Remembering a selfless hero

Funeral Mass celebrated for Father Dennis Slater

Many people gathered at Most Holy Rosary Church in Syracuse Nov. 5 to honor retired chaplain of the U.S. Army Father Dennis Slater at his funeral Mass. Father Slater died Oct. 31 at age 78.

   Bishop Robert J. Cunningham celebrated the Mass and Msgr. James Kennedy, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in North Syracuse, delivered the homily.

   “It’s a privilege to be able to talk about Denny Slater,” said Msgr. Kennedy at the beginning of his homily. He highlighted some of the special moments of his life.    

   A native of Syracuse, Father Slater attended Most Holy Rosary Elementary School as a child and graduated from Christian Brothers Academy in 1954. He received a bachelor’s degree from Niagara University and his master’s degree from Long Island University. He studied for the priesthood at St. Jerome’s University in Canada and Our Lady of Angels Seminary at Niagara University in Buffalo.

   After his ordination as a priest on May 19, 1962, Father Slater served as associate pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Utica, St. Joseph’s Church in Oneida and St. Patrick’s Church in Truxton.

   In 1967, Father Slater entered the U.S. Army to serve as chaplain to the troops in the Vietnam War.

   “That was a dose of reality for him, remarked Msgr. Kennedy. “He became acquainted with the Vietnamese Catholics who had fled from the north. He brought supplies to them in their villages and he worried about what would happen to them after he left Vietnam.” Msgr. Kennedy noted that about 40,000 of the refugees eventually came to the U.S. and became citizens.

   Msgr. Kennedy said he ran into Father Slater from time to time when he was stationed in the Army.

   “I remember the time I met him on a Sunday evening for dinner at the officer’s club in Fort Belvoir near Washington, D.C.,” he said. He was impressed by what happened that evening. The two priests were seated at one end of a very large dining room, and the general crossed over the length of the room to sit with them. “I said to Denny, ‘He must have great admiration for you,’” said Msgr. Kennedy. “He answered, ‘No, he’s demonstrating that he’s a member of the faith, that he’s a good Catholic.’ Down deep, Denny had great humility.”

   After serving in the military for 21 years, Father Slater retired from the service in 1988. His service included two tours in Vietnam. A highly decorated Army chaplain and an honorary Marine, his service decorations include the Bronze Star with two oak leaf clusters, a Meritorious Service Medal with two oak leaf clusters and the Vietnam Campaign Medal.

   Father Slater’s last priestly assignment before entering a nursing home was to assist Father Vincent Kilpatrick at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Warners. Then, with his health declining, Father Slater entered The Centers at St. Camillus.

   Michael McCarthy, son of Father Slater’s childhood friend Mark McCarthy, delivered a reflection that painted a picture of Father Slater’s character. Prior to the Mass, McCarthy read Father Slater’s military record.

   “The adjectives that were used to describe him were a cool, calm demeanor, an absence of fear and he was ready, willing and able to accompany his troops into dangerous situations,” said McCarthy. “He was selfless. He gave his life for others and he was a pillar of decency.”

   Father Slater’s nephew Jerome Slater also gave a reflection that shed some light on Father Slater’s personality.

   “He had a great sense of humor,” he said. “He was my friend and personal hero. He was a holy man and his faith inspired me. He always told me that God was forgiving and humorous.”

   Father Slater was bestowed with military honors during the Mass as a representative from the Army played Taps on his trumpet.

   Father Thomas Fitzpatrick, pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Syracuse and Father Slater grew up together in Syracuse’s Strathmore neighborhood. At that time, Father Fitzpatrick said, World War II was just beginning. They lived three houses away from one another and they often played the game of “soldiers.” He recalled Father Slater having a dry sense of humor as a child and later, as a man, he was a “great, courageous soldier who was very humble.”

   Laurie Drake, parishioner at St. Augustine’s in Baldwinsville, met Father Slater for the first time when he served at her parish when Father John Rose was on sabbatical. Drake became a close, devoted friend to Father Slater over the last 20 years.

   “When I spoke with many of the parishioners, they remembered his wit, calm demeanor and great listening skills,” said Drake. “Parishioners especially loved his short but well-thought-out homilies. He always reminded us, God does have a sense of humor.” 

   When Father Slater’s health began to fail, he was unable to meet his friends in restaurants, so Drake began to bring home cooked meals to him on Sundays and later, when he was admitted to St. Camillus, she was a frequent visitor who watched over him. “Sharing wonderful and sometimes quiet conversations filled our visits, often while sitting by the front door of the nursing home, taking stock of all the activities going on there,” Drake recalled. Drake said she talked by phone to Father Slater every night (unless a football or basketball game was being aired). “I have multiple sclerosis, so we would make sure that at the end of the day we were both okay,” said Drake. “I really miss those calls and will forever miss my dearest friend.”

   Drake summed Father Slater up in a nutshell: “He was a warm, sincere, compassionate and understanding gift to the people who were privileged to know him.”

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1 Comment on "Remembering a selfless hero"

  1. Thank you for such a wonderful tribute to Father Slater. He was a hero, not only in Vietnam, but in his own hometown and within our family. I am one of the lucky ones who call this great man “uncle”. Ms. Drake did sum him up beautifully.

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