Funeral helps parishioners fulfill Matthew 25 instruction

Theresa Rieder, a minister of consolation, extends her hands in prayer over the casket of Celia Teresa de Jesus Alferez during her funeral Mass at St. Joseph Church in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., March 12, 2021. Alferez was an 84-year-old immigrant from Colombia and a lay Carmelite who died in a nursing home and had no known relatives in the U.S. Upon learning of Alferez's story, more than 50 parishioners volunteered to serve as her virtual family at the liturgy. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

RONKONKOMA, N.Y. (CNS) — Parishioners at St. Joseph Church in Ronkonkoma, New York, wanted to make sure Celia Teresa de Jesus Alferez went home to God surrounded by friends.

So about 50 of them attended her funeral Mass March 12 when no one from her family, believed to be in Colombia, could be found.

And it’s all because they strive to live Matthew 25:40: “… Whatever you do for one of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

“It was unbelievable. It was awesome,” said Father Michael Rieder, pastor, who presided at the funeral liturgy. “It was really a sacred experience.”

The priest credited the parish’s Ministry of Consolation and its coordinator, Clare Antonucci, for “being there” for Alferez, an immigrant who would have turned 85 in April.

Antonucci said the ministry reaches out to the family members of any parishioner who has died. Normally, Antonucci would contact the next volunteer whose turn it was to represent the parish. The outreach to survivors involves kind words and offers to help plan the funeral Mass and, finally, to attend the liturgy.

In this case, however, Antonucci told Catholic News Service that she decided to take on the task herself when she realized no one from Alferez’s family could be reached.

“While I’m doing that, I was thinking it’s going to be very sad if there’s no one in the church for the funeral,” Antonucci said.

She got on the phone. Among the first people she reached was Michele Nappi, a volunteer with the ministry and the parish’s director of new evangelization.

Nappi called friends who pray the rosary before or after daily Mass at St. Joseph. Then Nappi thought it would be good to invite people to attend the Mass through the parish’s Facebook account.

After Mass, a handful of people even joined the vehicle procession to Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Coram, New York. “They said Celia shouldn’t be buried alone,” Antonucci added.

Father Rieder told CNS that Alferez was a longtime member who formerly lived in an assisted living facility sponsored by the church and then moved to a nursing home. Alferez attended Sunday Mass, but was known only to a few St. Joseph parishioners. She also was a lay Carmelite.

The priest expressed pride in being a pastor to people who care for each other.

“I’ve already preached about it,” he said. “And it will be part of Lenten retreat next week. I want to share this. I want to tell the whole world this is an amazing experience.”

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