara's long-lost family back in Brazil.
When she finally passed in the end of September, Father Ronchi brought everyone together – even those who traditionally do not take part in the community's events. We caught up with him over an e-mail interview, which is excerpted here.
How did you become involved with immigrant communities?
For three years in Canada among first generation Italian immigrants there. I then went to Bogota, Colombia, where I taught in the Philosophical Seminary and on weekends ministered to the people of a poor barrio in the outskirts of the capital.
I came to the US in 1997 to minister to a multi-cultural community, offering services in English, Italian and Spanish in a populous parish in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Later, I met Sister Rita Schneider, a Brazilian nun who introduced me to the reality of many Brazilian immigrants in the metropolitan area. I started learning Portuguese, and in order to better learn the language I was sent to Mount Vernon to help out in a Brazilian community there.
After a few months, the pastor there was unexpectedly called to lead the Brazilian apostolate of the Miami area, so I was left as pastor. (My involvement was) more by divine providence than by choice.
You seem to have this incredible rapport with Brazilians…
I came to love Brazilian culture, food, music… and especially the people. I love the ecclesiology of Brazilian Catholics, the way they feel and live as Church. I am convinced that Brazilian Catholics are the ones who best embody the spirit of the II Vatican Council. Most of all I feel for the many hardships Brazilian immigrants are facing these days of exacerbated anti-immigrant feelings in American politics and public opinion.
Amara Guimarães was a colorful character, but also at times a reserved, private person. How was your relationship with her, and how was the effort of locating her family, and the ultimate effort in giving her final respects?
From the moment Amara and I met there was an instant friendship. The most "Brazilian" of our community, she made it her mission to give me a crash course in Brazilian life-style: she wanted to teach me everything about Brazil, including samba. She was also very lonely, and appreciated the attention I reserved to her. She would at time seem even jealous and annoyed when I was dedicating my attention to other members of the community.
She fell ill on August 6, and people in the community visited her almost every day, showing incredible compassion and solidarity. The big problem was that we knew of no family members. We wanted to inform them, and also allow them to make the appropriate and necessary medical decisions.
Amara had left no medical proxy or any proxy for that matter. There was no one who could speak for her when she had been unable to speak for herself. We reached out to all the Brazilian media we could contact here in the US and also in a few Brazilian cities.
We were looking for family members of Amara. We ultimately found them, whatever was left of them. The only blood relative left is a nephew, who is unable to legally prove his family relationship with Amara (he is the son born out of wedlock to one of Amara's brothers).
Amara finally passed away on September 28, but by then she was no longer alone. The community had rallied for two months in her support, praying for her, locating her relatives… So now there was indeed a crowd ready and willing to spring into action and give Amara a dignified burial.
Amara was a woman of intense social life. Many Brazilian artists, singers, dancers, performers, athletes had come to know her. They came together for her funeral. Two very touching moments: someone played the berimbau as the coffin was lead out of the church, and at the burial site, the whole group sang (Ary Barroso's) Aquarela do Brasil, accompanied by drums, berimbau and other instruments.
Amara was not the easiest person to be around. She took a long time to warm up to me, and only when she learned that she had worked for someone who was acquainted with my own family in Brazil did she finally "let me in". How did you warm up to her?
You and Amara were able to connect when you found out you had something in common. Somehow the opposite is true for my relationship with her. We had very little in common, but I felt immediate sympathy for her, her loneliness, her apparent irreverent spontaneity inadequate to disguise a deep-seated melancholy and need for affection.
I immediately felt a special connection with Amara, and wanted her to feel special. Once you don't let appearances or self-defense mechanisms get in the way, any person can become a potential best friend.
Ernest Barteldes is a freelance writer based on Staten Island, New York. He can be reached at email@example.com. This article appeared originally in The Brasilians.