Catholic Planet
 an online Catholic Christian magazine 
[ main page | contact info | submit an article | search ]

A Hero for Our Times
by Anne Marie McDonnell, Ph. D.  

While the very idea of commitment is an anathema to so many who ascribe to an existentialist philosophy, today's youth are seeking loftier, transcendent goals to which they can permanently commit their entire lives. Young people desperately need faith-filled role models whom they can emulate and revere. They need to read and contemplate the lives of men and women who have faced life's joys, ecstasies, sorrows, and vicissitudes with an unwavering faith and commitment to the teachings of Christ. These role models may be officially canonized saints or everyday individuals, who nonetheless have lived their lives in a profoundly humble, yet an extremely saintly manner.

The example of brave men and women who have followed in the footsteps of Christ can undoubtedly enlighten the minds of young people, consequently feeding their souls with the absolute fullness of truth. Most importantly, a true contemplation and subsequent practice of the Christian virtues exemplified in these stories will ultimately lead to the attainment of our eternal salvation. Here is one such inspiring story.

Basil Ricci was a remarkable, yet humble man of keen wit, tremendous intelligence, versatile talents, and amazing accomplishments. He exhibited a zealous sense of patriotism and formidable spirit of courage that resulted in achieving the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army Reserves. His inquisitive nature, outstanding capabilities, and indefatigable spirit are evidenced by his prestigious position at the Rockwell International's Space Shuttle Division.

Basil indeed possessed a voracious thirst for knowledge and vigorously pursued it throughout his lifetime. Yet, it is not his erudition, multiplicity of talents, or outstanding career achievements that are most extraordinary. Rather, it is Basil's faithful commitment to God and his selfless acts of charity that continue to inspire all whose lives have been blessed by his example.

On April 5, 1925, Basil Ricci, the firstborn of Domenica and John Ricci, was born in the Ricci homestead, located on Victor Street in the Lymansville section of North Providence, Rhode Island. When Basil was born, he was not breathing and it was feared that he would not survive. However, through the efforts of his grandmother, he was miraculously revived. This is just the first of many miraculous events in the life of Basil Ricci. Basil also had a sister, Hilda, who was born one year after him. Two years after Hilda's birth, John, the youngest sibling, was born.

Shortly after his birth, Basil was baptized at Our Lady of Grace Church in Johnston, a little town located next to North Providence. After receiving catechetical instructions from Mother Ambrose, a Franciscan Missionary of Mary, Basil made his First Communion and Confirmation at Our Lady of Grace parish.

Even as a young boy, Basil manifested a very altruistic attitude. When his mother would take him shopping, he was more concerned about taking care of his younger siblings than he was about buying a new toy. Of course, like most little boys, Basil could be mischievous at times. He and his brother would often engage in playful antics, teasing their sister in an affectionate sort of way.

Basil displayed an uncanny ability to draw almost anything at all. He focused on drawing popular cartoon characters, and even enjoyed this hobby after childhood. Basil was also an athletic youngster, always intensely dedicated to whatever sport in which he was engaged. For example, as a dedicated member of the North Providence High School Hockey Team, he would often rise at three o'clock in the morning to practice his skating technique. His insatiable curiosity and astute, studious nature were reflected in his unique, superior achievements at an early age. By the time he was a teenager, Basil had begun to display his ingenuity and plethora of talent by constructing his own diesel engine and assembling a number of model airplanes, forts, and even radios.

Young Basil possessed a vast repertoire of talents and interests, including such diverse fields as art, photography, cooking, sports, science, and the military. Yet, Basil always manifested a sense of maturity, self-discipline, compassion, and humility. These qualities were demonstrated by a diligent, fastidious, and responsible approach to all of his endeavors.

In June of 1943, Basil graduated from North Providence High School. He was very willing to defend his country at this time of strife during World War II. After high school graduation, he used to wait for the daily mail delivery with patriotic pride and enthusiasm. Hence, in July of 1943, he was inducted into the United States Army. Basil was trained to work on B-24 bombers in Mississippi and Michigan. The following year, he was assigned to the 15th Air Force in southern Italy.

On June 3, 1945, an event occurred that would drastically affect Basil over the course of his life. Basil was one of thirteen men aboard a B-24 that departed early in the morning. The plane headed to southern Europe to survey the damage previously perpetrated by U. S. bombing missions. The B-24 was flying through valleys at extremely low altitudes so that the crew members could make their observations. As the plane was approaching the little hamlet of Kalwang, Austria, Sergeant Theodore Andrewseski, who was sitting in the tail turret taking photographs with Basil's camera, opted to switch positions with Basil. After Basil had resituated into the tail turret, he realized just how low the plane was flying when he saw a church steeple pass directly beneath him. Immediately, the plane banked as the pilot chose an adjoining valley. That alternate valley quickly faded into a taller mountain, offering no outlet. The pilot desperately attempted to climb to a higher elevation, but the four engine B-24 was no match for the steep incline. The plane would not be able to clear the crest of the mountain and inevitably crashed into it. All members of the crew perished in the fiery blaze that ensued, except Basil. He was trying to break free from the evergreen bows in which the tail section became entangled. Desperately attempting to escape, he kicked vigorously and eventually fell down, landing upon a huge rock.

Meanwhile, the fuel and oil from the plane's engine were enveloping the rock, igniting a fiery border. Miraculously, however, the fire never touched Basil. As the flames crept ever closer and higher along the edge of the rock where Basil was lying, one can only believe that the Blessed Virgin Mary was there as a powerful intercessor, shielding him from the perilous inferno with her secure mantle of protection.

A young boy named Fritz Typold, accompanied by several other young members of the local fire brigade, was the first to arrive on the scene. The young men spotted Basil, covered in blood. Although he had sustained very grave injuries, they were indeed surprised to see that anybody could have survived such a horrific crash. Small pieces of debris, strewn across a wide radius of the Austrian mountainside, were all that remained of the plane on that fateful day.

The time and location of the plane crash played a significant role in the saving of Basil's life. In fact, it would surely seem that Divine Providence was at work in this entire situation. It so happened that the plane crashed in the vicinity of a convent of sisters and an adjoining Catholic hospital, situated in the town of Kalwang. The sisters, who belonged to the order known as Servants of the Holiest Heart of Jesus, were gathered for prayer in the chapel at noontime when they heard an airplane crash into the mountain.

Shortly after Fritz and the other young men had arrived on the scene, Russian soldiers also arrived and began gathering the burned bodies of the American airmen, including Basil. At the same time, a group of the sisters immediately came to Basil's aid, as they were informed he had a rosary in his possession.

Basil sustained numerous facial and head lacerations, several broken ribs, a completely fractured jaw, and a severely broken leg. A German doctor at the nearby hospital eventually operated on Basil, stitching together his flesh wounds, pinning his leg bones, and inserting a drainage tube in his neck to prevent gangrene from occurring.

Due to the severity of his jaw injuries, Basil was suffering from a condition known as osteomyelitis, which also prevented him from speaking or eating properly. Therefore, the compassionate sisters, directed by the head nurse, Sister Veridiana, would moisten a cloth with liquid and squeeze the liquid refreshment into Basil's mouth so that it could soothe his parched throat as he tried his best to swallow. The nuns' prayers, acts of mercy, and devotion were surely all important factors that contributed to Basil's narrow escape from the clutches of death.

Basil's plane accident occurred on June 3, 1945, but his mother did not hear from him until July 26, 1945 (the Feast of Saint Anne and Saint Joachim). Up until that time, Mrs. Ricci awaited Basil's weekly letters with great anticipation. She knew that something was very wrong, but did not know for sure whether her son was dead or alive. The Ricci homestead received the usual telegram from Uncle Sam, stating that the plane left the air base and never returned. On July 26, 1945, Basil was evacuated to an air base in Rome, New York. He called his mother to inform her about what had happened to him. Although obviously shaken by the news, she was greatly relieved to know that her son was alive.

Basil was then transported to Cushing General Hospital, a military hospital in Framingham, Massachusetts, where he remained as a patient until he was officially released on July 19, 1946, just a week short of one year after his admittance. During the year that Basil was hospitalized, his family visited him several times each week.

Gradually, Basil became stronger and was a great morale booster for his fellow patients. His greatest impediment was a broken leg that would not heal properly. He walked with a cast and cane for several months. Yet, true to form, Basil never complained and showed a selfless concern for those who were less fortunate than he. After being discharged, Basil kept in close contact with many of the friends he made at Cushing General Hospital. All of his friends were always welcome at the Ricci homestead where Basil and his family would provide wonderful hospitality and home-cooked Italian meals.

After arriving in the United States, Basil felt compelled to write a personal letter to the mother of each plane crash victim even though he was not well acquainted with the other members of the crew. In fact, the pilot's mother was so moved by Basil's compassionate letter that she traveled from Madison, Wisconsin to spend one week with Basil and his family. Speaking directly with Basil and his family members and enjoying their warm hospitality provided her with a sense of solace and comfort as she tried to cope with the loss of her son.

After recuperating from his extensive injuries, Basil's omnipresent ambition to achieve excellence was evident once again. This time, he was ready to pursue a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering. In fact, one of his fellow patients, Bob Walker, became his college roommate at Norwich University. In 1950, Basil Ricci graduated from Norwich Military University, a prominent and prestigious military academy located in Northfield, Vermont.

For his graduation present, Mrs. Ricci, decided to take her son, Basil, on a trip to Italy for six months. However, this was no ordinary vacation. Basil and his mother brought all sorts of basic necessities to their needy relatives in Ciorlano, a province of Caserta. While in Europe, Basil also decided that he would take his mother to Kalwang, Austria to visit Sister Veridiana and the other sisters who saved his life. It was a joyous reunion for everyone. The sisters were elated to meet Mrs. Ricci and to see Basil, now so strong, healthy, and vibrant.

In fact, through the years, the sisters and Mrs. Ricci kept up an amicable correspondence. Since the sisters wrote their letters in German, Basil's sister, Hilda, would take the letters to a German neighbor, Mrs. Wench, who would kindly interpret the message.

Mrs. Ricci, filled with gratitude for the sisters' generous concern for her son during his convalescence, would often send gifts to the sisters. In fact, included among the many items she sent were several pairs of snow boots so the sisters could traverse the snowy fields during winter and yards of silk so that the sisters could make a beautiful cloth for the altar in their chapel.

Between the years 1951 and 1956, John, Basil's brother, became the proud father of four daughters. Basil demonstrated a tender familial love and special concern for his nieces. Nine years later, a fifth niece was born. Basil always went above and beyond the normal limits by lavishing them with wonderful presents and taking them on all sorts of interesting excursions. Most of all, he shared his own God-given gifts and talents. One Christmas, he gave his brother's family a present that nobody would ever forget. It was a gorgeous picture of the Ricci family's home, meticulously drawn in colored chalk on a huge blackboard. In each window of the house, there was a portrait of each family member, peering out at the lovely surroundings.

In 1963, at the age of thirty-eight, Basil married a co-worker, Elizabeth Ciolek, with whom he had worked at the General Electric Aerospace Division in Utica, New York. Basil and Elizabeth raised six children, four sons and two daughters. Basil ensured that his six children would receive a good Catholic education at the St. John Evangelist School in Binghamton, New York. Basil's first priority was always his Catholic faith. He faithfully attended mass and received communion frequently.

Basil was also actively supported many parish activities, especially any pro-life and pro-family endeavors. As a father and an uncle, he exhibited a humorous, playful nature at times. However, when it came to moral absolutes, he did not compromise. Basil attained a good balance between firm discipline and gentle compassion.

After forty-five years of suffering from problems associated with his leg injury, Basil eventually required crutches. Finally, his condition degraded to the point of immobility. Luckily, for Basil, medical advancements allowed him to successfully undergo double hip replacements, which, thanks be to God, were extremely successful, allowing him to have ample mobility once again.

Basil had an amazing mind, and he continued to expand his God-given potential, skills, and knowledge by reading a plethora of publications and engaging in a variety of projects in the engineering field. Basil worked for many years with the General Electric Aerospace Corporation. He also spent ten years at Rockwell International's Space Shuttle Division as Senior Procurement Quality Representative.

Throughout his entire lifetime, Basil showed his gratitude to those who rescued him on that fateful day in June of 1943. In June of 1993, Basil brought some of his family members, including his oldest son, John, to the site of his crash in Kalwang, Austria. Amazingly, scattered parts of the plane were located on the mountain where the airplane had crashed fifty years earlier. Basil and his family also had a chance to meet with Fritz Typold during this momentous occasion.

Perhaps the most astonishing fact about Basil is that he was so humble despite his brilliant ingenuity. He realized that his versatile talents were God-given, and he used them to give glory to God through service to others. His faith commitment was continually perpetuated through his altruistic concern for his parish community, his family, his Italian heritage, and his neighbors from the Lymansville community where he was born and raised. Even after his family was raised, Basil continued to make frequent trips back to Lymansville to study the genealogy of his own family and that of so many neighbors and friends with whom he maintained lifetime friendships.

Commitment and continuity were integral aspects of Basil's life. His was indeed both an extraordinary and inspirational life, characterized by a relentless pursuit of the truth, as personified by Him, Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. In the papal encyclical, Fides et Ratio, (Faith and Reason), John Paul II refers to the dangers encountered when scientific research is purely utilitarian and rational, becoming divorced from the established objective truths and transcendent moral principles instituted by Christ.

The Holy Father so eloquently states:

As a result of the crisis of rationalism, what has appeared finally is nihilism. As a philosophy of nothingness, it has a certain attraction for people of our time. Its adherents claim that the search is an end in itself, without any hope or possibility of ever attaining the goal of truth. In the nihilist interpretation, life is no more than an occasion for sensations and experiences in which the ephemeral has pride of place. Nihilism is at the root of the widespread mentality which claims that a definitive commitment should no longer be made, because everything is fleeting and provisional (Fides et Ratio, no. 46).

Basil was blessed with a versatile and creative ingenuity that few people possess. Yet, the virtues of selfless love and humble compassion were of foremost importance in his life. In our postmodern era when so many talented individuals are prone to self-deification and self-indulgence, Basil stands out as a saintly role model. His incredible intellectual abilities and artistic creativity were guided by an informed and well-formed conscience that was in complete accordance with the Magisterial teachings of the Catholic faith.

In the encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, (The Splendor of Truth, no. 85), John Paul II explains the essence of faith:

Faith also possesses a moral content. It gives rise to and calls for a consistent life commitment; it entails and brings to perfection the acceptance and observance of God's commandments . . .

Through the moral life, faith becomes “confession”, not only before God but also before men: it becomes witness. “You are the light of the world”, said Jesus; “a city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before, men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your father who is in heaven” (Mt 5: 14-16).

Basil always accepted God's will with a vigilant, faith-filled commitment, accompanied by a constant motivation to explore and appreciate all aspects of life. Basil was first and foremost a man of faith. Throughout his life, God came first, family came next, and he always placed his own pleasure and interests as a last priority. His unconditional love for his wife, children, and grandchildren included an extraordinary altruism, respect, honor, integrity, and genuine compassion.

Basil's greatest challenge began in July of 2000, when he was diagnosed with colon cancer. This was the most difficult challenge of all for he wanted to accomplish so much more in his life. He wanted to conduct more genealogical research, take more trips to Italy, expand his knowledge of engineering, learn more about new techniques in photography, and, most of all, spend more time with his two adorable granddaughters, Alyssa and Daniella.

Yet, nobody can ever say that Basil did not live his life to the very fullest. Evidently, God wanted him to finally enjoy an everlasting time of rest and refreshment. Throughout the eight months of his pain and suffering, Bail's family and loved ones offered their constant prayers, support, encouragement, and heartfelt concern.

Basil Ricci finally succumbed to colon cancer on February 10, 2001. Many of his friends and family members traveled far and wide to attend his wake and funeral in Binghamton, New York. It was truly a testament to a humble man who possessed heroic courage. During his life on earth, Basil certainly practiced what he preached through his works of charity and quiet example. Still, his love for Christ and others lives on in the hearts and in the daily lives of his family and all those who were blessed to know him.

-- by Anne Marie McDonnell, Ph. D.

Copyright 2002 by Anne Marie McDonnell, Ph. D.

 Return to Catholic Planet main page.