NEW YORK — The most tangible legacy of Father Lorenzo Zorza's two decades as a missionary is a small patch of concrete near the Consolata Society mission in Somerset, N.J.
On this site, the Consolata fathers had weekly sales of used clothes and furniture to benefit their African missions. Lorenzo's task: to supervise the lay people who ran the rummage sale.
But the priest had a bigger idea: to transform the site into "Consolata Village," a tourist attraction with music, food, rides, a gift shop and a copy of the Trevi Fountain. Zorza had the concrete fountain base poured before telling the other priests of his plans.
"We said, 'Hold it, this isn't our kind of thing,' " Father Reno Aiardi recalls.
That incident 15 years ago was the first of many attempts by Zorza to mix piety and profit. His explanation at the time--I was only trying to help--would become a refrain as he lurched from scrape to scrape: in 1982, when he was arrested for art smuggling; in 1987, when he was arrested for trying to sell stolen property and this spring, when he was accused of being a bag man for an international drug ring.
After Zorza's April 6 arrest in Italy on the drug charge, published reports linked him to two of Italy's biggest postwar financial and political scandals: the collapse of Milan's Banco Ambrosiano and the right-wing "P-2" conspiracy to undermine Italy's constitutional government.
In a prison interview broadcast on the syndicated television program, "A Current Affair," Zorza maintained his innocence. He said he was guilty of drug charges only by "association or interpretation."
But he admitted that his ministry, such as it was, had failed.
"I had all kinds of dreams . . . and everything . . . vanished," he said in heavily accented English. "The reason is, I could never lean on anything that was organized. It's easy to drive a car on a highway or to walk on a trail someone made, but when you have to make your own trail, you don't know what's there."
Zorza's odyssey began March 24, 1941, in a village in northern Italy near the Yugoslav border. The youngest of nine children, he began studying for the priesthood at age 11; at 24, he was ordained.
Zorza was assigned by the Consolatas to Somerset, where he impressed other priests with his ambition and willingness to work.
Known for Helpfulness
"The son of a gun is amazing," Aiardi says. "If someone had car trouble in the middle of the night, he'd say, 'I'll go get him.' If you told him, 'There's this family that needs a little something,' he'd be the first one to jump in the truck and bring it to them."
But Zorza soon became restless, Aiardi says. In the mid-1970s he moved out, saying he wanted to raise money for missionary friends in Brazil.
"I was taking a different direction," Zorza later explained. But a conversation secretly recorded in 1982 indicated it may have been a crooked one.
In a meeting with a journalist posing as a shady art dealer, Zorza's partner described the priest's Brazilian initiative as an opportunity for profit, not charity. "You can make more money in this than paintings," he promised.
Over the years, Zorza's fund-raising operations changed names and locations, but "it was never clear to us what he was doing," Aiardi recalls. "Even when I'd ask him personally, 'Larry, what the heck are you doing?' he'd pass over it."
Role at U.N.
Zorza, who had become an American citizen, became a volunteer at the Vatican's mission to the United Nations in 1978. His role soon expanded, although he was neither a diplomat nor a paid employee. By 1982, he was the fourth-ranking staffer.
As usual, Zorza was always available: driving nuns to the store, representing the mission at Italian-American community functions, picking up officials at the airport.
He made contacts, including Francesco Pazienza, an Italian financier later charged in the Ambrosiano collapse and convicted in the 1980 bombing of a Bologna train station that killed 85 people.
Europeo, an Italian magazine, says Zorza, Pazienza and a third man offered $4.5 million for an island in the Caribbean nation of Antigua to create their own state, with stamps, currency and liberal tax laws. But the deal fell through when Antigua refused to cede sovereignty over the island, the magazine said.
During this period, Zorza lived in the rectory of St. Agnes Church on East 43rd Street, one of the most prominent parishes in the New York archdiocese. Although not officially on the staff, he said Mass, heard confessions and performed marriages. He boasted that one of his most beloved parishioners was Greta Garbo.
But one of Zorza's new friends led him into a trap.
Peter Watson, a journalist posing as an art dealer, was told that Zorza was a diplomat with contacts at airports in New York and Rome who would be willing to smuggle contraband art.
When they met, Watson--who was working with the Customs Service--asked Zorza if he had brought in much before. The priest nodded.