Syracuse’s Music Man

Msgr. Charles Borgognoni
remembered for his jovial and loving personality
By claudia mathis / SUN staff writer

Msgr. Charles Borgognoni, the priest known as “Father Charles,” and for directing the Pompeian Players in the production of Broadway musicals for nearly 40 years, died Thursday, July 19 at age 84.
Our Lady of Pompei Church in Syracuse was filled to capacity on Monday, July 23 for Msgr. Borgognoni’s funeral Mass. Bishop James Moynihan presided at the Mass of Christian Burial.
At the beginning of the service Bishop Moynihan shared one of his memories of Msgr. Borgognoni. “I always thought of him as ‘Mr. S.U.,’” said Bishop Moynihan. Msgr. Borgognoni served as Roman Catholic Chaplin at Syracuse University’s John G. Alibrandi Center from 1962 to 1991. And, as chaplain of the S.U. football and basketball teams, he was a spiritual leader and fan, never missing a game at home or away. 

Msgr. James McCloskey, in his homily at the funeral Mass, said that Msgr. Borgognoni caught the meaning of the words that were chosen for the first Scripture reading of the funeral Mass: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another.” Msgr. Borgognoni radiated God’s love throughout his life, but especially as a priest. “Coach Dick MacPherson summed up this trait by describing Father Charles as ‘a great big bundle of love,’” said Msgr. McCloskey. “Coach Mac made this comment as he noted how gently but persuasively Father Charles dealt with the athletes at S.U.”
Father Paul Angelicchio, pastor at Our Lady of Pompei, agreed. “He was a true priest,” said Father Angelicchio. “He lived the Gospel and lived what Jesus said: ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ I remember him as a jolly man who loved and celebrated life.”
Msgr. Borgognoni was born in Canastota on March 11, 1923, to Italian immigrants Amelia and Joseph Borgognoni. He attended St. Andrew’s and St. Bernard’s Seminaries in Rochester, N.Y. He was ordained May 6, 1948, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse.
Msgr. Borgognoni’s first assignment was at St. Joseph’s Church in Oswego, where he served from 1948-1949. He then served at Our Lady of Pompei in Syracuse from 1949 to 1962, where he directed the Pompeian Players musical theater group. On Dec. 16, 1962, he was appointed Roman Catholic chaplain of the St. Thomas More Chapel at S.U. He was also named chaplain of the football and basketball teams.
Among the many ways in which he was honored was the Syracuse University College of Visual and Performing Arts Award, the proclamation of May 17, 1986 as “Father Charles Day” in Syracuse, State Assembly and Congressional Record Salutes to Pompeian Players, St. Thomas More Foundation Medal, citation by Gov. Mario Cuomo for service to S.U. and the Syracuse community, the Simon Le Moyne medal, Boys Town of Italy Man of the Year, S.U. Varsity Club Honorary Letterman of Distinction and CNY Inter-Religious Council Leadership Award.
Father Charles Vavonese, assistant superintendent for Catholic school advancement, said that Msgr. Borgognoni had a profound effect on him, especially when he served as an officer in the Young Catholic Workers organization while in high school. Msgr. Borgognoni served as the moderator for the organization. Father Vavonese said that in his role as moderator, Msgr. Borgognoni helped the youth develop strong bonds to the church, thereby increasing their sense of belonging. “He was a man of vision, well beyond his time,” said Father Vavonese. “He was able to see beyond standard ministry, looking for a different level of ministry in order to connect people. The interconnectedness mirrored the Trinity.”
Father Vavonese credits Msgr. Borgognoni with inspiring his vision of becoming a priest and also a teacher. “Through him, I understood the passion of teaching,” said Father Vavonese.
Msgr. McCloskey was Msgr. Borgognoni’s friend for more than 50 years. In his homily, Msgr. McCloskey listed the ways in which Msgr. Borgognoni led others to experience God’s love. He said the use of the sacraments was the way he most effectively drew people to God’s love.
Msgr. McCloskey recalled how Father Borgognoni used the staging of Broadway shows to draw people of all ages away from idleness and consequent trouble and into projects that would teach as well as entertain. “Those rehearsals and performances were always preceded by and concluded with prayer and he would point out during the practice the life lessons that were implicit in the songs and plots,” said Msgr. McCloskey. “South Pacific and Showboat were chosen precisely because they spoke out against racial prejudice and fostered harmony of all segments of society.”
Msgr. McCloskey said that no phase of Msgr. Borgognoni’s life exhibited more strikingly the holding power of his love for God and for others than his long years of suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. Despite the debilitation he experienced, he continued to respond to the duties of his campus ministry at S.U. as long as he could. After a few years of assisted living, Msgr. Borgognoni lived until his death at James Square Health & Rehabilitation Center. During his frequent visits to Msgr. Borgognoni, Msgr. McCloskey observed that even though he was confused, Msgr. Borgognoni fully understood his illness and the consequences. He was sad but he accepted it. “He was offering his suffering with those of his crucified Lord for us as well as for his own salvation,” said Msgr. McCloskey.
Before the close of the funeral Mass, Msgr. Borgognoni’s nephew, Charles A. Borgognoni shared his memories of his uncle with those in attendance. Borgognoni recited Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.” He recalled how, as a student studying at S.U., he visited his uncle’s office and noticed a clipping of the poem had been preserved under the glass top of his uncle’s desk. “I read it and thought about the line in the poem where the person takes the road that is less traveled and then about the choices that my uncle made and how he inspired people,” said Borgognoni. “The meaning of the poem is a beautiful affirmation of the humanness of Uncle Charlie. He took the road less traveled. It makes all the difference to you and me.”

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