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After Too Many Funerals, a Priest Could Use a Blessing

New York Times, Oct. 28, 2001

WEST HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- It was the last one. The 17th at St. Thomas the Apostle Church. By midday yesterday, Bob DeAngelis Jr., 47, of the 91st floor, had been eulogized by Msgr. Jim Lisante. Finally, the monsignor had no more funerals or memorial services scheduled for the Sept. 11 dead.

Funerals are normal business for the monsignor. At St. Thomas, a thriving Long Island church of 4,000 families, the three priests do 150 a year. The monsignor's usual weekend drill is Saturday morning burial, Saturday afternoon wedding, Sunday baptism. "A priest's life is all milestones," he says. Normally, weddings 175 a year outpace funerals.

Normally, he buries people in their 70's; the average age of the Sept. 11 dead at St. Thomas was 35. The strain has tested the monsignor. Partly, it comes from things like walking to the rear of the church after Sunday Mass and seeing four pregnant widows waiting for a hopeful word. "There's a piece of you," he says, "that just wants to run out the side door."

When a man dies at 75, his mother-in-law is long gone. His battles at work are over. His hormones have been at rest for decades. When a man dies at 35, he is in the midst of fighting all the daily wars that shape a life. Since Sept. 11, there hasn't been a funeral the monsignor has conducted that has been free of behind-the-scenes turmoil and infighting. "The priest tries to be peacemaker," he says, "but people don't always want to make peace." As he prepared a service for Jack Fanning, a New York City fire chief, he got a call from Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen's office, saying the commissioner wanted to speak at the funeral. Mr. Von Essen has not been popular among rank-and-file firefighters. "I talked to the wife, Maureen," says Monsignor Lisante. "She said, `No, Jack didn't get along with the commissioner. He wouldn't want him speaking.' " Mr. Von Essen sat in the front row, but the monsignor told him, no eulogy.

Before these funerals the monsignor has reviewed the eulogies to make sure family members didn't use them to attack one another. A young woman he was counseling told him how she had put a paid death notice for her husband in Newsday and how her mother-in-law became upset because no photo was included. "The parents tell her, `You never came through in the clutch,' " he says. "We discussed how they never felt she was a great wife for him. It's bad enough she loses her husband; now she's getting grief from his parents." She was so distraught, he gave her a special blessing. "I stood up, put my hands over her head and said a prayer just something I made up on the spot. `May the Lord surround you with his love. May he grant you serenity.' I thought serenity was key."

At funerals, he's used to talking about death being part of God's normal cycle of life, but he's never seen the cycle so short. Scott Bart was married on Aug. 4, at St. Thomas. "He got back from his honeymoon," says the monsignor, "and died."

You feel a low-grade depression," he says. "A blueness that's hard to shake." Yesterday's service, the last, was not easy for the monsignor. On the prefuneral questionnaire for Mr. DeAngelis, under "qualities that make this person special," his widow, Denise, wrote, "a faith- centered man with an uncommon purity of heart." The monsignor has known people to lie about that, but not in this case. Mr. DeAngelis, a purchasing manager and volunteer firefighter, prayed at church daily. He was so dependable, Monsignor Lisante gave him the key to open the church. "He'd put out the bread and wine, turn on the lights. He'd say to me, `Monsignor Jim, I know you're not a morning guy. Now you can jump out of bed at 6 and make the 6:30 Mass.' "

Recalling this, the 48-year-old monsignor rubbed his eyes. It was hard to tell if it was exhaustion or tears, but he looked as though he could have used a serenity prayer said over his head. People ask how he holds up and he usually answers God, prayer or faith. But the monsignor, by trade, keeps secrets, and on that front, he has one.

Most nights at 11, he leaves the rectory, crosses Westminster Road and enters a home. St. Thomas is the parish he grew up in, and his parents, Nicholas, a retired lawyer, and Cecilia, both 80, still live in the house where he was raised. They gather in the dining room, which is decorated with pictures of the monsignor, his two grown sisters, the five grandchildren and the pope. His mother, who walks with a limp now, brings him a cup of tea. His father brings honeydew. Then they sit back and he tells them the horrors of the day. In all the world, they're the two people the monsignor knows will keep his secrets.