It’s not that Nick Chaconas didn’t appreciate the Spirit of St. Bernadette Award his parish bestowed on him as the 2012 exemplar of the parish’s mission.
It’s just that, as Chaconas put it during an interview with your Catholic Herald, “This thing should be about St. Bernadette. I’m just a small cog.”
Fellow parishioners at the northwest Milwaukee church, which Chaconas and wife Dori have attended for nearly 50 years, would likely disagree with that “small cog” label.
A charter member of the parish council in the 1980s, Chaconas, 77, has been a St. Bernadette trustee the last three years. As such, he acts as St. Bernadette’s corporate secretary. He attends council and finance committee meetings and shares with the other trustee – parish treasurer Jim Hoida – the responsibility of co-signing checks with their pastor, Fr. Greg Greiten. Chaconas also sings in the parish choir. But he’s best known around the parish for his participation in fish fries and like activities.
Actually, to speak of Chaconas’ “participation” is to downplay his involvement. A February St. Bernadette bulletin article about his receiving the seventh annual parish Spirit Award put it this way: “For over 30 years, he has been delighting our taste buds, first by volunteering for and then by running (parish food functions) along with Dan Lutz. Whether it’s the monthly fish fry, annual chicken dinner, or cooking for the festivals, holiday fairs and spaghetti dinners, he doesn’t hesitate to say ‘Yes, I will.’
“It’s not just his volunteering that makes him so special. He’s always here to say ‘Thank you’ or ‘No problem, I’ll help,’ along with a caring smile. He makes working or volunteering more enjoyable with his humor, kindness and compassion. He is someone you can count on to listen, to offer advice, to lean on. He has touched more lives than he is probably aware of. He exemplifies what it means when we say, ‘We are a warm and welcoming faith community.’”
“Nick has been a very active parishioner, involved in so many aspects of parish life,” said Fr. Greiten. “Since coming to St. Bernadette almost two years ago, I have seen his willingness to be of help and assistance to others in the parish community, bringing forth his compassionate spirit and wonderful sense of humor. What a blessing and gift he is to the community of St. Bernadette.”
In the May 6 interview at St. Bernadette, Chaconas offered a simple explanation for his parish volunteerism.
“To me,” he said, “church is being active, being part of the community.” Besides, he added, “It is fun” to work on behalf of one’s parish, alongside people who enjoy one another’s company.
“I have a lot of friends here,” Chaconas said.
His fellow helpers—numbering about 40 for the regular fish fries, considerably fewer for the occasional dinners – “are very loyal, very dedicated, very hardworking. They’re willing to help. I don’t do it by myself.”
About 20 years ago, Nick and Dori Chaconas, who had lived just a couple blocks from St. Bernadette Church, moved north to Germantown. The move did not affect church membership for the couple who had sent all four of their daughters through the parish school, however.
“I think that 90 percent of the miles on my car are back and forth,” to and from, St. Bernadette, laughed Chaconas, who retired as an account manager in 1999 after 30 years with Kraft Foods.
The compilation of miles has been worth it, he indicated. St. Bernadette “is a very loving, a very comforting parish,” according to Chaconas, which has “had outstanding pastors” supported by “excellent staff.”
Chaconas remembered it was the founding pastor, Fr. John Arens, who suggested he become a fish fry volunteer. Later, the personable priest tabbed Dori, an author of children’s books, to establish a library at St. Bernadette (now Northwest Catholic) School; he even provided his housekeeper as a babysitter so Dori would have time to do so.
As for the choir, Chaconas joined in 1968 – because of a neighborhood party. While he and other party-goers made sure the beer didn’t go to waste, one of the neighbors challenged her fellow parishioners to bolster the choir’s male ranks.
“There were about four, five of us that did come” to the next rehearsal, Chaconas recalled. Forty-five years and “at least eight” choir directors later, Chaconas is still singing.
One of his daughters, Michaela Restaino, followed his melodious example. Restaino, now residing in California, served as a cantor, first at St. Bernadette, and later at the cathedral – where she led the congregation in singing for ceremonies at which Archbishops Timothy M. Dolan and Jerome E. Listecki presided. The other daughters are Nicki Chaconas and twins Stephanie Mielke and Stacy DeKeyser (an author, like her mother). Nick and Dori have three grandsons.
Born in Milwaukee to Greek immigrants, St. Bernadette’s latest Spirit Award winner grew up in the Washington Park area. His dad made his living in a haberdashery at 12th and Cherry streets; there, the pre-teen Nick, elder of two brothers, shined shoes.
“I guess I’m used to work,” Chaconas said with a chuckle.
After graduating from Washington High School, he studied for about 2.5 years at Marquette University.
In retirement, besides his activities at St. Bernadette, Chaconas golfs, catches a fair share of Brewers games at Miller Park, follows other sports and enjoys yard work and puttering inside his home. He’s also resumed one of his childhood hobbies: model railroading.
He said he felt “kind of humbled” when identified as the Spirit Award recipient at the St. Bernadette Volunteer Appreciation activity several weeks back.
“What I do in my life,” Chaconas said, “I don’t (seek) awards for.” The septuagenarian added he plans to volunteer for as long as he is able.
According to Lutz, his longtime colleague at parish food functions, Chaconas “definitely” deserves the Spirit Award. Lutz depicted Chaconas as “real easy to work with,” a popular figure who is very dedicated to his parish – and “a real family man” to boot.