Sunday, December 14, 2014

Fr. Joseph Occhio, SDB (1923-2014)

Fr. Joseph Occhio, SDB (1923-2014)

Fr. Occhio at province jubilees
celebration 2010--his 70th of
profession, 60th of ordination
Fr. Joseph Occhio made his way to the Father on the evening of Dec. 13.  Announcing his passing to the Salesians of the New Rochelle Province, provincial Fr. Tom Dunne noted that the Church had just begun to celebrate Gaudete Sunday, and “the Lord was calling out for Fr. Joseph to come to him in the joy of heaven.

Fr. Occhio was 91 years old and was a member of the Salesian community at St. Benedict’s Parish, Etobicoke, Ont.

Fr. Occhio had suffered both a stroke and a heart attack in his room in the rectory two days earlier, at an unknown time during the afternoon, and was taken to Etobicoke General Hospital, where he was given emergency care for almost a full day, refused any extraordinary treatment, and was moved to the floor where palliative care is provided.  He was accompanied throughout by members of the Salesian community.

Fr. Joseph Occhio was the son of Giuseppe and Giovannina Spizzi Occhio.  He was born on Nov. 17, 1923, at Gallignano (Cremona), Italy, and was baptized the next day in the parish church.

With his father just before he
sailed for the U.S.
In 1938 Joseph entered the Salesian St. Pius V School at Penango (Asti).  Although the records of Don Bosco College in Newton, N.J., indicate his enrollment there on Aug. 15, 1939, it appears that he actually began his novitiate around that time at Castelnuovo Don Bosco.  A postcard to his parents dated Aug. 18 informs them of his plans to stop a few days in Turin, then go to Naples to sail to America.  In fact, he sailed from Genoa aboard the Rex.  It appears that he reached Newton and entered St. Joseph’s Novitiate around Sept. 14, 1939, because he made his first religious profession on Sept. 14, 1940.

Bro. Occhio graduated from Don Bosco College in Newton, magna cum laude, in 1943 and did his first year of practical training there as Latin and Greek teacher of the aspirants.  In 1944 he moved to Salesian High School in New Rochelle, where he taught general science and French.

He professed perpetual vows in Newton on September 8, 1946.

Bro. Occhio studied theology at the Ateneo Pontificio Salesiano in Turin (Crocetta) from 1946 to 1950.

In "civies" for going out to campaign
for the Christian Democrats in 1948.

Those years in Turin were challenging socially and politically.  Italy discarded the monarchy in favor of a republic, and the 1948 elections threatened to empower the Communists, as had already happened in much of central Europe, right up to Italy’s northeastern border (Yugoslavia).  During the election campaign the theology students, with their cassocks set aside, were sent out into the streets and the countryside to lobby in favor of the Christian Democrats, who managed a victory.

Having earned a licentiate in theology (STL), Fr. Occhio was ordained in the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians on July 2, 1950.  His was a renowned class that included Frs.  Paul Avallone, Edward Cappelletti, Arthur Lenti, John Malloy, Armand Oliveri, Gennaro Sesto, Chester Szemborski, Louis Vyoral, and Leo Winterscheidt.

After ordination he continued studies in philosophy in Turin at the Istituto Rebaudengo and came away with a doctorate in 1953.  His dissertation was on Irving Babbitt.

At Don Bosco College, Newton
Fr. Occhio then spent 27 years (1953-1980) back at Don Bosco College Seminary teaching philosophy and at times also serving as dean of students, registrar, director of religious activities, socius of the novices, or dean of the Sons of Mary (older candidates for Salesian life).  He was also an occasional teacher of economics, Greek, and Latin.  He was an effective professor and a popular, approachable one, and his religious life was exemplary for aspirants, novices, and young Salesians alike.

He did post-doctoral studies at St. John’s University (Jamaica, N.Y.), Seton Hall University (South Orange, N.J.), and the Catholic University of America (Washington) and was a visiting professor at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Fr. Occhio published articles in various learned and popular journals, including the Bulletin of the Albertus Magnus Guild, Catholic Educational Review, Salesianum, Spiritual Life, Our Sunday Visitor, and L’Osservatore Romano.  It seems that his only published books were Perspectives in Christian Humanism (1966) and some autobiographical reflections, Magnificat 2000, described by a friend as “a collection of personal stories that give testimony to the greatness of God in his life.”  Some of his work can now be found in blog form, e.g., “Light from Aquinas” at

For many summers he was the campus minister of Camp Don Bosco on the grounds of Don Bosco College, and many more summers the director of the Sons of Mary summer program in Ellenville, N.Y.  He also preached retreats, guided prayer groups, and carried out weekend parish ministry in the Paterson, N.J., Diocese.

In 1980 Fr. Occhio was assigned to be director of the Salesian Center in Columbus, Ohio, to guide the Salesian students of theology as well as to watch over the Boys Club based there.

In 1985 he was recalled to Newton for two more years teaching philosophy and one year (1986-1987) as acting president of the College.

At that time Fr. Anthony Mastroeni of the Paterson Diocese was a candidate with the Salesians.  He writes that Fr. Occhio “was among the most solid Thomists I have known.  He was a scholar, gentleman and the quintessential Salesian.  I admired him and respected him dearly.”

With a younger generation of Salesians taking up responsibility for seminary formation in Newton, Fr. Occhio took up a new form of ministry in a new country.  He went to Montreal as a parish priest, first as pastor of Mission St. Dominic Savio (1987-1993) and then as assistant pastor at Maria Ausiliatrice Parish and director of the Montreal Salesian community (1993-1996).

In Montreal he still made the occasional foray into academia.  For example, in 1988 he guest lectured at McGill University in a course called Philosophy of Catholic Education taught by former Salesian Spencer Boudreau.  Mr. Boudreau reported that Fr. Occhio’s  presentation of Don Bosco’s method of education deeply impressed his students of “various religious or non-religious backgrounds.”

Helping with orientation for elementary school teachers in New Brunswick, Canada
Three years as assistant pastor at St. Emeric’s Hungarian Parish in Edmonton, Alta., followed (1996-1999) before Fr. Occhio arrived in Etobicoke as director of the community for one term (1999-2002), and as priestly assistant at St. Benedict’s Parish until his last days in many ways, including spiritual direction of the Association of Mary Help of Christians (ADMA) and of the Don Bosco Volunteers, tireless ministry in the sacrament of Reconciliation, the example of his Eucharistic and Marian devotion, and his grandfatherly presence to young and old.

Two of the Don Bosco Volunteers paid this tribute to their beloved mentor:  “Fr. Occhio not only preached Don Bosco’s refrain to live in joy and optimism, he embodied joy and optimism in the everyday events of life.  There’s no doubt he carried great burdens and suffered greatly in body and spirit:  he did all this, though, with a palpable joy in Jesus and an optimism that permeated all his words and actions.  It’s no wonder that the Lord called him to his eternal rest on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, the week of JOY.  Fr. Occhio’s passing occurs on the sixth anniversary of our profession of final vows.  We are forever grateful to Fr. Occhio for his love of our vocation and our Institute and for nurturing our vocations from the earliest stages.”

When Fr. Occhio turned 90 last year, Fr. Pascual Chavez, at the time Rector Major of the Salesians, wrote him a congratulatory and laudatory letter.  Among other things, he said to Fr. Occhio:

A witness that is deeply rooted in prayer and constantly nurtured by your friendship with God. Like the true mystic, Fr. Joseph, your life is a pointer to God’s loving-kindness.

Your life has been and remains one of service, making yourself available to be a channel of God’s grace through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, your readiness to be of service to the Italian community and ready to be a servant to all.

Prophetic continues to be your ministry whether through writing or radio programs. Above all, prophetic remains your daily life within the religious community, giving the witness of one who “stresses what unites rather than what divides” (Pope John XXIII) and through the gentle spirit of St. Francis de Sales in the way you ask for nothing and refuse nothing.

Bro. Bernie DubĂ© lived with Fr. Occhio in the Etobicoke community for 14 years.  He described Fr. Occhio as “always positive, cheerful, man of prayer.”

One of St. Benedict’s youths, 18-year-old Joshua Pace, noted Fr. Occhio’s devotion to the Virgin Mary, which “will live on through everyone that he inspired, from the youngsters to the elders.”

Isabel Correa from Montreal addressed Fr. Occhio thus:  “Dear Fr. Occhio friend of the young!!!!  Thank you for your constant witness of joy!  Thank you for all your personal messages of support!  I was always moved and warmly surprised each time I received a note from you.  It meant sooo much to me to know you were praying for me.”

Fr. Mario Cimosa, a professor at the Salesian Pontifical University in Rome, paid this tribute to Fr. Occhio: “He was a great Salesian, and he certainly left his mark on the Salesians of America.  He will be praying for us.  I don’t want to exaggerate, but he ranks among the Salesian saints.”

Fr. Dunne wrote:  Fr. Occhio was a much loved member of [the Salesian] community [of Etobicoke] and the people of St. Benedict Parish.  Undoubtedly, he will be missed by all Salesians in Canada and by all who have come to know Fr. Occhio from his many years of faithful service to the St. Philip Province.”

Fr. Occhio is survived by his brothers Franco, Fede, Tarcisio and Fr. Leone.  He was predeceased by his sisters Angela, Maria, Sr. Celeste, and Natalina and brothers Francesco and Luigi.

Funeral Arrangements

Monday, December 15, wake at St. Benedict’s Church

1:00 – 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 – 9:00 p.m.

Tuesday, December 16, wake continues, 1:00 – 4:00 p.m.

8:00 p.m. Vigil Service (after 7:30 p.m. parish Mass)

Wednesday, December 17, Mass of Christian Burial

11:00 a.m., followed by reception in the church hall

Thursday, December 18, transfer of body to Montreal for burial

No comments: