Father James Rickey recalls years as campus minister, pastor, prison chaplain

Father James E. Rickey

When asked what was on his “bucket list” three years ago, Father Rickey said, “Well, you know I’ve always wanted to live in Paris.”

He got his wish in 2017, when his adopted daughter, Breeze, sold her house in Chicago and the two of them, with only three suitcases each, made the move.

Now he goes to school three days a week and meets with a “language partner” to work on his French.

“Life is good,” he said in a telephone interview from Paris.

In addition to the satisfaction of learning something new, the experience has given him a better understanding of what others are going through.

“I have so much more empathy now for people coming from any of the Latin American countries or Eastern Europe who come to the U.S. and try to learn English,” Father Rickey said. “It’s not an easy language, English.”

It isn’t the first time in 50 years that he has put himself in the shoes of some else.

While serving the students at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Father Rickey got a cafeteria pass so he could eat with them. And when he built St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Newman Center there, he established a small chapel where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved.

“We had a loose leaf binder and people could come in and write all kinds of prayers and pour their heart out on paper,” he said. “It was a refuge they knew they could come to 24 hours a day and the door to the chapel would be open.”

He called his time as a campus minister “the best years of my life.”

“The campus was alive and vibrant and people were asking questions and searching for God,” Father Rickey said. “You have to say, ‘Mom and Dad believe, but what do I believe? Do I really believe this? Why do I believe this? And am I willing to put it into practice?’”

The Peoria native started asking his own questions as a student at St. Bede Academy and Junior College. He would complete his studies for the priesthood at Cardinal Glennon College and Kenrick Seminary, both in St. Louis.

Father Rickey was assigned as parochial vicar to Immaculate Heart of Mary in Galesburg, with teaching duties at Costa High School. He was named parochial vicar at St. Paul in Macomb, and chaplain to the St. Francis of Assisi Newman Center five years later and would remain for two decades.

He would also serve briefly as administrator of parishes in Rushville and Campus, and for a time as pastor of St. Patrick in Raritan.

The second major influence on his priestly ministry was the years he spent as pastor at St. Patrick in Dwight and chaplain to the women incarcerated at the Dwight Correctional Center.

“The suffering people go through,” Father Rickey said. “I would get searched and go through one set of doors and they’d close. Then you walk about 15 feet and another set of doors would open and then you’d walk through that set of doors and they’d close. You think, ‘Oh, oh — I’m in here.’ But at least I could get out.”

He was assisted by volunteers from Streator and Dwight and had an RCIA group, in addition to celebrating Mass for the offenders.

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