Affirming the Call

April 17, 2003
Affirming the Call
By Howie Mansfield
St. Mary’s Church in Mexico proudly support the American troops

MEXICO — The simple things can mean so much. St. Mary, Star of the Sea Parish has been praying daily for American troops with ties to the church. Whether they are sons and daughters, nephews and nieces, grandchildren or close friends, St. Mary’s Church has prayed for them all, supporting them in their chosen vocation. Recently, the parish has been putting together pictures of the village and its landmarks, favorite foods and letters to send to those military personnel stationed in trouble spots overseas. Father Stephen Wirkes, pastor of St. Mary’s Church, said the parish is full of wonderful ideas to support the troops. “The care packages were a great idea. Carol Ruby has been coordinating the efforts,” Father Wirkes said. “Here these troops will be in the desert getting a care package from their own parish — those who received sacraments here. We will be sending the packages every two weeks until our troops come home.”

Pictures of the parishioners at the church and photos of the ice storm that hit Central New York will be included, Father Wirkes said. “They’ll be out there in the 100 degree heat and see these pictures of home with all the ice,” he said. “It will give them a little reminder of home.” Being the parent or relative of a serviceman or servicewoman can be stressful at times. However, communication via telephone, letter and e-mail has given those families and friends in the U.S. the comfort that loved ones overseas are safe. Bob and Chris Collins have a daughter, Erica Collins, on the USNS Comfort, stationed near Bahrain. They talked about Erica and her achievement in the Navy to date, which included being a member of the decontamination crew that went into the White House after an Anthrax scare.

“Erica joined the Navy to get an education,” Chris Collins said. “None of us want our children to be in a war. Erica has been in for two-and-a-half years. She knew that if there was ever a crisis, that it was part of what it took to get an education.” Chris called Erica “gusty” because she will pick up any phone she can find with a dial tone and call her parents. “She left on Jan. 6 and you don’t get used to it,” Chris said. “When you see such graphic scenes on TV, it gets scary. But we know she is one of the safest members of the armed forces being on the ship. It’s a godsend to have e-mail because we can communicate with her on almost a daily basis.” Bob talked about his daughter’s care for the wounded soldiers on the USNS Comfort. Even when she is off her shift, Erica sits with the men she cares for, Bob said. “We are much less nervous than we were at first. We don’t have those feelings of being out of control,” he said. Erica has started an ecumenical bible study on the ship, her parents said. The group has grown exponentially because of the troops’ longing for a spiritual connection. “Erica loves her God,” Chris said. “She started the bible study with 80 people in the group and now they have over 425. They have gotten so big they have to keep moving to different rooms on the ship. My daughter is just a neat kid.”

Miles Ross has a son, Brian Ross, a member of the Army stationed in Afghanistan since November 2002. Miles said one never gets used to having his child in harm’s way. “I know my son is a good soldier and he has all the support of this community and parish,” Miles said. “Every time a day goes by and you don’t hear from them, there’s a feeling of hopelessness. But knowing that there are people praying for them and thinking about them is great.”

Paul Thomas Kesler, son of Peter Kesler, has been in the Navy for over 10 years. Peter talked about his son’s line of work and gave a description of ship life. “It’s amazing how much responsibilities is given to such young kids,” Peter said. “The pace on a ship is unbelievable and they really work up to war time. That’s their job.” St. Mary’s Church has maintained a prayer list of parishioners in the military since Sept. 11, 2001. The number of names has grown so much that the church now has the list in a book in the front of the church. An American flag was placed to the right of the book, with a candle on the left. Father Wirkes said this is a place for each of the parents of troops and other parishioners to stop and pray. “It’s so helpful to sit, focus and localize your prayer,” said Father Wirkes. “During each Mass, these individuals are remembered in our prayers.”

Kesler said the church has been unbelievably supportive of all the parents with children overseas, and having the book with all of the names has been a blessing. “I can’t talk about it without getting choked up,” he said. Connie Compeau, a member of St. Mary’s with a nephew, Jonathan Lamb, and a step-grandson, Justin Godfrey, in military, said she hears about the successes of loved ones fighting in the Middle East. “I saw some pictures of the hospitals and schools they are helping to renovate over there. They are really helping them,” Compeau said. One large military family in the parish is the Downing family. Mary Downing has one son, Clinton Downing, stationed in Naples, Italy and another son, Frank Downing, awaiting word to head to the conflict near Iraq. Mary said originally Frank was supposed to report to Turkey before the U.S. government ran into difficulties there.

“Frank was in Afghanistan from Oct. 4, 2001 to April 2002. He never saw any action, but his company built our headquarters in Qatar,” Mary said. “When he got orders to go to Turkey, he went to Father Wirkes to get a special blessing. But Frank has been up there waiting for transportation to the Middle East.” Mary Downing also has a son-in-law Jason Hubbard working in the Situation Room at the White House and two nephews in active duty. With so many family members in the military, Mary said the church’s support has been important. “The parish as a whole has been so wonderful. They give you that pat on the back and ask you how your family is doing overseas,” she said. Father Wirkes said the church must affirm and support its parishioners in the military. “What they are fighting for is a just and noble cause. They are going to distant lands and are willing to die for freedom and human dignity,” he said. “Their vocation as a solider is a noble vocation. No one wants war less than a solider and no one wants peace more than a solider. They are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice and it boggles my mind that more people don’t support them.”

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