Memories of a priest with a hearty laugh

Memories of a priest with a hearty laugh
Bishop-elect Checchio greets priests of the Diocese of Camden at the Chrism Mass March 22 at Saint Agnes Church, Our Lady of Hope Parish, Blackwood. Photo by Mike Walsh

Bishop-elect Checchio greets priests of the Diocese of Camden at the Chrism Mass March 22 at Saint Agnes Church, Our Lady of Hope Parish, Blackwood.
Photo by Mike Walsh

Bishop-elect James F. Checchio has been working in Rome at North American College for a dozen years, but he has never been forgotten by those he worked with in South Jersey.

Since the day his appointment to Metuchen was announced, fellow priests and former co-workers, as well as priests who studied in Rome, have been quick with warm memories and compliments.

Describing Bishop-elect Checchio as “down to earth,” many people said they expected his influence to grow in the church, and that the church would be better for that.

And they remember a priest with an infectous laugh.

“None of us was surprised. We expected it to happen,” said Father David Rivera of Bishop-elect Checchio’s appointment to Metuchen.

Father Rivera’s seminary studies were spent at Rome’s Pontifical North American College, 2005-11, a time when Bishop-elect Checchio was serving as vice rector, and later rector, there.

Father Rivera, now parochial vicar at Holy Cross Parish in Bridgeton, recalled that he, the rector, and his fellow seminarians from South Jersey would frequently have a “Camden night” out in Rome.

“Along with the formation of seminarians, another part of Msgr. Checchio’s responsibilities when he was the rector of the North American College was the Casa Santa Maria where American priests live when pursuing graduate studies in Rome. I lived there from 2008 to 2011,” said Father James L. Bartoloma, chancellor.

“I was always impressed how Msgr. Checchio would come to the Casa at least once a week to check in and have lunch with the priests. There he was not so much the rector of the seminary but a brother priest who went out of his way to make things as accommodating as possible for those of us who were sent for further studies after we had already been ordained for some time,” he said.

Father Nicholas Dudo also studied at the college while Bishop-elect Checchio was there, from 2004-09. The former rector was a “personable, down-to-earth” priest, who cared for and respected the men under his tutelage, he said.

“He always asked for input on how our seminary lives were, listened to us, and made adjustments” when necessary, Father Dudo, now pastor of Galloway Township’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help, said.

“I am sure he will do great things in Metuchen, as he has done in Rome and Camden,” he added.

Msgr. James Tracy is a close friend of Bishop-elect Checchio and also knows his family well.

When Msgr. Tracy, now retired, was pastor at Saint Bridget in Glassboro, the Bishop-elect spent one summer home from the seminary, serving at his parish. A few years later, as a priest studying in Rome, Bishop-elect Checchio had two summer assignments at Saint Peter Celestine in Cherry Hill, while Msgr. Tracy was pastor there.

The retired priest believes Bishop-elect Checchio’s “down-to-earth, humble demeanor, hearty laugh, and ready smile” will be well-received in Metuchen.

“He touches everyone, and he is a true witness to the value of the Gospel,” Msgr. Tracy added. “He made an impression on me, as well as with anyone he has met, or will meet. I look up to him as a true friend.”

Msgr. Joseph M. Mannion, now retired, was pastor at Saint John Parish in Collingswood, where the young Bishop-elect attended Mass with his family as he grew up, and attended the elementary school.

“He was a fine, bright, insightful young man, involved in the parish as an altar boy,” Msgr. Mannion said. Over the years, the two have kept in touch, as Bishop-elect Checchio’s family still resides in the Collingswood area.

The young boy’s parents, very active in the parish and school, no doubt influenced their son’s future vocation, the retired priest believed. “Their commitment and spirituality influenced him,” he said.

Noting Bishop-elect Checchio’s proximity to Pope Francis while in Rome, Msgr. Mannion said the Holy Father’s gift of extending the Gospel to all will influence his work in Metuchen.

“In the mold of Pope Francis, he will reach out to those searching for meaning and happiness,” said Msgr. Mannion. “I have no doubt that he will do well, and be a tremendous blessing to Metuchen.”

From 1997-2003, Bishop-elect Checchio was vice-chancellor of the Diocese of Camden, and worked with the chancellor, Msgr. Joseph Pokusa.

“He has a very pastoral inclination to his interaction with both clergy and the faithful.” Msgr. Pokusa, now senior priest at Runnemede’s Holy Child Parish, remembered.

“His broad background and experiences should be a wonderful blessing for everyone of the Diocese of Metuchen,” he said.

For Bishop-elect Checchio’s first three years as vice chancellor, Anna Summers served as his secretary in the diocesan offices.

“The news is unbelievable, when you know somebody all those years,” said Summers, now secretary for the vicar general and chancellor in the diocese.

At the same time, seeing his assignments in Camden, and eventual appointment to Rome, “You knew that he was destined for something” higher, she said.

She remembered frequent lunch outings to Collingswood, laughs (“the laughter kept things light,” she said), and his thoughtfulness, during his time in Camden’s offices, and after.

“He always brought back souvenirs from places he visited,” she said. “While he was rector, he always kept in touch with e-mails and Christmas cards.”

Summers still recalls, from time to time, the words he said to her after a particularly trying time: “Keep your eye on the plow,” she recalled. “I’m happy for my friend. He’ll be good. And the people of Metuchen will love him.”

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