Growing up in the southern Italian port of Molfetta, he had a strong calling to the priesthood through his contact with the Capuchins but his father was adamant that he should study mechanical engineering.
When war broke out he joined the merchant navy for five years and in 1945 he was conscripted to the navy for two years.
Italy was “a mess” when he left the navy and Felice joined the hordes of Italians leaving for better job opportunities to countries like Australia.
Arriving by ship in Melbourne in 1949, he came to live in Adelaide with his uncle and after a few months learning English he found work at Woolworths and the Holden plant in Port Adelaide.
“Australia was a paradise…when I came to Adelaide I saw the calm, the joy, the kindness of the people,” he said.
“I was very young, only 21, and full of spirit; I went into the church and said ‘my God if you help me to settle the family, I will join the Capuchins’.”
Determined to earn as much money as possible to bring his family here, he worked nightshifts at the Actil factory and spent his weekends riding his bicycle from Paradise to Port Adelaide to pack onions.
“We were paid by the box and I worked very quickly,” he said.
One by one his four brothers came out and they bought a house in Exeter so they could all live together.
“It was beautiful,” he said.
In 1955 his parents and sister arrived. “When they had settled down, after one year I said ‘now I have done my job, now I want to go to the priesthood’,” he recalled.
“My parents said ‘no, no, no,’ but I said ‘yes I have done my job’.”
Felice entered the Capuchin novitiate in Melbourne and then Brisbane but when his Superior decided to transfer students to other religious order seminaries, he gained permission to complete his studies at the Capuchin seminary in Parma, Italy.
In 1966 he was ordained in that province and he returned to Australia to take up his first appointment as chaplain to the rapidly-growing migrant community in Leichardt, Sydney.
He would meet Italian migrants as they arrived by ship at the port and help them locate their relatives as well as find jobs and housing.
“There was a huge group of young people in the parish and we would have picnics, watch films…everyone was attached to one another and to all their children and grandchildren,” he said.
Vocation to priesthood a personal experience
It was the Capuchin practice to move friars every three years and being a young, Italian-speaking priest Fr Felice was shifted all over Australia. Wherever he went, he was busy and loved being with people.
“I have never had any regrets,” he said emphatically of his decision to become a Capuchin.
When his mother became ill, he returned to Adelaide to the Newton parish where he remained for 21 years before moving into the Bene Italian Village at St Agnes in 2014.
Despite turning 90 on December 2, he still celebrates Mass every Sunday, Monday and Tuesday at the village.
So popular are his weekly Masses that for the past four months they have been broadcast across Australia and internationally through Radio Italia Uno. He also has a regular spot on the station’s talkback program on Wednesday afternoons.
Many of the residents at the village know him from his time at the Newton parish and the chapel often has to be extended into the meeting hall, including on the feast days of St Anthony and Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.
Fr Felice has become renowned in the village for the Christmas cribs he makes – complete with electric lights – and his other handicraft work.
While only one sister and one brother are still alive, Fr Felice said his 39 nephews and nieces and 29 great nephews and nieces “never leave me alone”.