WINDSOR TERRACE — When Jaime Varela was training to become a deacon, he had a conversation with Father Frank Caggiano that turned out to be prophetic. Father Caggiano, who knew Varela was the chauffeur for executives at the famous baked-goods company Nabisco, suggested that maybe someday he could be the driver for the Bishop of Brooklyn.
“I told him, ‘Maybe someday, you’ll be a bishop,’ ” Deacon Varela recalled.
That conversation happened 20 years ago and both predictions came true. Father Caggiano is now Bishop Caggiano of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut. And Deacon Varela is indeed the driver for the Bishop of Brooklyn.
His job title is Assistant to the Ordinary of the Diocese — in this case, the “ordinary” is Bishop Robert Brennan. It’s a job Deacon Varela, 64, has held for 18 years and one that he loves. “It’s something different every day,” he said.
In addition to driving, he coordinates the Bishop’s visits to churches — working with pastors on every last detail beforehand so that on the day of the visit, everything runs smoothly. When the Bishop celebrates Mass at those parishes, Deacon Varela is the master of ceremonies.
Add to those responsibilities his position as a deacon at Our Lady of the Presentation-Mercy in Brownsville, where he lives.
He was ordained in 2002. “At first, I thought God was calling me to become a priest,” he said. “When I was young, I was always working in the church; doing maintenance and helping out. I went to Catholic school and graduated from Xaverian High School.”
But Deacon Varela, who was born in Puerto Rico, met Ana Maldonado, also from Puerto Rico, while she was in New York visiting relatives. The two were married in 1979 and had a daughter, Yessenia, and a son, Jaime Jr.
Years later, he started to think about becoming a deacon. “I thought I felt a calling from God to be a priest but later on I thought, ‘Well, maybe God is calling me again — to be a deacon,” he recalled.
During his formation, tragedy struck. His daughter Yessenia developed kidney disease and died at the age of 19. “I was in my third year of studying to be a deacon when she passed. When she was sick, I almost quit. But she told me to keep going,” he said.
During one hospital stay, Yessenia wrote her father a letter to encourage him. “I still keep it in my prayer book. I think she’s the reason why I’m where I am today,” he added.
Deacon Varela has held a variety of jobs prior to his service in the Diocese of Brooklyn — including owning a pizzeria, working at Cornell Medical Center, and driving part-time for a company called Chauffeurs Unlimited. The latter led him to one of the most interesting jobs he has had — as the driver for top executives at RJR Nabisco.
“It was like living the high life,” he recalls. “I had to drive to Florida and different places like that for the executives and then they would fly me back on their fancy corporate jets. I felt like a millionaire.”
He had a front-row seat during one of the most intriguing chapters in the history of corporate America — the $25 billion leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco in 1999, which was chronicled in the book “Barbarians at the Gate.”
During the negotiations and the corporate drama, Deacon Varela’s employer put him up at the Plaza Hotel so that he could be ready to drive the chairman of the board at a moment’s notice.
He recalled one time when news reporters got wind of the developments and rushed over to him and the Nabisco executives to ask questions: “There I was, on television.”
In February 2004, Deacon Varela started driving then-Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio on a part-time basis.
“I’m grateful to Bishop DiMarzio for hiring me,” he said, adding that Father Caggiano recommended him.
In September 2004 he retired from Nabisco and began driving Bishop DiMarzio full-time.
There have been some memorable moments on the road over the years, including the time Deacon Varela was driving Bishop DiMarzio to Douglaston, Queens, for a meeting with then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo to discuss school vouchers.
“We were coming from the Bronx and I was going a little fast on the Clearview Expressway,” he recalled. A cop pulled him over. “The cop said, ‘What’s the hurry?’ I told him that I had the bishop in the car and he had to get to an important meeting with the governor.”
Instead of giving Deacon Varela a ticket, the officer gave the deacon and the bishop a police escort to Douglaston.
“The funny thing is, the cop stopped me because I was doing 65. But now, with him escorting us, we were doing about 80,” he said with a laugh.
When Bishop Brennan arrived in November, he kept Deacon Varela as his assistant.
The two men weren’t strangers. Bishop Brennan was ordained as a priest of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, the neighboring diocese to Brooklyn, and spent many years ministering there prior to his installation as Bishop of Columbus, Ohio.
These days, a typical day begins early in the morning when he picks the bishop up at his residence — in the SUV leased by the diocese — and drives him to his office at the Chancery on Prospect Park West.
Thanks to his years of experience on the job, Deacon Varela knows where most churches are located and knows the best routes to get there. He rarely, if ever, uses GPS.
Bishop Brennan is currently leading the Synod process and has been traveling to each of the diocese’s 22 deaneries to celebrate Mass and sit in on meetings to listen to the concerns of parishioners. The Synod meetings are usually in the evening, so that translates into long days for Bishop Brennan and for Deacon Varela as well.
He doesn’t mind, however, and looks forward to continuing his work for Bishop Brennan.
“He depends a lot on me. But he still gives me my days off,” the deacon said, with a smile.