Last Saturday was a difficult but inspiring day for the community in Norristown. As a community we all came together at St. Patrick Church for the funeral of two young girls who were killed in a catastrophic fire the weekend before.
There were four victims of the fire, two adults and two children. Earlier in the week another victim, Elpidio “Petie” Fuentes, was buried after a funeral Mass at St. Patrick Church; Donald Williams will be buried out of Camden, New Jersey.
The funeral for the two young sisters — Yaritza, 6 years old and Jennifer, 11 years old — was mobbed with people. At 9 a.m. two small, white caskets were wheeled into the church providing special time for the parents and the immediate family to spend time with their loving children. When we finally opened the doors of the church at 9:45 a.m. for the wake, there was an endless line of people wishing to give their condolences and prayers for the family that lasted for three hours. The funeral Mass followed at 1 p.m.
Curiously that same weekend was the celebration of the feast of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was sent by Jesus Christ and God the Father. The Holy Spirit gives us among other fruits and gifts strength, fortitude, faith, understanding, love and unity. The Holy Spirit was present at the funeral as a mother and father in pain and sorrow stood strong and faithful in the face of such horrific circumstances.
These are the only children the couple — Gustavo and Patricia — has. Only through the gift of fortitude given by the Holy Spirit would the parents and family be able to continue on in their lives. Some consolation for the parents is that the two little girls were dressed as to receive first holy Communion in white dresses and flowers in their hair. However, this day they would not receive the Body and Blood of Christ, but Jesus Christ would receive them.
With the support of a community of faith, the couple realized the love and compassion Norristown had for them and their daughters. One woman upon leaving the church commented that it was probably the saddest day of her life to see the two little girls lying in coffins. Many asked why — to which there is no answer except faith in God and the resurrection.
Even though there were tears, there was also an undercurrent of hope as everyone believed that there is, after all, life after death. During the wake one of the cousins, a little boy of about 4 years of age, approached me and asked if his cousins were in heaven with God. Of course, I answered as he smiled, nodded his head yes and ran off. There is where the understanding is — no real answers, but unshakeable faith and enduring hope.
However, what was most astounding about the funeral was that the two little girls with such short lives had been able to do the impossible — they united a community. The endless line of mourners consisted of persons of different languages, different races, different ethnicities, different religions, different careers, different citizenships, different ideas about America.
Everyone was present to show their love and support to a family in pain and a community grieving — from the young classmates of both little girls to the adopted “abuelitos” (“grandparents”) of them. That unity was the working of the Holy Spirit together with the two young sisters.
There is a lesson to be learned from this catastrophe. I told my faithful at all of the Sunday Masses that they are to go home to their houses or apartments and check for smoke detectors and batteries. I told them that all should have these in their places of dwelling.
According to the law, the owners of apartment buildings must provide smoke detectors in each bedroom in the apartment. If there are none and renters are afraid to call their owner, they were instructed to call me and I would call the owner or that I would try to get some smoke detectors and have one of our parishioners install them. Some owners have no problem collecting the monthly rent but have a problem providing basics like smoke detectors and fire extinguishers to provide safety and security to renters.
Also, I instructed renters to not take down the smoke alarms and not take out the batteries. This catastrophe must not happen again! Everyone has a right to life — this is part of being pro-life.
Father Gus Puleo is pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Norristown.