Blue Mass thanks, honors emergency responders

Lisa Johnston |

Hanging between aerial ladders of two St. Louis Fire Department trucks parked on Lindell Boulevard, the Stars and Stripes greeted worshippers on a sunny September Sunday afternoon at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

The occasion was the Archdiocese of St. Louis' first "Blue Mass" to honor, thank and pray for emergency responders -- police, firefighters, EMTs and others who often put themselves at risk and whose families and friends sacrifice in their absence, all in the name of public safety.

"In a world where a lot of first responders don't always see appreciation of their work, it's awesome that the Catholic Church is supporting us, ... doing this in an official capacity," said Chris Rumpsa, who has been with St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department for 12 years and was detail commander for the honor guard at the Blue Mass.

Jason Schenimann, a firefighter with Mehlville Fire Protection District, described the Blue Mass, simply, as "great." He brought up the gifts, along with Mehlville fire Captain Jeff Martini, St. Louis police Detective Leo Rice and St. Louis police Lt. Tony Aubuchon.

"I was lucky enough to be a part of it," said Schenimann, who joined the fire department in June and is a member of St. Augustine Parish. Fellow Mehlville firefighter Timothy Hunn recruited him to be part of the Mass. Hunn read the first reading.

"We were working one day and struck up a conversation about the Church," said Schenimann, born and raised Catholic through St. Joseph Parish in Scott City, south of Cape Girardeau. "Next thing you know he's asking me to be part of it. I was more than happy to."

Same with Major Rochelle Jones, south patrol commander in the city. A member of Holy Trinity Parish, she handled the second reading.

"I just got a phone call, 'Do you want to be a reader,' and I said, 'Oh, yeah,'" she said, adding that declining the invitation "would be like telling, 'No,' to Jesus. You don't say, 'No,' to Jesus. I was very honored just to be a part of it and very honored to serve the city of St. Louis and just being a first responder."

Before Mass, Jones processed down the Cathedral center aisle with fellow first responders, some in dress uniforms and others in regular work uniforms. Police and fire departments from around the archdiocese were represented. Just about a full house filled the pews, which meant a lot to emergency reponders at Mass.

"I'm glad all the citizens came out to show support, especially during these times when we're not getting a lot of support," Jones said. "Usually, no one says, 'Boo.' This is so nice."

The incidents in Ferguson and other parts of the country in the past year have engendered disdain -- and in some cases outright hostility and violence -- for police officers. Police officers have been murdered in New York City, Texas and recently in Kentucky, in unprovoked attacks.

Those incidents only reinforce the danger under which emergency responders -- police officers in particular -- work. The "thin blue line" often stands between the public and harm, a reality that increasingly has been acknowledged.

"I've been doing this 10 years and I've never seen the support we've seen from people over the last year," said Dave Rudolph of the St. Louis police department. "We know there's a silent majority that loves us."

Lt. Ron Miesner offered kudos to the archdiocese for supporting law enforcement and public safety. He sat with fellow Missouri State Highway Patrol troopers at Mass and reconnected afterward with Father Mike Boehm, his former pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes in Washington.

A former volunteer with the Washington Fire Department, Father Boehm concelebrated the Blue Mass with Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Rice. Bishop Emeritus Robert J. Hermann and Jesuit Father Joe Laramie also concelebrated the Mass. Deacons Mark Byington and Gerry Knobbe, both former police officers, assisted.

In the homily, Bishop Rice thanked first responders for their service and their families for their sacrifice.

"It's important that we say 'Thank you,' especially in these days where there seems to be an outward scorn and contempt for our public servants," he said, also offering the thanks on behalf of Archbishop Robert J. Carlson. "We the citizens of St. Louis and the Catholic community of St. Louis ... pray for you. We owe you a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid."

Bishop Rice also expressed thanks for the support his family received after the death of his brother John in a house fire last year. John Rice, 61, was a deputy with St. Louis sheriff's department and a former city police officer.

"The kindness of the fire fighters, the police and the medics will never be forgotten by my family," he said.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the Blue Mass came at the final blessing, when former county police officer Dan Jackson played "Amazing Grace" on the bag pipes in memory of emergency responders who died in the line of duty.

"Eternal rest grant unto them, Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them," Bishop Rice said. "May they rest in peace."

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