FR. ALBERT SOFIA, S.D.B. (1922-2007)
Fr. Albert Sofia, S.D.B., died on December 11, 2007, at St. Mary’s Life Center in Orange, N.J., a nursing home to
which he had recently moved. He was 85 years old and had belonged to the Salesian community of Don Bosco Prep High School in Ramsey, N.J., since 1999. He had been incapacitated by poor health for several years.
In his long Salesian and priestly life, Fr. Sofia – often referred to as “Big Al” because of both his size and his
commanding presence – filled administrative posts across the length and breadth of the Province of New Rochelle, including three assignments at St. Dominic Savio High School in East Boston.
In 1958-59, the year Dom Savio
opened, Fr. Sofia was the new school’s prefect of studies, responsible for its
day-to-day running. He returned to the fully mature school in 1969 as director, serving one three-year term.
Finally, he was in residence as a senior priest in the Salesian community at the school in 1998-99. Fr. Sofia also served on the staff of the Sacred Heart Retreat Center in Ipswich from 1993 to 1995.
Albert Sofia was born in New York
City on May 19, 1922, to Italian immigrants Ralph and Raffaela Sammartino
Sofia. They worshiped at Our Lady of Pompei Church in Manhattan, where Al was baptized. Ralph Sofia, a stone carver, moved the family to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where Al attended P.S. 176 and whence he entered the Salesian high school seminary in Newton, N.J., in 1936. Fr. Sofia later said that his aim in the Salesian priesthood was “to do some good to poor boys, whom I love because of my own identical position as a boy.”
Al made his novitiate year in 1940-41 and professed first vows on Sept. 8, 1941. He was graduated from Don Bosco College Seminary in Newton with a B.A. in philosophy in June 1944 and was assigned to Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J., for three years of practical training, which was followed by a fourth year at Hope Haven, the Salesian orphanage in Marrero, La.
Fr. Sofia’s teaching specialty was
the sciences, and eventually he earned an M.S. in physics from Fordham (1954).
From 1948 to 1952 Fr. Sofia studied theology at the Salesian school of theology
in Aptos, Calif. He was ordained on June 15, 1952, at Watsonville, Calif. Over
the next 47 years, in addition to his East Boston assignments Fr. Sofia served
in Salesian schools in New Rochelle, N.Y. (1952-54, 1956-58, 1960-66, 1975-78);
Tampa (1954-55); Paterson, N.J. (1955-56, 1959-60, 1972-75); Ramsey, N.J.
(1967-69, 1979-82, 1986-92); and Marrero (1983-86), filling the responsibilities
of teacher, prefect of studies/principal, development director, treasurer, and
director. He had brief stints as a physics professor at Don Bosco College
priest in Port Chester, N.Y. (Corpus Christi, 1982-83, and Holy Rosary, 1995-98) and Mahwah, N.J. (Immaculate Heart of Mary, 1992-93); and director of development for the New Rochelle Province (1978-79).
As a principal at Salesian High School in New Rochelle, Don Bosco Tech in Paterson, St. Dominic Savio High
School in East Boston, and Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, Fr. Sofia earned the respect of both students and faculty. He administered strict but fair discipline to the boys while remaining on friendly terms.
“A familiar sight in the schoolyard in the afternoon after classes,” says Gus Stellwag, a retired Salesian High School teacher, “was Fr. Al, talking, laughing, and joking with a group of students. On many occasions, one or more of the students in the group were the very same ones who had been on the receiving end of Fr. Al's disciplinary measures the day before.”
Richard Acunto, Salesian High
class of 1968, was looking back a few years ago: “Before E. F. Hutton launched
ad campaign, it was when Fr. Al spoke that people listened – especially the students in his care. Fondly referred to as ‘Big Al,’ he is remembered as being a bear of a man who was really a gentle giant. Alumni recall that ‘his hands were bigger than their own heads. Yet as big as he is, so is his heart.’”
Fr. Sofia hired Mr. Stellwag and
another gentleman as the first lay teachers at Salesian High in 1956. Mr.
Stellwag, a rookie teacher, remembers “asking Fr. Al what the students at Salesian were like. He gave me a mysterious smile and the cryptic reply, ‘Well, you know, boys will be boys.’” Having promised the two new lay teachers nice cabinets for their papers, he delivered on their first day of class—including the screwdriver, pliers, and bolts with which to assemble them from two piles of metal panels.
“But,” Mr. Stellwag continues,
“when it came to the important matters, we could always depend on Fr. Al. One of
his main characteristics was that he always backed up his faculty, even when they made mistakes, and, as a first year teacher, I made many. He is one of the main reasons I was able to survive that first year and continue in high school education for the rest of my career.”
John Flaherty, the current principal of Salesian High, was a teacher during Fr. Sofia’s 1972-75 term as principal.
He says, “Fr. Al is without a doubt one of the most dynamic and influential administrators that helped to changed the course of our school.” During his earlier terms not only were the first lay teachers hired, but the school also transitioned from a mixed boarding-day school to only a day school.
Salesian Provincial Fr. James
Heuser notes Fr. Sofia’s complete dedication to the work of education, his heart
filled with love for the Salesian Congregation, and the gratitude he had for
what he received St. John Bosco.
Fr. Sofia is survived by his nephews Ralph Sofia of Barnegat, N.J., Albert Sofia of Union, N.J., and Anthony Sofia of Rockaway, N.J., his niece Irma Nucciaroni, sisters-in-law Marguerite Sofia of Florida and Susan Sofia of Brooklyn, and grandniece Anna Maria Vece of New Jersey.
He will be waked at Don Bosco Prep
High School, Ramsey, N.J., on Thursday afternoon, December 13, and the
Mass of Christian of Burial will be celebrated there at 7:30 p.m. Burial will be in the Salesian Cemetery at Goshen, N.Y., on December 14.
Submitted 12/13/2007 by Fr. Mike Mendl.