Holy Smoke!

Oct. 9-15, 2003
Holy Smoke!
By Blessed Sacrament staff/ SUN contributing writers
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Father John Canorro enjoys all of his vocations — priest, teacher and firefighter

Don’t be surprised to see Father John Canorro behind the wheel the next time a fire truck whizzes by on its way to extinguish a blaze. The parochial vicar of Holy Cross Church in Dewitt and religious education teacher at Bishop Grimes Jr./Sr. High School added another hat to his ministry in Sept. 2001 when he completed training to become a volunteer firefighter with the Town of Dewitt Fire Department.

“This is my other black outfit,” said Father John, pointing to his dark firefighter uniform, black hat and black boots hanging alongside the other 40 uniforms belonging to the men and women of the department. At the fire station, the man who most know as “Father John” is just another one of the guys. “Sometimes we call him Father Cookie because he is such a good cook,” joked Gary MacLachlan, chief of the Dewitt Fire District. “Out of the 40 people here, he is one of the top five best trained firefighters,” MacLachlan quickly added. Quite an accomplishment considering Father John, 31, is younger than some of his fellow firefighters who have been with the department since he was in high school.

When his collar comes off and is replaced by his firefighter’s gear, Father John is the same brave person as all firefighters, doing his duty to protect people and places. “Once you put on the uniform everyone is the same. You are all part of a group trying to help somebody,” Father John said. Sometimes Father John is called beyond the duty of his peers. Also serving as chaplain of the department, he often encounters difficult situations where he is called to bring comfort and God’s presence to people who are hurting. In some cases, they have witnessed the tragic destruction of their lifelong home and in other instances face the terrible loss of a loved one.

In March 2002 two courageous firefighters with the Manlius Fire Department died while fighting a raging fire in Pompey. Father John was summoned to help deliver the news to the widows. As a priest he is a valuable resource, though he grappled with how to comfort the wives. “There is no way for me to fix a death,” he said. “But I am there to offer support to the families.” When his pager goes off, be it to rush to a fire or an EMT call (for which Father John was certified shortly after joining the fire department), he gets mixed reactions from people when he arrives at the scene. Many of the individuals he tends to already know him from Holy Cross Church where they are parishioners. They have heard Father John’s homilies, and he has been there to baptize their children, but seeing him in his firefighting uniform is a different –– and sometimes perplexing –– situation. “At first they might be a little surprised, but then after a minute it hits them that ‘I know you,’” he said.

Father John enjoys his “unique connection” with the community. The sense of familiarity parishioners have with him allows them to feel comfortable opening up to him in difficult situations. And the kids think he’s cool when he dons his firefighter’s uniform, he pointed out. “They think it’s neat,” Father John remarked. “But it is just as neat for me to be able to interact with them as a firefighter.”

With an already full plate, why would he want to become a firefighter? The preliminary training alone is 100 hours coupled with on-going training twice a month. To Father John, being a firefighter is simply an extension of his full-time job as priest. “I am a priest first. As a firefighter I am putting God’s teachings into action. I can stand up at Mass and say ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘Help those in need,’ but this is a practical way for me to show people what it means,” explained Father John. He recalled the first time he went into a burning building. “When you enter the fire is the moment when you know you can or can’t do it,” he said. “You either go nuts, or, as much as your heart is beating and your adrenaline is rushing, you stay focused and do what you have to do.” He is obviously the latter of the two. Father John professes he isn’t scared of going into a burning building with temperatures that can reach over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and smoke so thick he cannot see his hand two inches in front of his face. His concentration is on helping. This is what makes him so admirable –– as a priest, teacher, EMT and firefighter. Anna Bottar, a senior at Bishop Grimes, has Father John for her religion teacher. His many talents make him someone students look up to, she said. “We really admire him,” Bottar said. “He puts in so much time as a priest and a teacher and then he also has other obligations. He’s a great role model.”

According to MacLachlan, a parishioner at Holy Cross Church, Father John is a good example for men and women who may want to become firefighters. With a shortage of individuals to take up the challenge, Father John’s enthusiasm about this “other vocation” might help combat the shortage of people willing to train to be firefighters. “I can’t remember a homily where Father John hasn’t shared an experience as a firefighter,” said MacLachlan. “We are thankful to have him as our disciple.”

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