By Pete Kennedy
Twelve days afloat — that’s what separated Ralph Chieffo’s life in Italy and his life in America. When he was 7 years old, he boarded an ocean liner in the Port of Naples with his parents, his brother and his sister, and they shared a little room for 12 days until the ship arrived in New York Harbor.
“To provide an elementary education for us, my mom and dad became astronauts, venturing into the unknown with trust in God and relatives who embraced us,” he said.
Now 70 years old, Chieffo helps provide elementary education for more than 350 children. He is a Catholic priest and pastor of St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Upper Providence, Pennsylvania, near Media. He oversees more than 50 organizations operating within the parish, including various ministries, worship programs and a grade school.
“You have to be a symphony conductor,” he said, delegating and trusting in the staff and parishioners to keep things running smoothly.
He fosters a familial atmosphere at St. Mary Magdalen, drawing upon his earliest memories of Italy in the early 1950s. He recalls the sound of the church bells ringing every hour.
“It was very family-oriented,” he said. “My cousins all lived in the neighborhood. My grandmother lived downstairs, and my other grandparents lived down the street. It was all about taking care of each other.”
When they came to America, Chieffo’s family settled in Marcus Hook. He had two jobs as a boy — shining shoes at the barber- shop and in local taprooms, and being an altar server in the local church.
“I got to know a lot of different personalities. Doctors, lawyers, local businessmen, hardhats,” Chieffo said. “I found that the priest seemed to be the most trustworthy and peaceful one … He had the respect of everyone.”
After graduating from St. James High School in Chester, he decided to go to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood to pursue a religious life. While there, he also earned a master’s degree in English literature at Villanova University.
“I figured I’d better learn the language sometime,” he joked.
He was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 1975, followed by assignments at St. Alice in Upper Darby, St. Patrick in Malvern, Holy Saviour in Norristown and King of Peace in Philadelphia. In 1980, Chieffo helped to start the Permanent Diaconate program in Philadelphia and was one of its first teachers.
He is also one of the organizers of Man Up Philly, a spirituality conference that has drawn about 1,200 men to Neumann University in recent years.
Chieffo arrived at St. Mary Magdalen in 2000, and was instrumental in the construction of a new church there. In 2010, he was elevated to Monsignor by Pope Benedict XVI.
A typical day for Monsignor Chieffo starts at 6 a.m. with prayer and breakfast. He usually has Mass at 6:30 or 8:30 a.m. The rest of the day is filled with parish business, with much focus on the school, which was just named a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education.
At night, he does a lot of counseling, meeting with people planning weddings or converting, or anyone going through difficult times. On Thursday nights, he can be heard on his 800 AM radio show, “In This I Believe,” teaching, interviewing leaders in the church and fielding calls from listeners.
“The Lord has blessed me with a servant’s heart, which attracts people to know that I’m available,” Chieffo said.
Chieffo, who has Parkinson’s disease and once had a triple bypass surgery, always keeps in mind a quote from Dante’s “Paradiso:” E’n la sua volontade è nostra pace — In His will is our peace.
In his free time, he enjoys going for walks or swimming at the YMCA.
“But the main thing is, I just enjoy good company. Tonight, for instance, the Abruzzese club was here,” he said. “They play bocce during the summer, but tonight they played cards and enjoyed each other’s company. It felt like I went back to Italy.”