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Man of the Year in Religion: Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

A man who gives hope to troubled youth

Fr. Francis Pizzarelli is Man of the Year in Religion for his dedication to the welfare of young men. Photo from Patty Griffin
December 28, 2011 | 11:29 AM
Father Francis Pizzarelli is one busy man. He does weekly Masses at five different churches in the area, plus one on Fire Island during the summer. He acts as the "surrogate dad" to residents at Hope House, which he founded in 1980. He does weddings, funerals and baptisms on the weekends. He teaches sociology and humanities courses at Suffolk Community College and St. Joseph's College. "He calls himself Rent-a-Priest," said Patty Griffin, an administrative assistant at Hope House. "He's everywhere."

"He is a long-distance runner in this endeavor," Assemblyman Steven Englebright said. "He is a marathon man in one of the most difficult journeys possible."

Ask those who know the priest, and the praise pours in.

"He has such strength, such mission and such purpose," Englebright said. "He is a gift."

This is why The Port Times Record has named him Man of the Year in Religion.

"I have four children, and he's done all of their weddings," Griffin said.

Francis Burke is founder of The Way Back, a mental health facility in Port Jefferson.

"He never ceases to be an inspiration to me," Burke said.

Burke and Pizzarelli founded their organizations within months of each other, and have known one another for more than 30 years. "He gets more done in one day than most people in a week."

"He doesn't lose hope about people," said Michael Chiappone, a former resident of Hope House. "I'm so grateful for him and for Hope House."

"I owe everything to him," Matt, another former resident, said. "He didn't help my life; he saved my life."

Pizzarelli is not interested in the limelight or praise, acquaintances say. There is something else driving him. Chiappone recalled years ago watching the priest kneel beneath a cross. "I really found my faith again," Chiappone said. "He didn't jam some doctrine down my throat. He just lived it."

Pizzarelli founded Hope House in 1980 because, he said, "It was time to do more than just talk about it." Pizzarelli came to Long Island after working as a principal at an inner-city school in Washington, D.C. He worked as the night chaplain at the two hospitals in Port Jefferson, where he saw nine youths die due to drugs, alcohol or suicide. Seeing very few resources for young men in trouble, Pizzarelli founded Hope House, originally as an emergency shelter.

"Never did I think, in 1980, that this would become my life's work," Pizzarelli said.

Hope House eventually became a community residence. Today, it is one of seven projects led by Hope House Ministries. Two — Pax Christi homeless shelter and the Montfort therapeutic residence — receive funding from Suffolk County government. Everything else relies on donations from the community. "It's our community that has sustained this outreach for three decades," Pizzarelli said.

Boys can come to Hope House voluntarily, and others come by a court mandate. There are rules for everyone. Daily chores. Dinner is at six. No leaving without telling someone. (If there by court mandate, no leaving at all.) Curfew is at 10, lights out at 11. On the weekends, curfew is midnight. Weekly drug tests are conducted for everyone. There's a house meeting every Sunday at 9 pm; attendance is mandatory.

Former residents say the consistency helped them to rebuild their lives. "A lot of them will say, 'you know, it never would have happened if it wasn't for Father Frank,'" Griffin said.

Chiappone came to Hope House on Valentine's Day in 1995, at 18 years old after a brief stint in the Pax Christi homeless shelter. He ended up staying for four years. His parents had kicked him out of the house, and insurance wouldn't cover a rehabilitation center. About a month into his stay, Chiappone relapsed. Though he thought he could get away with it, Chiappone woke up Pizzarelli at his quarters on the Hope House premises and confessed. Chiappone recalled, "He said, 'Thank you for your honesty, you can now begin your recovery.'"

"I try to be very concrete. It's their choice," Pizzarelli said. "They know I'm not going to coddle them." But, people who know him said, Pizzarelli would always give someone a second chance.

"He really challenged me to take responsibility," Chiappone said. He recalled daily chores like making his bed and cleaning his room. Once, Pizzarelli wouldn't let him go out on a date because he hadn't made his bed. "He made me be very rigorous in how I treated other people. I really went on to do great things."

Chiappone has been sober for 15 years, and now works as a social worker. After leaving Hope House, he returned to work there for 10 years. "I still feel like it's my home," he said. "I've always stayed close to Hope House."

Matt, another former resident, who declined to give his last name for the privacy of his children, credited Pizzarelli with his approach to addicts. "If you could do some things consistently, you could build yourself up to doing bigger things consistently," Matt said. "This is what's going to change your life."

Matt came to Hope House in 1996, at age 24, after problems with drugs and alcohol. He had gotten into legal trouble out of state — "college craziness" — and Pizzarelli came and retrieved him.

Instead of receiving jail time, Matt was mandated by the court to stay at Hope House for 18 months.

"It changed everything," Matt said. "I didn't know how to live my life. I was being run by something else." At Hope House, Matt attended meetings and went to counseling. He left soon after his 18 months were up, to move in with the girlfriend whom he would later marry. Today, they have two children. Matt has been sober for 15 years.

"The name of it is so perfect, because he does not give up hope on anyone," Matt said. "Hope House is a place where miracles happen. I owe everything to him."

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