by Maurice Bernier
Sometimes, you never know where or when your life can change for the better. When it does, you will know it. I should know. It happened to me 48 years ago.
I recall very vividly my sophomore year at a wonderful high school named Christ the King High School in Middle Village, NY. It was a year of changes in my life. While it was a huge school, I needed some direction. My prayers were soon answered. I had a wonderful Religion teacher named Mr. Thomas Chappetto. It was like he read my mind when he told us that in February of 1972, we were going to have a religious retreat day. It would be a day of prayer, reflection, and much-needed guidance.
We would examine where we came from, where we were that day and where we wanted to be in the future. It was the guidance I so desperately needed and wanted at that point in my life. I was excited because I had heard of retreats, but had never attended one. This was going to be my first and I was so looking forward to it. It was to also involve a priest who would attend the event with us. I became even more excited because we were informed that one of the parish priests from the grammar school we attended would be here with us.
This was to be a great event because there were just seven of us young men — CK’s Magnificent Seven — who attended St. Catherine of Sienna in St. Albans and were waiting to see which one of our three parish priests would come and spend the day and stay with us. Game on!
As the saying goes, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray.” That was so very true in our case as we learned that, for some reason that was never revealed to us, none of our parish priests would be there to join us. For a while, I was upset, but Mr. Chappetto, a very kind and patient gentleman who had a heart the size of the building itself, would not allow us to be sad for long. He quickly arranged for us to have a guest priest to help us. Now, I was very curious as to who it would be. I could not even begin to guess who it would be, but Mr. Chappetto was never known to let anyone down.
On that sunny day that our retreat began, Mr. Chappetto introduced us to our guest. It was a rather young fellow. He looked like a first-year college student. What was so special about this person?
“Gentlemen, I want to introduce you to our special guest for the day. He will be with you all day today. His name is … Father Raymond Chappetto, my brother.”
It turns out that we were truly surprised to see him. We never expected this. I never met this gentleman before in my short lifespan at the time. Specifically, I never expected this whatsoever. He was about six feet tall with a smile that really reflected the sunshine outside that day. He wasn’t overbearing or anything similar to it. Instead, he was quiet and spoke with a rather gentle voice, the kind that reassured me that he was a very gentle and holy individual.
He came across as very kind and extremely caring as well. It felt like I had known him for decades, but I was only in the room with him for about ten minutes at that point. I was able to tell that Father Chappetto was truly a very special person. At that point, I then realized that God took the time and put the right person in my life at the right time.
The retreat went on as scheduled that day. Father Chappetto talked with us not just like we expected him to do, but he brought an added element of familiarity with us. We talked of many things not just concerning high school life, but our life outside and after high school as well. In that short amount of time, I knew right away that I not only had a confidant but, more importantly, a friend as well.
Since meeting Father Chappetto, many things have happened in my lifespan, some good and others not so good. I managed to graduate from CK two years later taking many wonderful friendships and memories with me. I managed to miraculously attend and graduate from St. John’s University. I began and ended a 42-year career as a teacher and school administrator. On the opposite side of the coin, though, I lost my parents, baby sister, and other important people in my life. During the New Year’s weekend of 1980, Mr. Chappetto entered the Kingdom of Heaven.
My only regret in this situation is that I never did something that I should have done when I met Father Chappetto. I never thanked him for what he did for me. It may have just been a simple visit, but he made a huge impression on my life. Because he performed a simple gesture of giving up his valuable time that day, I really wanted to show him my heartfelt gratitude and appreciation for keeping a second-year immature high school student on the straight and narrow path in life. Unfortunately, there were no such inventions as cell phones, computers, the internet, or anything else except a home phone and a phone booth on the street corner. Yes, we were an angry primitive society back then. It never even dawned on me to tell Mr. Chappetto that I wanted to stay in contact with his brother.
God heard me and was very patient with me. He let me go through many things before my prayers were answered. Over time, Father Raymond Chappetto eventually became Bishop Raymond Chappetto. He was assigned to a parish somewhere. Because my car at the time had an “I will run when I feel like it. So, deal with it” attitude, I could not find him in order to congratulate him for his elevation. It was an honor for him that, in my eyes, was very long overdue.
I have also undergone changes in my life as well. In addition to the loss of family and close friends, I got older (UGH!), gotten grey hair (UGH! UGH!), and picked up a considerable amount of weight on my rather non-impressive frame (Too many UGHS to list here). Believe it or not, I also got a wee bit smarter. Before my baby sister passed away, she gave birth to my first beautiful niece.
My baby brother married my wonderful sister-in-law named Linda and both of them produced my second beautiful niece and my first handsome nephew. The family continued to grow. The same nephew also got married to a wonderful wife and produced my first four grandnieces and grandnephews who also joined the two grandnephews and my grandniece from my first niece’s marriage. We now have a large family.
Another change I made was to switch parishes. I joined Holy Family in Flushing. I soon became a Knight of Columbus. Eleven months ago, I received some news that I never even dreamed that I would live to ever hear. It was announced that someone named Bishop Chappetto would be in residence at my new parish. I could not believe my ears, but it was true. I learned that it was the same Bishop Chappetto from my CK retreat! He would be here!
When we met again, it was like time stood still for him. He had the same smile and the same nice words. There was nothing else different about him. He still gave his time to those who needed him. We spoke at length about how and where we met. We spoke about his brother. The bishop remembered it all. I could not stop smiling because I was so glad to see him again.
And, of course, I graciously thanked him for what he did for me. Unlike others in our society, Bishop Chappetto taught me to see someone and look at their soul. He did not see me as Black and I don’t see him as White. I see him the way he sees me: as a child of God. It was a lesson that he taught me that lasted even to this very today. Like my parents and others who tried to help me with my life, he is a major influence on me.
They say that if you want to make God laugh, just tell Him your plans. I am sure that He laughed at my plans, but He made me smile when He planned for me to meet my friend again. The journey to meet him was very worth it, but the journey to see him again was truly so glorious for me. Thank you, God, for Bishop Chappetto, the nicest and kindest person I ever met.
Maurice Bernier is a 1970 graduate of St. Catherine of Sienna School in St. Albans, NY as well as a 1974 graduate of Christ the King High School in Middle Village, NY. He went on to St. John’s University to receive his degrees in teaching and school administration. He recently ended his 42 year teaching career in March of this year. He still remains in touch with Bishop Chappetto and others to this very day.