Bishop Barres delivers the homily at Mass for healing at St. John the Evangelist parish. All photos by Gregory A. Shemitz. See slideshow below.
By Mary Iapalucci
CENTER MORICHES – “I have seen a lot of beautiful paschal candles…but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful paschal candle than the one in front of me this evening,” Rockville Centre Bishop John O. Barres told the more than 600 parishioners of St. John the Evangelist parish here gathered for a Mass for Healing on May 23.
The paschal candle, which was new and gleaming white just a few weeks ago when it was lit at the Easter Vigil, stood slightly warped and discolored with soot near a temporary altar set up in the auditorium of Our Lady Queen of Apostles (OLQA) Regional School. It was a stark reminder of the violent incident that occurred last Friday when a man lit fires in the church building across the street during an hours-long standoff with police before eventually taking his own life.
The “beaten up” candle was also a sign of hope, the bishop said, like that of Christ’s resurrection following the pain of Good Friday. “That beautiful light shines, that powerful light shines.”
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The theme of hope was echoed by St. John’s pastor, Father John Sureau, who reassured parishioners that “we are going to be okay.”
As a faith community, “we are far bigger than any building, far bigger than any act of evil or violence, far bigger than any one tragic event … that is reason for sure for our hope and it’s that hope that will carry us together as a Church in these weeks and months — which will be hard – ahead,” he said.
While parishioners are saddened by the loss of life and the smoke and fire damage that will make the church unusable for at least the next few months, the people gathered Tuesday evening expressed joy and hope. They greeted each other warmly, most stopping to offer and receive words of encouragement. One parishioner, who did not want her name used because she felt she was just one of many who felt this way, said “the whole situation is sad, but the parish is not the building, it is the people and all of us are together with Father John.”
“There’s a beautiful spirit in this parish, a resilience and a strength,” said Bishop Barres. “The beautiful way you come together is truly an inspiration to me as your shepherd.”
Father Sureau reminded parishioners to remain aware of the many reasons for hope in the people gathered for the Mass, including the bishop. He pointed to the representatives of the Suffolk County Police Department sitting in reserved chairs in the front of the auditorium, “many of whom were here on Friday. They took great risks, amazing risks, to keep all of us safe.” Father Sureau’s words were drowned out by a standing ovation for the first responders.
The ordeal began around 1:30 p.m. on Friday, May 19, when a local man, later identified as John Beneventano, ran into the church after trying to set a van on fire in the church parking lot. When a Suffolk County Police officer tried to approach him, Beneventano threw gasoline on the officer, attempting to light him on fire. For the next several hours Beneventano was barricaded in the church. Police sent in robots and attempted to negotiate with the man. The standoff ended shortly before 5 p.m. when it was determined that Beneventano had killed himself.
When the incident started, school was in session directly across a narrow street at OLQA. Staff safely evacuated the children through the back parking lot, away from the church. David Erlanger, OLQA principal, sent a letter to parents this weekend with suggestions for making sure the children felt safe returning to school on Monday, when the day began with a special Mass followed by breakfast for students and their families. The parish social worker and mental health counselors from Catholic Charities, the Center Moriches School District and Hope House Ministries were on hand.
The school’s auditorium/gymnasium will be the site of weekend Masses for the foreseeable future, while daily Mass will be celebrated in the convent building. Parish staff has been busy rescheduling upcoming events and several weddings have been moved to other parishes.
Concelebrants at Tuesday evening’s Mass included two former pastors of St. John the Evangelist — Msgr. James McDonald and Father Walter Kedjierski — who were warmly welcomed by the parishioners. Other concelebrants were Fathers Felix Akpabio and Dennis Suglia, parish associates, Father Rob Ketchum, who is originally from the parish, and Father Edward Sheridan, pastor of neighboring St. Rosalie in Hampton Bays.
“One of the first to reach out (on Friday) was Father Walter,” said Father Sureau, which proves “you don’t leave a community. They always remain part of you and you part of them.”
“We are reminded in these days that we are bigger than just St. John the Evangelist,” Father Sureau added. “We are part of the Church, we’re part of the Diocese of Rockville Centre.” Addressing Bishop Barres, he said, “thank you for being a reminder that we are going to be okay.” He also mentioned Bishop Nelson Perez, who came to the parish on Friday during the standoff, for his “calming presence.”
Bishop Barres pointed out that “while we are celebrating the constant power of the Catholic Mass here in this gym tonight … Bishop Nelson Perez, our auxiliary bishop, is on line to express his prayers and sympathy to the family of John Beneventano.”
“Mercy is the beating heart of the Gospel,” he added.
Throughout the night prayers were said for Beneventano, his family, and all those suffering from mental illness.
Following Mass, Father Sureau invited everyone to process to the church steps where Bishop Barres said a blessing and then people were allowed to enter the building to glimpse the damage through the lobby doors. It was an emotional moment for many. Some gasped or wept when they saw the smoke-blackened walls behind the main altar. As people waited outside to enter the church, someone began spontaneously praying the Hail Mary and many others joined in.
At the end of the evening, Msgr. McDonald, who served as administrator and then pastor of St. John’s from 1988 to 2000, said, “This is one of the most beautiful events I have ever been to — filled with faith and hope and the great love of the people. There are no people like the people of St. John’s parish. They stood by me and will stand by Father Sureau and the Blessed Mother will see us all through.”