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St. Gall Catholic Church says farewell to Father John Corona

by Alice Gingrich

John J. Corona entered the world as many other post World War I babies. He was born under the “New Deal” administration of President Roosevelt to John and Emma Corona, proprietors of the local Italian bakery and grocery in a small town in New York called Wappingers Falls.

The immigrant community of Wappingers Falls was home of John, his three older sisters, Ann, Mary and Rose, and Vinny, a younger brother who followed John. John’s Catholic-Italian heritage would lead to his baptism at St. Mary’s Parish, a faith tradition that would shape and nurture Giovanni’s entire life.

“I was mischievous, like most little boys,” says Father John, recalling childhood memories. “I was very young, maybe six, when my father was putting a new roof on the bakery. Three of Dad’s friends were over helping. Of course, I was on the roof helping, too. I was pushing the tar paper roller, got too close to the edge and had to let go! Mr. Padggi was below. I just missed him. Scared to death, I ran and hid in one of the bread boxes in my dad’s delivery truck.”

Young John’s rides in the delivery truck and life with his father would come to an untimely end. At seven years of age, John’s father died, leaving Emma to run the grocery and raise five children.

“She is one of the quiet heroes of the world,” Father lovingly states. “Living in an immigrant neighborhood without a father was tough. I often wonder how my life would have been had he lived.”

If there was a “devilish” side that propped nails under the oil man’s tires, there was also the “angelic” side that found Giovanni serving Mass as an altar boy at St. Mary’s until his freshman year in high school at Wappinger Central and helping mom run the store.

“Working at the grocery was a fact of life, we didn’t know any different,” Father said. “Sometimes I would pass my sister on the street as we went between school and work.”

John received the Sacrament of Confirmation sometime in his junior high days.

“I know I wore knickers then,” recalls Father John.

Although junior high days would end John’s parochial education, it was here the first seed of the priesthood would be planted.

“A Franciscan came to the school to talk about vocations. The brochure for the seminary had a pool and tennis court,” shares Father. “I, of course, went home and told my mom I was going to be a priest. In her wisdom she said, not now.”

High school did not instill in John a passion for anything in particular, not even college. Those days were filled with friendships, crazy things and girl friends.

Following graduation in the Spring of 1950, John took a job in a Texaco Company lab as a mail- boy. The highlight of his duties included a train trip to New York City once a week.

“It was here that a co-worker convinced me I needed to go to college to do something with my life,” commented John.

In 1951, John would apply to a Franciscan school, Siena College, through the advice of a friend.

“It was the only college I applied to,” laughs Father John.

Just outside Albany, N.Y., John spent four years working on his degree in business administration, working part-time in the library and waiting tables.

“It was a good experience being away from home. It was an all male school at the time, but the girls were just over at St. Rose. We used to hang out at PaPa’s. The drinking age was only 18 and beer was 10 cents a glass,” reminisces John. “I used to hitch-hike home when I could.”

It wasn’t until college that an American literature professor, Father Cornelius, asked John if he had ever thought of being a priest.

John said, “Not seriously. I just want to graduate and get a job.”

Degree in hand, John left Siena in 1955.

The Cold War draft swept John into the Army in May of 1955. He was now a member of the Third Armored Division assigned to a tank unit. For a year, he would help guard the gold at Ft. Knox before heading to Frankfurt, Germany. The planted seed of the priesthood would receive a good watering when John became a chaplain’s assistant. The friendship with Father Frank Fish, Army Chaplain, would endure.

With his military duty behind him, John would take an interim job with De La Val Separator Company in the finance department, but his sights were set on IBM, where his brother Vincent worked. In December 1958, the IBM job became a reality.

“I worked with IBM in the finance and planning departments for 9-1/2 years,” John recalls.

During that time, John became engaged, but something was still tugging on the inside.

“My last year (with IBM) was filled with tension. The idea of being a priest wouldn’t go away,” recounts Father.

Father Frank Fish would recommend a retreat with the Trappists in Spencer, Mass., as a way to sort out John’s feelings.

God was persistent; the engagement was called off. John J. Corona entered Pope John the 23rd Seminary in Westin, Mass., in Sept. 1967.

“I think,” says Father John, “in many respects, it was a very exiting time; in other ways, a struggle.”

Vatican Council II had recently ended, bringing renewal to the Catholic Church.

“There was a lot of renewal and freedom, but at times you felt like you were waxing the floors on the Titanic, so many priests were leaving.”

Nevada would rear its head for the first time in John’s life in the form of Bishop Green, the Shepherd of the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas, during his time in the seminary.

“I had always wanted to go where they really needed priests,” comments John.

His first-hand experience of Nevada would be his “Deacon Summer” in 1970, six weeks at Our Lady of Snows and six in Las Vegas at St. Francis de Sals.

The four years at the Pope John culminated in 1971. Ordained a diocesan priest on May 8, 1971, at St. Mary’s, he would initiate his vocation at the same parish where he received the gift of baptism as an infant. The following day, his birthday, Father John J. Corona celebrated his first Mass.

July 1, 1971, found Father Corona in North Las Vegas, appointed the Associate Pastor of St. Christopher.

“I didn’t know a soul!”he winces.

If overwhelmed was the word to describe his feelings, it was only the beginning. Father would soon receive a “Baptism of Fire.”

A year and a half after his arrival at St. Christopher, the pastor would die. As unheard of as it was, Father John would become the parish priest of St. Christopher, invigorating the parish and school with his energy. During his six years, he would meet his good friend, Sister Dorothy Sanchez, and come to own his German Shepherd, Jubilee.

Confirmation of 1977 brought Bishop McFarland for a visit. Looking for a change, Father John asked to be relocated to Northern Nevada. With U-Haul in tow and the help of his friend, Father Dan Keelan, Pastor Corona set out for Gardnerville.

“I arrived here the night of June 30. The Park family graciously put Jubilee and me up at the ranch,” says Father. “The parish was small, but the rural nature and quiet beauty were a wonderful change from the mythical Las Vegas.”

Twenty-two years have passed, the parish has grown substantially and many memories have been made. Father’s tireless effort helped the parishioners make the dream of a new church a reality in 1984 and has laid the foundation for St. Gall’s Pastoral Community Center. To some, what might seem to give the greatest sense of accomplishment to Father John does not.

“It was not the building of the church that was the biggest challenge. A sense of accomplishment came by building up the community,” he says. “Being motivated and staying informed is very important.”

Looking back over his 28 years as a priest, Father shared, “Sometimes I took it (his vocation) too seriously; at times, a few past events seemed a personal defeat. But I am grateful to God for my gift of priesthood. It is humbling, helping people.”

” I would like to see families reclaim the Sabbath for church, family and relaxation; we need that. The nature of faith is that of unfinished business, it’s part of the rhythm – the journey of life,” reflects Father John.

There is a “grieving” that this retirement brings, but “change is good.”

“The sweetness of the priesthood has been presiding at Eucharist, the Sacraments and the privilege of being allowed into the lives of so many people,” Father says fondly.

We will miss his daily presence deeply. Thank you, Father John, for so many wonderful memories.

St. Gall Catholic Church will honor Father John Corona on Father’s Day, June 20, 1 p.m. at the Bently Science Park. St. Gall Parishioners invites community friends of Father John to attend the retirement festivity. RSVP by calling 782-2852 by June 14.

Alice Gingrich is pastoral associate at St. Gall Catholic Church in Gardnerville.