Hundreds gathered May 6 for the funeral of a beloved Philadelphia Police chaplain whose ministry touched thousands throughout the city and beyond.
Police, clergy, family, friends and former parishioners filled the pews of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul to remember Oblate Father Steven Wetzel. A Northeast Philadelphia native and a professed member of the Wilmington-Philadelphia Province of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales (OSFS) for more than four decades, the 64-year-old Father Wetzel died April 27 after a sudden and brief illness.
OSFS Provincial Oblate Father Lewis Fiorelli celebrated the funeral Mass, assisted by almost four dozen clergy, among them several of Father Wetzel’s Oblate classmates.
Philadelphia Archbishop Nelson Pérez, who provided the liturgy’s final commendation, said Father Wetzel – the cofounder and chaplain of the nonprofit Michael the Archangel Ministry at the Philadelphia Lodge 5 Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) – loved the police officers he served “so much.”
“I don’t know if you could even understand how much,” said the archbishop, who “got a glimpse” of that devotion when he met with Father Wetzel and his ministry board at the end of March.
Named for the patron of police officers, the ministry — which Father Wetzel described as “multidenominational, rather than nondenominational” — provides pastoral care, crisis ministry and spiritual enrichment opportunities.
Services include Masses for fallen officers, hospital visits, bereavement support, funeral rites and pastoral counseling to some 14,000 active and retired Philadelphia Police Department members, as well as their families.
Michael the Archangel members also partner with St. Francis Inn, Shriners Hospital for Children, the Red Cross and archdiocesan Catholic Social Services on a number of humanitarian initiatives, including a “Good Night Lights” tribute to Shriners’ patients.
“He shared his ministry with passion and love,” said Archbishop Pérez. “And for our police officers, that was a powerful expression of God’s love and care for them.”
Father Wetzel was “a good shepherd” to his flock, said Father Patrick Welsh, pastor of St. Matthew Parish in Northeast Philadelphia, where Father Wetzel was in residence.
“He loved these cops,” said Father Welsh, speaking after a May 5 viewing for Father Wetzel at that parish, which included a flyover tribute from the Philadelphia Police Department’s aviation unit helicopter.
Whether at his FOP office or on the beat, Father Wetzel was “constantly” with the officers he served, said Father Welsh.
“He’d be all day up at the FOP or out at the different precincts,” he said. “Then he’d come home, take a nap, and (the police) would pick him up at 11 p.m., and he’d go out again all night until 4:30 or 5 a.m.”
Father Brandon Artman, who lived with Father Wetzel for two years while assigned to St. Matthew Parish, said his “best friend” was committed to “being a shepherd … there for his flock at all times,” regardless of the cost.
“That meant going out at 2 a.m. on a night of pouring rain to help an officer who was injured,” said Father Artman, now a parochial vicar at St. Anastasia Parish in Newtown Square.
For police, the overnight shift, or “last out,” is often the most challenging since violent crime rates tend to be higher then – and Father Wetzel’s “kind, gentlemanly” accompaniment on that duty was invaluable, said Philadelphia Police Deputy Commissioner Christine Coulter, a close friend of Father Wetzel.
On the September 29 feast of St. Michael the Archangel, Father Wetzel would “visit every police district in the city to thank officers” for their service, said Philadelphia Police Sergeant Michael Cerruti, cofounder of the Michael the Archangel Ministry, which took shape when Father Wetzel was pastor of the former St. Joachim Parish in the city’s Frankford section.
In his pre-Mass remarks, Cerruti said Father Wetzel’s “nonjudgmental style brought people back to the faith” – including Cerruti himself, who prior to meeting the priest had been an indifferent “Christmas and Easter” Catholic.
Father Wetzel’s ability to engage individuals from diverse backgrounds reflected the charism of his order, which stresses “gentleness and humility,” said OSFS communications director Paula Riley.
Oblate patron St. Francis de Sales encouraged faithful to pursue true devotion to God according to their various states in life – although the saint couldn’t necessarily have envisioned such a “sacramental presence” would include the “police foot pursuits” that Father Wetzel undertook, or the cigars he enjoyed with his cop friends, said homilist Oblate Father Robert Bazzoli, pastor of Our Mother of Consolation Parish in Philadelphia.
At the same time, Father Wetzel’s “on the street” ministry wouldn’t have shocked St. Francis de Sales, said Cerruti, who previously noted the Salesian charism has led many to enter into law enforcement, thanks to the Oblate educational heritage at Father Judge High School – from which Father Wetzel graduated – and the former North Catholic High School.
The police chaplain was “an ambassador for the Catholic Church” in whatever situation he found himself, said Lizanne Hagedorn, executive director of archdiocesan Nutritional Development Services, which regularly collaborated with Father Wetzel on a number of food distribution efforts for those in need.
FOP president John McNesby said Father Wetzel’s passing leaves “such a void” that’s “going to be tough” to fill.
Known for his devotion to St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio), Father Wetzel would encourage his mourners to (in the words of that saint), “pray, hope and don’t worry,” said Cerruti.
And the beloved chaplain would challenge them to “continue your mission, and carry on,” said Father Artman.
“Take how he touched your ordinary life, and live that out extraordinarily well,” said Father Bazzoli, adding a well-known maxim of St. Francis de Sales: “Live Jesus.”
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