Fr. James Robert Marra, SDB, former director of advancement and treasurer of Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, died unexpectedly on April 6 at Hackensack University Medical Center, Hackensack, N.J. He had collapsed the previous evening, but the proximate cause of death was not immediately known. Fr. Jim had been in declining health for several years, including several hospitalizations. He was 63.
Fr. Jim was born in Brooklyn on June 28, 1952, to the late Vincent Marra and Catherine Fay Marra. The family belonged to St. Michael’s Parish in Brooklyn, and there Jim was baptized and confirmed and attended the parish school.
Jim went on to St. Augustine High School and then Bishop Loughlin High School, both in Brooklyn. He started college at Hunter College in New York City in 1970 before deciding to pursue a priestly-religious vocation, which brought him to Don Bosco College in Newton, N.J., in September 1972. He was admitted to the novitiate at Ipswich, Mass., on August 31, 1973, and made his first profession at Newton on September 1, 1974.
Bro. Jim earned a B.A. in philosophy from Don Bosco College in 1977 and an M.Div. and M.A. in moral theology, summa cum laude, from the Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, Ohio, in 1983. He was ordained on May 21, 1983, in Columbus.
During his student years in Columbus, Bro. Jim ministered as a chaplain for the mentally ill at Columbus State Institute for one year and counseled seventh and eighth graders at St. Cecilia’s Elementary School for two years. During his deacon year he was assigned to St. Leo’s Parish, where he also counseled in the school and moderated the youth group.
Fr. Jim taught at Salesian Junior Seminary in Goshen (1977-1978), Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey (1978-1979), and Salesian High School in New Rochelle (1983-1984). Certified as an English teacher in New Jersey in 1979, he also taught math, history, and biology at various times. He was program director of Salesian summer camps in Newton, New Rochelle, and Elizabeth. He served as treasurer at Don Bosco Tech in Paterson (1984-1994), moderator of the Salesian provincial chapter (1994-1995), director designate of Salesian Missions in New Rochelle (1995-1996), director of Salesian Missions (1996-1998), and pastor of Corpus Christi Church in Port Chester (1998-2007) before his assignment to Don Bosco Prep in 2007.
Fr. Jim was admired for his combination of pastoral sensitivity and financial acumen.
His director, Fr. Jim Heuser of Don Bosco Prep, noted in Fr. Jim “a remarkable blend of the acumen of a good finance manager with the compassion of a good shepherd. In both Paterson and Ramsey he obtained financial aid for many boys so that they could get a Salesian education.”
Fr. Heuser continued: “Over the years, he showed an interest in promoting vocations, and indeed was instrumental in inviting and accompanying young men to become Salesians. In these last years, he bore the darkness of pain and illness with remarkable faith and love.”
Former Rector Major of the Salesians Father Pascual Chavez, SDB, wrote: “I have a wonderful memories of him and am very grateful to him for what he did for the Congregation in his Eastern U.S. Province.”
Jay Gambino, a parishioner of Corpus Christi in Port Chester who met Fr. Jim in 1975 as a day camper in New Rochelle, said: “I was always impressed with Fr. Jim’s pastoral and administrative gifts. His contagious piety and inviting approach made him loved by so many.” When Fr. Jim was Corpus Christi’s pastor, he called upon Mr. Gambino in 1999 to plan the parish’s 75th anniversary celebration the following year, and “I agreed and he was such an inspiration to me,” including the way he bore various illnesses that already affected him. “He carried this heavy and difficult cross as a humble son of Don Bosco and would never complain,” Mr. Gambino writes.
Employees of Salesian Missions are equally appreciative of Fr. Jim. Missy Tai-Fatt recalls how Fr. Jim helped her one Christmas get to North Carolina to be with her dying brother, regards him as “a special man,” and remembers a long friendship.
Kenny Potter of Salesian Missions liked how Fr. Jim “always listened to what you had to say” and “was very understanding.”
Diane Barone of Salesian Missions has “one vivid memory of Fr. Jim. [It] was on his last day here at Salesian. There was a line from his office all the way to the elevator of people wanting to say good-bye and thank you to him for everything he did for us. He made coming into work fun. He was approachable and very easy to speak too. I haven’t ever seen a priest who was so missed by the people he worked with.”
Another Salesian Missions employee, Brenda McClain, called Father Marra “truly a man of that helped the needy and the poor. He showed love to everyone. He truly touched my life.”
Luis Ruiz, a former employee of Salesian Missions who remained in almost daily touch with Father Marra, called him his teacher, best friend, confessor, and “a saint among us.”
Fr. John Nazzaro, Fr. Jim’s classmate all the way through seminary, wrote: “Jimmy was my best friend, my brother…. We did our whole formation together. His example of compassion and love for everyone, especially the underdog kids, made him the Salesian we loved.”
Fr. Abe Feliciano met Fr. Jim when he was a student at Don Bosco Tech in Paterson. He mourns the passing of his one of his “spiritual fathers”: “The Word of God took on a deeper meaning today as one of my spiritual fathers went to Heaven: RIP Fr. Jim Marra, SDB. John 3:16 was my scriptural motto for ordination to the priesthood. It first took flesh in my life when Fr. Jimmy came in search of this once-wayward son of God to bring him back home to the Father. He showed me the loving face of Jesus that called and carried me back to the path of eternal life.”
Fr. Roy Shelly writes from California that Fr. Jim “was the personification of generous hospitality.”
Dobie Moser, executive director of Catholic Charities in Cleveland and a Salesian Cooperator, calls “his life and faith a shining witness of the spirit and charism of Don Bosco.”
Fr. Jim is survived by his mother, Catherine, of Brooklyn, his brothers Frank of Brooklyn and Vincent of Sayreville, his sister Louise of Staten Island, and several nephews and nieces. He was predeceased by his twin brother Michael.
Fr. Jim will be waked in the chapel of Don Bosco Prep on Sunday, April 10.
Reception of the Body St. John’s Hall 1: 30 p.m.
Wake Mary Help of Christians Chapel 2:00-5:00 p.m.
Rosary " " 5:00 p.m.
Prayer Service " " 7:30 p.m.
The Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated in the school’s gymnasium on Monday the 11th at 10:00 a.m. A luncheon will follow in the school cafeteria.
Fr. Jim will be buried in the Salesian Cemetery, Craigville Road, Goshen, N.Y., on Monday at 1:30 p.m.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Fr. Jim’s memory to Don Bosco Prep for student assistance.
Don Bosco Prep is located at 492 North Franklin Turnpike, Ramsey, NJ 07446.