By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archbishop of Philadelphia

Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in a plaque dedication commemorating the 100th anniversary of an especially heroic aspect of the history of our Philadelphia Police and Fire Personnel. We take this event as our topic this week.

The gift of memory
One of the great gifts that we possess, reflective of the dignity of the human person, is the gift of memory. Only we, as men and women made in God’s image, can remember and use that gift of memory to dwell upon so many incidents in our lives. This is a great manifestation of our human dignity and, reflecting upon it, we can say with the psalmist: “I praise you (O God), so wonderfully you made me; wonderful are your works!” (Psalm 139:14).

We may say that we have both an inspanidual and collective memory. Each person has inspanidual memories of events of both joy and sorrow in his or her life. Communities also can be said to possess a collective memory. This is present in the history and customs of a people, or in the collective memory of various groups and organizations.

At this time of year, we seem to experience both the inspanidual and collective sense of memory in a heightened fashion. It is natural for each of us to think of the various Christmas celebrations of our lives, and those who have been associated with them. Likewise, in the collective sense, when families gather at this time of year, they often express their collective memory by means of the customs they follow, and their recollections of loved ones and family events of the past. We would be ungrateful people if we did not “remember” and our lives would be lacking so much if we did not possess the gift of memory. This is also why it is especially difficult for those who witness the loss of memory in their loved ones through Alzheimer’s disease and various forms of dementia.

A celebration of collective memory
Last week, I was so pleased to be invited to take part in a fine celebration of the collective memory and gratitude of the city of Philadelphia towards our police and firefighting personnel. We commemorated a great display of heroism that took place just one hundred years ago.

On December 21-22, 1910, the city of Philadelphia experienced its largest single loss of life to its public service workers in its history. At this time 13 firefighters and one police officer were killed when the walls of the Friedlander Leather Remnants Factory, located on the 1100 block of North Bodine Street in Philadelphia, collapsed while a raging fire was being fought there. As a result of this loss of life, 11 widows and 21 fatherless children were left and over 30 firefighters and 15 police officers were injured.

To honor this anniversary and this splendid example of selfless heroism, plaques commemorating the event were dedicated on Dec. 8 at Second Street and Girard Avenue.

The organizers of the commemorative event wanted to replicate, as far as possible, the original memorial service that was held after the fire in 1910. Included in that day’s program was one of my predecessors as Archbishop of Philadelphia, Archbishop Patrick J. Ryan, who said the opening prayer. As his successor, I was asked to do the same at the anniversary celebration and plaque dedication. Other inspaniduals, representing the continuity of their office at the time of the first commemoration, also joined in the event.

The “Evening Bulletin” described the event we were commemorating in this way, the day after it occurred. In its Dec. 22, 1910 issue, we read: “Falling walls crushed at least fourteen men to death, thirteen of them firemen, last night in a fire which destroyed the Friedlander Leather Remnants Company. Fifty firemen were injured at the scene, some of them so critically that they died in hospitals today. Heavy beams had tumbled upon them, weighty fragments of metal from the wrecked machinery hurtled through the smoke, felling the fleeing men, burying many in a living tomb, grinding out the lives of others in an instant. Some were drowned in the water-filled cellar. Brave though they were, the firefighters cried aloud as they sought safety in flight. Some were on the verge of escape when big pieces of wreckage crushed them among the debris when their hopes were strongest.”

There were many tales of great heroism and selflessness that came out of these tragic events. We can read of neighbors leaving the safety of their homes to come out and tend to the wounded and dying. In other cases, people who had left their endangered homes, with some of their most precious belongings in their arms, quickly dropped their “treasures” in order to run to aid those who were wounded. Many of the firefighters who had escaped injury went back into the burning structure to rescue their fellow firefighters who had been trapped in the midst of the debris.

It should also give us great joy to know the role played by the priests of the neighboring parishes as the fire raged and men were trapped and dying. A Redemptorist priest from nearby St. Peter’s Church, and a priest from Immaculate Conception Church, went throughout the scene ministering to the sick and dying and comforting the bereaved. They also remained for 14 continuous hours with one of the men who was trapped in the rubble in order to console and encourage him.

The wonderful continuity with those priests of 100 years ago was represented by Father Kevin Moley, a Redemptorist priest now stationed at St. Peter’s, who was with us at the plaque dedication.

Our Jewish brothers and sisters were also part of the commemoration, with Rabbi Alan Fuchs recalling the memory of Police Officer Morris Gelles, killed in the fire, whose distraught mother was greatly consoled at the time by her Rabbi.

We are made to live as part of a community
We have been created in such a way that we are called to be a part of a greater and larger community. The basic unit of this human community is the family. It is the foundation for the rest of the human community, according to God’s plan. As I have written in this column before, we are also called to be a part of larger communities: our parishes, our neighborhoods, our cities and our country. There are many who serve these communities, but some who serve are sometimes called to heroic acts of service for the benefit of the greater community. This is especially true of our public safety personnel. While I have just described a very dramatic example of public service, we know that acts of heroism and generous service are performed every day by our police officers and firefighters and many others, who serve the common good of our community in the public safety sector.

There are two inscriptions which we sometimes see on plaques commemorating heroic deeds performed in the service of others: “Lest we forget” and “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). The first reminds us to use our gift of memory well, in order to remember those who have served, and even given their lives, for our safety and freedom. We know that we glorify humanity when we make use of the gift of memory in this way.

The second inscription is, of course, from the words of Jesus found in the Gospel. They first apply to Him, and to the complete emptying out of His glory as the Eternal Son of God for our salvation, when He gave His life for us on the Cross. These words have also been appropriately used very often to commemorate those who have died in the service of their neighbor and community.

I was so pleased to be part of the celebration I have just described, which commemorated such great love in the service of the people of the city of Philadelphia. Let us never forget great deeds such as these, and let us all imitate their spirit, even if we are not all called in the same degree to follow their dramatic example of selfless heroism.

16 December 2010