Diocesan News

Priests Recall Their Past Lives as a Naval Corpsman, Chef & Actuary

Father Edwin Ortiz, third from left, served on a marine base in the Philippines during his time in the navy. (Photo: courtesy of Father Ortiz)

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in the Tablet’s four-part series that looks at the interesting and diverse professions priests held before they answered God’s call to the priesthood.

BENSONHURST — Father Edwin Ortiz believes that he wound up where he was always meant to be — in a parish serving as a priest. But he took a circuitous route to the priesthood that included working in St. John’s Cemetery and serving as a hospital corpsman in the U.S. Navy.

“When I was right out of college, I was really trying to figure out my life a little bit,” said Father Ortiz, the parochial vicar for St. Athanasius-St. Dominic Parish in Bensonhurst.

Fresh out of college, he had his heart set on the priesthood and was attending the Cathedral Seminary House of Formation in Douglaston. But a health scare caused him to interrupt his studies.

“I went to Douglaston right out of high school. During my fourth year, everything was going great. But I was playing basketball with a couple of the other seminarians and I collapsed. I found that I had an arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat,” he explained.

During his final semester, “I was in the hospital more than I was in school,” he remembered. After his doctors informed him he would need surgery, he decided to take a break from his studies. 

“I ended up working at St. John’s Cemetery in Middle Village for a couple of years,” he recalled. He worked in the cemetery’s purchasing department and also assisted families who came into the office seeking to find the gravesites of relatives and friends.

Father Ortiz worked at St. John’s for two years. But he felt something pulling him away. “At a certain point I wanted to go into the field of nursing. But you know, school was pretty expensive,” he said.

However, one day he was watching television and saw something that changed his life. 

“I remember watching TV and the commercial for the Navy came on. And one of the things that they highlighted was that they helped pay for schooling. That was a big plus. So I applied for the Navy. I got accepted. It was 2009 when I entered boot camp,” he said.

He served as a hospital corpsman, something he loved doing because it was close to nursing. “I thought the Navy was perfect because it would allow me to get great experiences and also do what I wanted to do,” he explained. 

“The  first ship that I was on had roughly 5,000 sailors and marines, and so we were pretty busy all the time. There was a medical clinic, a dental clinic, and also an emergency room. We would provide daily medical care and make sure all of our Marines and sailors were always medically ready.”

He then found himself assigned to a base in Okinawa, Japan. “I was attached to a Marine Corps unit. Two or three months after arriving in Japan, I got called up for a deployment,” he said.

Father Ortiz and his colleagues were deployed to places like the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia. To his delight, he found that he spent most of his time helping people. 

“And it was a very different side of the Marine Corps than I had seen in the media. You always heard about the wars and everything that the military is always involved in. But when I was with them, it was the Marines helping communities in these different countries, like building a new school or a clinic,” he recalled.

“I remember at a certain point working at a soccer field we set up like a medical camp where we provided free medical and dental care for the locals in the Philippines,” he said, adding that it was a sweet memory.

After completing his enlistment, he returned to New York and entered the seminary. He was ordained in 2019, thus fulfilling his original dream to become a priest.

Msgr. Jamie Gigantiello, pastor of the Shrine Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Williamsburg and vicar for development for the Diocese of Brooklyn, believes strongly that his past career as a chef and a hotel maitre’d have influenced his life as a priest.

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he also worked at the Carlyle Hotel, where he met such luminaries as actor Paul Newman. He later worked at the Intercontinental Hotel.

“Looking back, it has helped me be a better priest,” he said. “A lot of people have said to me, ‘You started out so late,’ because I wasn’t ordained until I was 36. And I say I may have gotten off to a late start but because of my experience in the hotel business, dealing with the people I met, I use those skills to do what I do now.”

Msgr. Gigantiello, who was ordained in 1995, said one area where he makes particular use of his people skills is in his role as a fundraiser for the diocese’s parishes and schools.

He also harkens back to his past as a chef with each episode of “Breaking Bread,” the NET-TV program in which he cooks a meal with a guest.

Msgr. Gigantiello began his professional career behind a stove in a kitchen. He enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America fresh out of high school in 1977. 

He always had a love of cooking and was greatly influenced by family members who encouraged his forays into the kitchen. “Growing up Italian, I’ve always had a love of Italian food,” he explained. Even today, his favorite pasta to prepare is orecchiette.

So there he was, at the Culinary Institute of America, with dreams of becoming a chef. “And that was a two-year program. After that, I went to work at the Carlyle Hotel,” he recalled. “I was in the kitchen there for about six months. And then they needed someone upstairs in the dining room. So I went to work up there. I started as a waiter. I became a captain. Then I became a maitre’d. I did that for four years.”

Msgr. Gigantiello also worked weekends at Cafe Carlyle, a hotel’s supper club where famed cabaret singer-pianist Bobby Short was a featured performer. This was the 1980s and he also met Newman and other celebrities like movie legend James Cagney, Broadway star Pearl Bailey, and supermodel Cheryl Tiegs. 

He is featured in a documentary about the Carlyle Hotel, “Always at the Caryle,” telling a story about how he got to taste an early version of Newman’s Own salad dressing, the dressing the actor developed and sold on supermarket shelves.

“I used to make salad dressing for him at the tableside and he was telling me what to put in it. And after three or four weeks, I finally said to him, ‘Can I taste your salad dressing?’ And he said sure. So I tasted it. And jokingly, I said to him, ‘I think you better stick to acting.’ We laughed. And then two years later, I read about his salad dressing (being sold) all over the country,” he recalled.

Msgr. Gigantiello left the Carlyle Hotel and went to work at the Intercontinental Hotel. There, he put together his chef’s skills and his charitable know-how and came up with a charity fundraiser in which guests could taste small samples of dishes prepared by chefs form various hotels.

He later brought this same concept to St. Patrick’s Church in Bay Ridge, his first parish following his 1995 ordination. The fundraiser was called “Taste of the Ridge” and featured dishes from neighborhood restaurants.

“I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. But when we were setting up the first one, I looked outside and there were 800 people waiting to get in. So it was just really wonderful,” he recalled.

Father Robert Mucci was always good at math in school, so it made sense for him to find a job where numbers mattered. And that’s just what he did.

Father Mucci, the pastor of the Parish of St. Mark-St. Margaret Mary in Sheepshead Bay and a vice chancellor of the diocese, worked for more than 20 years as an actuary in the reinsurance industry, working his way up to an executive position. For him, the priesthood didn’t come until much later.

Actuaries are professionals with advanced math skills who assess probability and risk factors for companies. 

“When I finally left the company, I was an executive vice president and chief actuary. The company was called Transatlantic Reinsurance. I was on the board of directors for that and at one of our subsidiary companies as well,” he recalled.

Reinsurance is a specialty field within the insurance industry. “Not everybody would be familiar but there are companies that insure other insurance companies,” Father Mucci explained. “The whole idea really that makes insurance work is probability, statistics, and the pooling of risk. And reinsurance companies work with insurance companies to help them spread their risk.”

Fresh out of Dartmouth University, where he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in math in 1979, Father Mucci took a job as an actuary with Prudential Property and Casualty Insurance Company.

“A lot of math majors go into teaching but I didn’t really feel any interest in being a teacher. I was looking for a way to blend my background in mathematics with a business career. Insurance companies looking for actuaries were asking for math majors. I started taking the actuarial exams,” Father Mucci recalled.

In 1982 he moved over to Transatlantic Reinsurance Company, which at the time was a subsidiary of American International Group (AIG) Inc.

In the mid-1980s, AIG went public. This presented a great opportunity for Father Mucci as Transatlantic Reinsurance was spun off into its own company.

“And so that was exciting. When I began my career, because Transatlantic had a partnership with AIG, I was really an employee of AIG. Then when AIG became public, I really became an employee of Transatlantic. I got the opportunity to start my own actuarial department,” he recalled. 

Transatlantic was a worldwide company with offices in New York, London, Paris, Zurich, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. “So I had the opportunity to travel to all those offices and really oversaw all those offices too,” said Father Mucci.

Father Mucci, who grew up in Bensonhurst, was a parishioner of St. Athanasius Church and was active in the church as a lector and a member of the parish council.

He found a way to carry that over to his working life by helping to start a new group, Wall Street Catholic Young Adults. 

While he had thought of entering the priesthood, he didn’t act on it. “I did start the actuarial career and pretty soon the career really took off. I started getting lots of responsibility and moving up the ranks pretty quickly, getting into management. I tried to convince myself that maybe this is what God wanted for me all along,” he explained.

”But those feelings never really went away,” he added.

With help from mentors like Msgr. David Cassato, who was pastor of St. Athanasius at the time, and Father Bryan Patterson, a parish priest, Father Mucci enrolled in the Cathedral Seminary House of Formation in Douglaston. He was 46 years old. 

He then studied for the priesthood at the Pontifical North American College in Rome and was ordained in 2009.