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Growing up as a Catholic boy in Stamford, I went through a rite of passage that my older brother and countless others experienced before me; I became an altar server. While there were those boys whose parents “strongly encouraged” them to serve their parish in this manner, my motivations were different; I was in it for the money.

My family belonged to St. Gabriel Parish on Newfield Avenue, which is also where I attended middle school. One of my fellow altar boys, who was a bit older than I and “retiring” from the “club” clued me in on a little secret; when you serve mass at a funeral, you are likely to earn a tip. Furthermore, funeral masses in our parish tended to be at 10 am in the morning during weekdays; as such, if I were scheduled to serve a funeral mass I would not only earn a little extra money, but also be legitimately excused from class. Jackpot!

Even at twelve I was a bit entrepreneurial so, while entering the Church on a Sunday morning, I would always pick up a bulletin and scan it to see if anyone had died that week. If so, I would approach our pastor and ask if he needed any help with the funeral. Father Bob was always more than happy to accept my offer of service and I not only had a ticket out of Ms. Gullo’s Literature class, I would likely have enough money for a new cassette tape (it was the 1980s after all).

In my two years attending St. Gabriel School, I likely served 20 funerals. Initially, it was difficult to see the grief worn by those who came to mourn the deceased; however, over time, I started to become immune to it. Thankfully, I have not had to attend too many funerals since those days in the late 80s.

Last week, however, I found myself sitting in a pew at a St. Cecilia Church to pay my respects to a former neighbor, John Marsalisi. That the church, one of the larger Roman Catholic churches in Stamford, was as crowded as it was serves as witness to the number of lives that John touched in his all to brief 54 years on this planet.

As I sat waiting for the funeral mass to start, I thought to myself this will not be hard to get through. After all, I had so much practice going to funerals in my youth, I was not fearful of shedding a tear. Then, it hit me. As I saw John’s wife Ann being escorted down the aisle by her four children, I felt the tears well up in my eyes and I lost it. I was so full of sympathy for the young family left behind by this untimely death that my only response was to start crying.

The sadness I experienced at the funeral was broken briefly by the sound of children playing. It sounded like they were right underneath all of us sitting in the church. Then I remembered that on cold winter days, the students of St. Cecilia School have gym class in the church hall, located in the basement of the church. What a nice contrast; while we were celebrating the end of one life, we were treated to the joy experienced by those in the beginning of theirs.

Ever since I heard of John Marsalisi’s passing, I scanned my local newspaper for a story on him. Certainly a man who impacted so many lives through his commitment to the community would have an article devoted to his life and untimely passing. Instead, I kept seeing a story on a rectory facing demolition. This inanimate object has no feelings and its demolition would leave no widow or children behind. From what I have read, it is not even usable in its present condition.

As such, I am left with a sobering thought; we sometimes are so blinded by our passion to fight for “little” things that the really important things, life for instance, are often ignored. As we enter 2010, I hope that we as a society choose to devote our time, talents, and resources to things that matter and will have a positive impact on others in the community. RIP John Marsalisi; I will pray for the repose of your soul and for the beautiful family left behind by your untimely passing.

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