The Tower Theater and Elton John. Aerosmith, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and Queen, Led Zeppelin at the Spectrum. Eclectic. Diverse. Unexpected. These rock-n-roll icons, along with some lesser known performers were highlights of our interview with Fr. John Zegaralla, O. Praem.
Fr. John is a Norbertine priest, a Catholic educator, counselor, rock fan, collector of vinyl records and he loves Philadelphia’s iconic Dante and Luigi’s (which happens to be owned by his cousin).
As a teenager, John Zagarella didn’t imagine himself growing up to enter the priesthood. Born and raised in South Philadelphia, he grew up Catholic, a member of the Epiphany of Our Lord Parish. He attended Bishop Neumann High School (now Saints John Neunann and Maria Goretti High School) and graduated in 1976, and would later attend Villanova University, where he studied English and Communication Arts and wrote for the school’s newspaper. He had interests typical to any high school boy in the late 70’s—rock and roll music and movies. Sure, he went to mass every Sunday like any good Catholic, but never considered religious life for himself until he met the Norbertines.
Bishop John Neumann High, at the time, was run by Norbertines. While he initially never thought religious life might be in his future, the Norbertines at his high school helped him find his calling from God. Father John found himself attracted to their personable qualities. He thought they were “cool” and wanted to be like them. He noticed they were approachable, down to earth, likable guys, and he found himself at home within this community. He enjoyed their devotion and camaraderie with one another. He wanted to help people and knew he would be able to do so with the Norbertines.
Father John made his vows on the feast of St. Augustine when he was 21 years old. Coincidentally, the day he made his vows (August 28) happened to be his 21st birthday, and he was ordained in 1986. He never considered any other order beyond the Norbertines. From his high school experience, he had become so ingrained in their way of life, and could see no other way for himself.
Fr. John lives out one of the main charisms of the Norbertines by working and serving in educational ministry. He taught at his alma mater, (re-named Saint John Neumann High School in 1977) 1982-1983, 1986-1990, and 1992-2000. During his time there, he was the Assistant Principal of Academic Affairs, Principal and President. The Norbertines eventually withdrew from Neumann in 2000 and 2004 it merged with local sister-school St. Maria Goretti.
Between his stays at Neumann and after, Father John taught at Archmere Academy in Claymont, DE, which was founded by Norbertine community in 1932. At Archmere, Father John works as Director of Guidance and teaches in the Theology Department. This role allows him to express his own passion for reconciliation, and he helps students understand the need for and importance of forgiving others and themselves. As a teacher and counselor, Fr. John brings peace to his students and to their families. He promotes healing where there is division. He stated he feels like he is “walking on holy ground” whenever he gets the chance to help students in their time of need.
As a Catholic educator, Fr. John continually rediscovers his vocation to the Norbertines. He teaches a course on Norbertine spirituality and history. In preparing his lessons, Fr. John has taken a fresh look at the life and times of St. Norbert. In so doing, Fr. John has gained a new and different understanding of his vocation. And he is able to share his calling with his students.
Father John lives a common life with the other Canons at Daylesford Abbey and has a very genuine and authentic personality (Cathoic priests— they’re just like you!). Since his youth, he has always been a big fan of music and movies. Sir Elton John and Aersosmith, in particular, are among his favorite musical artists. He recalls a special memory of the time he got to see a once in a lifetime Elton John concert at the Tower Theater in 1979 with fellow Norbertine, Affiliate Director at the Abbey, Fr. Tom Rossi. Because John was a novice, he never thought he would get to that show. But God and Fr. Rossi had another plan. Fr. Tom surprised John with tickets to the show, and they were both able to go. Fr. John has also seen David Bowie and Aerosmith in concert at least ten times. Joining the Catholic priesthood does not mean giving up who you are. Rather, it is about integrating who you are into your vocation and ministry.
His favorite film, from its release in 1980 until this year, was Robert Redford’s directorial debut Ordinary People. This film depicts a family dealing with the grief of losing one of their sons and the effect it has on their other son. Father John enjoyed this movie because he found each performance to stand out and has always enjoyed performance-driven films. He also liked the psychology aspect, showing intense interaction between Timothy Hutton’s character and his therapist. A principle that the Norbertines live by is that of healing and reconciliation, and this movie shows the family getting on that path.
His new favorite movie is Rocket Man, the biopic of Elton John, released earlier this year. Again, he enjoyed this film because it is framed by Elton John’s recovery from his addictions, being able to overcome them, reconciling childhood memories and most importantly of all, being reconciled to himself.
In his own words, Father John is “comfortable in my own skin” and likes who he is as a person. He offers this advice to anyone interested in joining the Abbey—know who you are, be comfortable with that person. He never looked for a community to find himself, but he did fortunately find a community where he could be himself, and be welcomed for it. He found this at Daylesford Abbey and feels great to be in the Norbertine community.
To Father John, being a Norbertine means being an “apostle of peace.” To those interested in joining the Norbertine order and becoming a Catholic priest, he says if you fall in love with St. Norbert and his teaching, are a good man with a heart open to healing, forgiveness and helping others, you too can be a Norbertine, an apostle of peace.