Chapter One

A memoir of a spirited love

Agalo is a rebellious teenager from the warring town. She is searching for the love of a parent. Fr. John Scalabrini is an aging Italian priest with deep love for children. He has a fiery temper. Can this equally spirited pair become father and daughter?


The loss of her mother tears 12-year-old Agalo’s family apart. Shuttled from one relative to another, she tries to fit in, aching for the love and belonging she has lost, but testing those who have the potential to offer it. As her beloved hometown of Gulu becomes entrenched in the throes of a civil war that threatens its traditions, Pompi grows into a restless teenager, prone to schoolgirl pranks and forbidden adventures. But love slips in more quietly, through the sisters at her Catholic boarding school. Their delicate compassion leads her to an aging Italian priest with a deeply passionate heart. He has taken in dozens of other children, but none quite like the rebellious Agalo. Can this very different, but equally spirited pair become father and daughter? The Faces in their Eyes is a poignant story of turbulent love, of differing cultures and personalities coming together in one family, and a story of faith in the face of illness and conflict. In this beautiful and at times humorous, Pompilla S. Agalo evokes the memory of Father John Scalabrini.

Chapter 1

The Arrival

It is early 2003 and I have only recently arrived.

I have come.

I am here at my final beginning and met well with my new siblings. Life indeed has just begun. Here, there is love. A caring found nowhere but here. There is pain, too: that which we endured, that which we lost… parents who no longer could breathe, were cruel, loveless, or sapped by the harshness of substances.

I am an orphan of some kind.

I only carried in dreams what was gone. I dreamed about Maa. I had already learned how to comfort myself with her memory, so my dreams were for her, of going back home to her. Dreams that colored her motherhood, shared before dusk.

I dreamed of her happiness.

The others dreamed, too. Atim Daniella had lost her mother and been separated from her father before she could meet him, only fortunate to have seen him once when he was in his December days. He lived in Europe. Lakot Jilda was never able to say goodbye; she found her mother again, when finally, the farmland in which she rested was clear of intrusion. She goes there whenever she misses her mother, to the tombstone in a field in Layibi-Gulu town. Arac Geraldine never told her story. I only gathered she was too little when it happened. Our youngest sister here we called Girl. She was a niece of the Mistress in charge of our haven. Girl came at three years of age, after her parents departed, too. Was it the war?

I do not know everything.

Nyeko Emmanuel was the baby. We christened him Manu. Adokorac his mother was once a child here, and then left for her marriage, leaving behind her firstborn at Father’s request. Manu would become Father’s own baby, even if the boy by age would more suitably be his grandchild. Arac Alice, who joined us two years after my arrival, I would come to know more deeply than I knew the others. We were the joys and bother of the Scalabrini residence during the years of my tenure there.

Father John Scalabrini’s family, I would learn, was a marvel long before I met him. I joined in the third generation. Just in time, for he was still very much vivacious. He often reminded me that he was my father, that he loved me. But we were already too many for me to have faith in this love. Before us there were many. After us there would come many others commissioned by their different circumstances into his care, in the same way I had been. The very oldest members who came before our time were the uncles and aunts of the family. Soon, somebody younger would be calling me Aunt Suzan.

Oh, come on! I am still a baby myself!

We were the very breath of life to Father John. He would, if he could have, had everybody marry and still live here with him. But one child’s leaving seemed to send another his way by destiny, to become part of his family, too.

No papers. No procedures. Just acceptance.

This was Father John Scalabrini’s method of adoption.

Whenever visiting children learned that shattering stories earned them a permanent stay, they produced them. There were two sisters who lied about being refugees from the Congo with no place to go. But all they ever wanted was a new home. And Father had a weakness for any child with a cruel past.

Some of the kids told even more chilling stories: they once were killers, forced to slaughter their parents during the war. Others said they sought refuge from revenge killing, so that Father sent them away to a new haven. To Italy, perhaps. And others had no living relatives, so that he, Father John was now their only.

One could say the children manipulated his heart. Yes, maybe. But the way Father John validated a story was a gift. To us, a lie was a lie. To him, it was pain and hurt. Nobody lied if they were not in an undesirable situation.

“This is how I love.”

There seemed to be a commonality which drew us to this servant of God. Secretly analyzing my father’s guests, and the kind of troubles they came with, became a sort of pastime activity for me.

The day when a common visitor, whose eyes were always dizzy, returned, I knew it was for the money, and nothing else. The man, I learned, would later spend that money Father gave him at an alcohol joint. This same man returned a few days later, his breath pungent from the previous night’s intoxication. Perhaps he came this time with an excuse even more convincing.

“Father,” the man cried, his eyes dim and devoid of dignity, “My boy is unwell. He is sick, Father. It is the malaria fever, Father. I have no money to send him to hospital. Having paid my house rent, I am left with nothing. My salary is depleted for the month. Help me, Father…” The man was one of Father’s best carpenters at the construction site, but he was an alcoholic. Only Father John knew why he gave the money a second time.

A little later, Mr. Rubangakene, one of Father’s own from Gulu town, would advise him to sign up with the hospitals where his beneficiaries, his children, as Father thought of them, were treated, and Father was billed monthly. Anybody who was given a treatment form from Father’s office went to one of two hospitals contracted by his office in Kampala city. Before this practice, Father had given cash, and depended on these poor souls to be truthful and to change, at a time inspired by both love and spite. There came a time one must change. If you did not, then whose child, were you?

In Father’s own house, another method was useful in the upbringing of those of us who lived with him. Here, the stick was necessary. A tough-skinned child, he handled with a swat of his hand; but a weak one, he handled with spoiling affections of the same measure. Those whose stories were tragically extreme, Father handled with a gentleness, akin to shyness.

He knew which child feigned the hurt in their stories for his attention. To allow them to share this love he apportioned to so many children, he simply believed their unreal stories, too. That way, everybody could share his one heart. He learned to love the ones who may not have been easily adorable. But there were others to whom he was naturally drawn. Even Jesus had his favorites. Peter was talkative, and hard-headed, too, if I remember my Bible story correctly. If he was handsome, it was not mentioned.

Could I have been a Peter?