‘Missionary priesthood is an opportunity to be part of building a future for our faith and ultimately,’ he says, ‘for the people of God who live in the rural and often forgotten parts of the United States.’
A native of Schenectady, New York, and part of a large Catholic family, Father Neil Pezzulo has taken his Catholic faith to a level of service to an impoverished community. A member of the Glenmary Home Missioners, Father Pezzulo serves in rural Union and Grainger Counties, Tennessee.
As part of his service as a priest and to help others, Father Pezzulo selected a mission to feed the hungry and provide hospitality. This mission, he said, is simple: “It comes down to the Gospel of John: ‘Do you love me? Feed my sheep.’ We can offer food, hospitality and sharing our Catholic faith as part of our mission,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Father Pezzulo also cooks.
“No, my mom did not teach me to cook,” he said, “however she did teach me how to make French toast, but that was all. I just picked up cooking techniques when I worked in restaurants as a teenager, washing dishes, making sandwiches and doing some prep cooking. Mostly I taught myself because I was hungry. I looked at recipes and made up recipes as I went along. Italian food is easy because you can just add meat and vegetables. And I love making the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and mashed potatoes.”
In fact, he added, such a feast offers a sense of thankfulness at the table, so Father Pezzulo prepares and serves Thanksgiving dinner several times a year.
“We get together in the country setting. We can gather at our house and have different people at the dinner table,” he said. “And that can be friends of the family, coworkers or members of an extended family. We also welcome strangers and invite them to eat with us. Often the guests will meet for the first time when we sit down and eat. We talk, we share, we get to know each other and, of course, we eat. People don’t come for the cooking but for the fellowship and hospitality.”
Why did Father Pezzulo choose the priesthood rather than working as a chef or a salesman?
“For me, the priesthood was a way to give back and be of service to and for others. Missionary priesthood is an opportunity to be part of building a future for our faith and ultimately for the people of God who live in the rural and often forgotten parts of the United States.
“For 10 years after college, I worked as a salesman. But when I realized I couldn’t run away from God anymore, somehow, I had to make this long-time desire into a vocation,” he said.
“Two pivotal moments stick out on my journey to priesthood. One, while attending an Ash Wednesday Mass, after Communion I turned to a friend and boldly announced that ‘I could do that.’ ‘Do what?’ she asked. ‘Be a priest,’ I answered. After that, I was sternly reminded that I was not supposed to talk during Mass.
“Many years later, one Saturday night, something hit me. I had this overwhelming feeling that my life was on the wrong track, and I needed to make a change. I picked up my Bible, and I knew that I had to pursue priesthood,” he said. “Service in the Church I love was, at least for me, the path I needed to pursue. I wanted to be part of something larger than myself.”
Father Pezzulo noted that each year Grainger County holds the Tomato Festival. Tomatoes are the largest crop grown in the county and are the lifeblood of the local economy.
“One of the organizers of the festival asked me if the mission would be interested in having a booth at the festival,” he said. “It took a while to make the connection to our faith and the Tomato Festival — perhaps we missed the mark — but we decided that we would offer people the opportunity to learn how to make tortillas. Between the excitement of the cooking classes and the laughter we made some new friends.” He added that the mission brought along taco fillings, so everyone could make their own tacos, and they have been invited back to participate in the festival again.
“By sharing our food, our culture, and customs we also shared our faith,” he noted. “Many of the people who stopped by had never even met a Catholic before. Grainger County, Tennessee, is less than 1% Catholic and most of the Catholics in the county are recent immigrants from Mexico. We were able to share a taco and our faith. We also answered many questions and hopefully cleared up some misconceptions about our Catholic faith. … We may have made tacos, but more importantly, we encountered each other, as sisters and brothers in Christ — sharing a meal, some conversation and our faith.’
Recipe: Chicken Pozole with Red Chili
Serves 8 to 10
Father Pezzulo noted that this traditional soup recipe is common around the St. John Paul Catholic Mission in Rutledge, Tennessee, and he has made it many times. “Often this is served after a wedding Mass and on Saturdays it is readily available at the local markets,” he noted. Serve with lime wedges, chopped radishes, chopped fresh cilantro, diced onions, shredded cabbage or lettuce, and dried oregano.
- 1 whole chicken, cut into pieces
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 large green onion
- 3 large bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 8 sprigs cilantro
- 13 cups water
- 5 tablespoons dried chili pepper
- 3 dried guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded
- 1 dried ancho chile, stemmed and seeded
- 2 tablespoons dried coriander
- 2 tablespoons dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon ground chile de arbol
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon granulated garlic
- One 10-ounce can white Mexican-style hominy
Place the chicken pieces into a large pot. whole cut-up chicken into the pot. Add the garlic, onion, bay leaves, salt, and cilantro. Add the water and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook for 30 minutes.
Remove the chicken and set aside to cool. Discard the garlic, onion, bay leaves, and cilantro. Add the remaining ingredients except the hominy, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 10 minutes. Puree the mixture in 2 cups of stock water until they are smooth. Shred the chicken using a fork and add the shredded chicken, the chili purée, and the hominy to 8 cups water. Cover and cook for 20 minutes.