Parishioners at St. Joseph Church in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., wanted to make sure Celia Teresa de Jesus Alferez went home to God surrounded by friends.
So about 50 of them attended her funeral Mass March 12 when no one from her family, believed to be in Colombia, could be found.
And it’s all because they strive to live Matthew 25:40: “… Whatever you do for one of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
“It was unbelievable. It was awesome,” said Father Michael Rieder, pastor, who presided at the funeral liturgy at the parish on Long Island. “It was really a sacred experience.”
The priest credited the parish’s Ministry of Consolation and its coordinator, Clare Antonucci, for “being there” for Alferez, an immigrant who would have turned 85 in April.
Antonucci said the ministry reaches out to the family members of any parishioner who has died when a funeral is scheduled. Normally, Antonucci would contact the next volunteer whose turn it was to represent the parish. The outreach to survivors involves kind words and offers to help plan the funeral Mass and, finally, to attend the liturgy.
In this case, however, Antonucci told Catholic News Service that she decided to take on the task herself when she realized no one from Alferez’s family could be reached.
“While I’m doing that, I was thinking it’s going to be very sad if there’s no one in the church for the funeral,” Antonucci said.
So she got on the phone. Among the first people she reached was Michele Nappi, a volunteer with the ministry and the parish’s director of new evangelization.
Nappi agreed to call friends who pray the rosary before or after daily Mass at St. Joseph. Then Nappi thought it would be good to invite people to attend the Mass through the parish’s Facebook account. Father Rieder liked the idea.
“I think it was up about two minutes when someone from the parish posted, ‘I’ll be there,'” Antonucci said.
Word quickly spread and 50 people showed up for Mass.
Arrangements were made to livestream the Mass as well and 15 more people watched the liturgy online.
“It just took on a life of its own,” Father Rieder said.
After Mass, a handful of people even joined the vehicle procession to Holy Sepulchre Cemetery several miles away in Coram, N.Y. “They said Celia shouldn’t be buried alone,” Antonucci added.
Father Rieder told CNS that Alferez was a longtime member who formerly lived in an assisted living facility sponsored by the church and then moved to a nursing home. Alferez attended Sunday Mass, but was known only to a few St. Joseph parishioners. She also was a lay Carmelite.
The priest expressed pride in being a pastor to people who care for each other.
“I’ve already preached about it,” he said. “And it will be part of Lenten retreat next week. I want to share this. I want to tell the whole world this is an amazing experience.”
The parish of 7,000 registered families never shuttered during the pandemic, but Mass attendance was limited. So these days, rather than reopening as the statewide limits on activities gradually are being lifted, “we’re talking about rebirth,” Father Rieder said.
“We want to be reborn as a Matthew 25 community that lives the works of mercy,” he explained, referencing two of the three parables in that particular Gospel. The first is about the wise and foolish virgins — those who had enough oil for their lamps and those who did not. The second is about servants, two of whom multiplied their talents, as a symbol of the gifts each person has, and the one who did not.
“Here’s what I felt,” Father Rieder said. “By them coming here (to the funeral), they filled my lamp with oil.
“We invest not in ourselves, but in each other, and they invest in the community,” he continued. “It is an amazing experience about the church being a body alive, being Christ for each other.”