Written by Joe O'Conner, The National Post
Gaetano Gagliano, who has died at the age of 98, would often tell his children the story of what he had missed in life.
A man of deep Catholic faith, he was by any measure incredibly successful. He arrived in Toronto from Italy in the 1950s at age 38 with some battered suitcases, his wife Giuseppina, four little kids and $40 in his pocket. He got a job working 12 hours a day, laying railway tracks, then another job, after layoffs caused him to lose the first, sweeping up at a print shop for two bucks a night.
Gagliano had nothing. But he had faith and family, and believed he could do better. So he bought a printing machine and started his own company out of the basement of his house. For a time, he was the only employee, working day and night, printing wedding invitations, business cards and more. Giuseppina cared for their ever-expanding mess of kids, that ultimately grew to 10 children. The company grew, too. St. Joseph Communications — named for the patron saint of workers — employs more than 1,300 people today.
Gagliano is a shining immigrant success story. But that is not the narrative he shared with his children. Instead, he told of his childhood in Sicily and being chosen to study in a seminary. It was a transformative experience for a poor kid from the countryside. His mentor was Fr. James Alberione, later beatified by Pope John Paul II for spreading God’s word through mass communication. Gagliano aspired to be a priest, but fell seriously ill and was sent home. He returned, but so did the illness. The second time he went home for good.
“The only thing my father wanted to pursue as a boy was becoming a priest,” says Tony Gagliano, Gaetano’s seventh child. “That was the story that stayed with his children: him, as a young boy, knowing exactly what he wanted to be but being deprived of it and, at the time, not understanding why.”
Gagliano leaves a wife, 10 children, 35 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. Were he still alive — and up until a few weeks ago he was as engaging as ever — he might tell a listener how God had had a plan for him after all.
Becoming a printer was part of the plan. The first time Fr. Thomas Rosica, an American-born priest and former Catholic chaplain/professor at the University of Toronto, heard about the second part of the plan was November 2002.
Gagliano invited Rosica, who had overseen World Youth Day in Toronto a few months before, to a meeting. Gagliano’s 10 children were also there. He told Rosica he had a proposal: he wanted the priest to run a Catholic television station.
At the time, this station only existed in theory, but Galgiano had had a “calling.” Fr. Alberione had visited him in a dream. In it, he acknowledged Gagliano’s sense of loss over being barred from the priesthood, but assured him he had another purpose.
“It kind of all came together for my dad with this dream,” Tony Gagliano says. “He knew nothing of television. But he saw then what he was meant to do — start a Catholic television station. And, when my father decided he wanted to do something, there was no talking him out it.”
Fr. Rosica left for Rome soon after to debrief pope John Paul II on World Youth Day. When he arrived at the Vatican, there was a 12-page fax from Gagliano waiting, detailing the proposed job.
“I’m thinking, these people are pretty bold,” he says, laughing.
Or else Gaetano knew something. Who can say for sure? But during a two-hour luncheon at the pope’s apartments, the Holy Father himself asked Rosica what his plan was. He mentioned his desire to return to teaching, but also that some Italian-Canadian family had this crazy idea to start a Catholic television station, putting him in charge.
“The Pope said, ‘Take it,’ ” Rosica says.
Salt + Light television launched in 2003 with two employees. Today it reaches three million Canadian homes, is live-streamed in 160 countries, has 35 employees, a branch office in Montreal, and broadcasts in English, French, Italian, Mandarin and Chinese. It is also a charity. Pope Francis is a fan.
“Pope Francis told me, ‘This is the future of Catholic broadcasting, what you are doing, so please keep doing it,’ ” says Rosica, now head of a not-for-profit station that airs a wide range of programming addressing a myriad of subjects, such as the public faith in police, the refugee crisis — and a nun who is an ultra-marathoner.
Gaetano Gagliano referred to Salt + Light as his “baby.” He kept Rosica on speed dial, calling him two or three times a day to discuss ideas. In 2004, the priest introduced the Italian immigrant to John Paul II. The aging pope eyed the aging businessman. “Who is this old man?” he cracked. Both laughed, then, they embraced.
Gagliano continued working at St. Joseph’s head office until age 95. Visiting the print shop floor and speaking with mployees was part of his daily ritual. On Saturdays, he met his adult children to discuss corporate strategy. They worked, laughed, argued and forgave, and always had their father to remind them that life, despite what they accomplished, was worthless if they didn’t live in “God’s grace.”
“Never forget that money is useful, but it also dangerous,” Gagliano would say. “You have worked and received your reward. Many others cannot work or have not succeeded as we have. Do not be arrogant and selfish. Never close the door to those who ask for help.”
Last year, Gagliano suffered a massive stroke. Doctors said this was the end, a do-not resuscitate order was issued.
The children sat vigil at their father’s bedside. After four days, Gaetano turned to Tony. “I am hungry,” he said in Italian.
“My father had an incredible will to live,” Tony Gagliano says. “He started walking again, with help, and he had quality of life again — his mind was still there.”
He remained in his home, a simple bungalow he shared with Giuseppina. Gagliano drove the same car for 22 years. In the early days in Toronto, he bought used shoes by the pound, to save a few pennies, and he gave 10% of every dollar he ever made to the Catholic Church.
Giuseppina would kiss her husband on the forehead each night before bed. Gaetano would look to her, whispering in Italian, “My love.” The couple celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary in November.
“My faith gives me great serenity,” Gagliano once said. “I do not fear anything.”
His funeral is at 10 a.m. on April 18 at St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Church, Woodbridge, Ont.
*The article was originally published on The National Post
on April 16, 2016.