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Thread: Chaplain Steers Firefighters' Mourners Through Grief

  1. #1
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    Nov 2001

    Chaplain Steers Firefighters' Mourners Through Grief


    Published: January 28, 2005

    Msgr. John Delendick began his day in the dark yesterday, as he always does when a fallen firefighter must be celebrated and put to rest.

    It had been four days since three members of his flock - Lt. Curtis W. Meyran, Firefighter John G. Bellew and Firefighter Richard T. Sclafani, all of the New York Fire Department - died in two separate fires in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

    In a few hours would be Firefighter Bellew's funeral, the first of three he was to attend this week. Monsignor Delendick got up before dawn to pray, to plan, to recall what he knew about Firefighter Bellew's life and family. He had only met them the day before, at the wake, but knew that in the coming days and weeks, his life and theirs would become closely intertwined.

    "There are so many firefighters, you almost never know the guys who died," he said, sipping coffee in the rectory of his parish church, St. Jude's, in Canarsie, Brooklyn. "But you get to know the widows and children very well."

    It is Monsignor Delendick, the department's head chaplain, who usually breaks the news to the families that a firefighter has died in action, who talks to the children and asks them to remember stories about their fathers, so he can share them with others at the wake. He visits the firehouses for their company meetings, guiding the living through the elaborate and formal pageantry that the department employs to mourn its dead. And he joins other members of the clergy in officiating at the funerals themselves.

    "Rituals get us through the day, they get us through the ceremony," he said quietly, his white collar not yet fastened across his neck. "It's how you get through things. You do it the same way every time."

    Monsignor Delendick has already endured what he hopes was the worst of his five-year tenure as the Fire Department's head chaplain, when 343 members of the department died in the attack on the World Trade Center, along with the department's best-known chaplain, the Rev. Mychal F. Judge. In the months after the attack, Monsignor Delendick and the other chaplains attended two or more ceremonies a day: memorials for firefighters who had died, and funerals for those whose bodies were recovered from the pile of rubble at ground zero.

    "There were some days I wouldn't do it," he said. "I'd say to Buddy, my driver, 'Today, let's go do something else. I can't do another funeral.' And we'd go down to the pile, or a firehouse."

    There may never be another tragedy for the Fire Department as searing as 9/11. But the deaths on Sunday were the worst losses the department has suffered since then. And so it was time again for Monsignor Delendick to help transform the chaotic, arbitrary death of a firefighter into something ordered, something bound by ritual and tradition.

    The ritual was on full display two hours later, when Monsignor Delendick arrived at St. Margaret's Church in Pearl River, N.Y. A crowd of about 10,000 - among them thousands of active and retired firefighters from as far as Milwaukee - dressed in crisp dress blues and arrayed in long rows before the church gathered there to watch in silence as the engine carrying Mr. Bellew's coffin drew up before the church at 11:48 a.m. Eight pallbearers, firefighters all, conveyed the coffin inside to the strains of the hymn "Be Not Afraid."

    Msgr. Jack O'Keefe, himself the son of a fireman killed on duty, delivered the homily, praising Firefighter Bellew as a devoted father and husband who left a lucrative job on Wall Street for a career of service to strangers. "The road will be hard, and the road will be long," he said, as the widow, Eileen Bellew, and four young children looked on. "But you have our support."

    None of the dignitaries who attended - among them Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, and Cardinal Edward M. Egan - delivered eulogies, an honor that was reserved for Firefighter Bellew's family and fellow firefighters.

    Battalion Chief John Sullivan told mourners that Firefighter Bellew, who was posthumously promoted to lieutenant, loved his work. But, he added, "his true love and passion was his wonderful wife, Eileen, and his children," Brielle, 6, Jack, 3, Katreana, 2, and Kieran, 5 months.

    "Eileen, he heard you when you spoke to him," Chief Sullivan said, speaking of Firefighter Bellew's brief struggle against death at St. Barnabas Hospital on Sunday. "Every time you said something in his ear, the monitors jumped."

    "I can imagine John walking into paradise with that half-smirk, half-smile, and saying to God, you better have something good for me because I had Heaven on earth down there," Chief Sullivan added.

    Speaking last and choking back tears, Mrs. Bellew read what she called a "letter to God" that she had written the day before, "to let you know about your newest angel."

    She spoke of how when Brielle was an infant, her husband had taught the baby to fall soundly asleep in the crook of his arm so he could sleep late. She recalled the day he had taken Jack to visit the firehouse. "We knew at that moment that Jack had decided what he wanted to be when he grew up," she said.

    "God, you got back a wonderful man today. Please take care of him, and give him a large Starbucks coffee, and thank him for giving me the four greatest gifts in the world."

    Photo: Eileen Bellew, left, held her son Kieran and looked on as firefighters saluted the coffin of her husband, John G. Bellew.

  2. #2
    Registered User SeaBreeze's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jan 2002
    He knew no fear

    Bravest's brave widow leads laughter & tears


    Heartbroken but unbowed, Firefighter John Bellew's widow told thousands of mourners yesterday that her husband would show the same bravery in heaven that he did battling the hellish Bronx blaze that killed him.

    "I know he wasn't scared as he ran into the burning building," Eileen Bellew said of her husband. "Rather, he was excited and determined to help others who at that time were not able to help themselves."

    The widow brought an overflow crowd of 10,000 to tears - and laughter - when she read a moving "Dear God" letter about the man she lost when he died, along with two other firefighters, on Sunday.

    "You get back a wonderful man today," the mother of four said, her words echoing through St. Margaret's Church in Pearl River, Rockland County. "Thank you for letting us have him for awhile."

    "When you see him, buy him a Starbucks coffee," she said. "And thank him for giving me the four greatest gifts in the world."

    John Bellew, 37, died along with Lt. Curtis Meyran, 46, when they leapt 50 feet out a burning building.

    A third firefighter, Richard Sclafani, 37, died hours later in a blaze in Brooklyn.

    The Bellews' children - Brielle, 6, Jack, 3, Katreana, 2, and Kieran, 5 months - sat in the front pew as their mom remembered a hero as dedicated to his family as he was to helping strangers in distress.

    "Our family became the entire world to John, and he spent his time planning and dreaming of ways to make our family love better," she said. "In the end maybe the job was too big to do from here.

    "Maybe the best way to take care of his kids was to do it from heaven."

    Battalion Chief John Sullivan asked the mourners to give the Ladder 27 hero a standing ovation to help the couple's children remember what kind of a father they lost.

    The mournful ceremony was the first of three funerals in three days for the FDNY, which was grappling with its worst loss since 9/11.

    Amid the numbing sadness, Bellew recalled the lighter side of her husband, drawing chuckles when she told how nervous he was when she gave birth to Brielle, named for the New Jersey town where the couple met in 1993.

    "He was truly the greatest dad a child could have," said Bellew. "I first became aware of this gift and his boundless love when the nurse gave him ice chips and asked him if he was okay after I gave birth to our first child."

    Mayor Bloomberg, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta and Edward Cardinal Egan joined the crowd shoehorned into the church to honor Bellew, who gave up a career in the business world a decade ago to join the FDNY.

    "John is in our prayers," said Egan. "He is one of our heroes, one of New York's proud firefighters."

    Draped in a dark black coat, Eileen Bellew cradled Kieran as row after row of firefighters gave her husband a final salute.

    After the funeral, she carried young Jack out into the frigid day and he wore his father's fire helmet as two helicopters flew overhead.

    Two hours away, a long line of firefighters waited to pay their respects to Meyran's family at his wake on Long Island.

    Flowers lined the walls around the closed casket and Meyran's youngest colored with her markers as her mom wept and hugged well-wishers.

    "He did everything big," said Laura Portigiano, Meyran's mother-in-law. "I always knew he was going to go in a big way, just like everything he did."

    A funeral for Sclafani will be held today at 11 a.m. at Our Lady Star of the Sea Church on Amboy Road on Staten Island.

    Meyran's funeral will be tomorrow at 10 a.m. at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, 65 Wright Ave., Malverne, L.I.

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