Area parishes provide hope for a grieving community
By Dc. Tom Cuskey
The week of Jan. 16 is one most in the greater Syracuse area will never forget. On Monday, 11-year-old Brexialee Torres-Ortiz was the unintended fatal victim of a drive-by shooting in her Syracuse neighborhood as she walked to her home from a nearby store. The community was in shock. As Brexialee’s life story unfolded in various media accounts, shock turned to a deep, profound sadness as many came to know what a wonderful young lady she was, a role model for living in peace, a voice of hope waiting to be heard.
On Friday, the pain of loss everyone felt was doubled. In Baldwinsville, northwest of Syracuse, a frantic morning welfare check at the home of 14-year old Ava Wood confirmed the worst fears. Ava had been shot and killed in her bed, the victim of an apparent murder-suicide by her father. As with Brexialee, Ava’s life story would also come to light, the story of a young lady filled with joy, compassion and a competitive passion for life.
This story is not about the tragedies, it’s about communities reacting and coming together with faith, hope and love.
St. Anthony of Padua Church
On Sunday morning at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Syracuse, the 11 a.m. Mass became a place for Brexialee’s family, friends and Blodgett Middle School supporters to gather as one and bring comfort to each other.
“One of the beautiful things about this opportunity is that the invitation for the community to find refuge here has come from members of our family and Brexialee’s teachers who have been accompanying her family all week,” Father Brendan Foley offered. “They knew the importance of prayer and the importance of being with one another right now. That’s what my prayers are for today, that the community here is able to find a particular peace that only God can give.”
Harry Valentin, the principal of Blodgett Middle School, has been a key figure in supporting the community in this moment.
“It has been a week that no one is prepared for: teachers, families, especially students. All teachers on our staff have to be strong to support the students because they’re struggling, they have been wondering how to process this information, how to cope with the pain.”
If the sense of hope and love for each other that permeated the liturgical gathering is any indication, the work of Valentin, Fr. Brendan and their teams has provided a strong foundation for healing.
“We appreciate that our Father Brendan always supports us,” added Valentin. “Maybe we are not finding the answer today to deal with the pain. But we have an opportunity, with all our school community and the district, to let the family know that they are not alone. This is a way for us to tell them that we are together, that the school, that the district and through this Mass, we are bringing our hope, our faith, our strength, our peace for them to deal with everything that is coming.”
St. Mary of the Assumption Church
On Sunday evening, in the suburban village of Baldwinsville, Fr. Cliff Auth and his staff at St. Mary of the Assumption opened their doors to the community in the wake of the senseless death of Ava Wood. The church proper normally seats about 450. The space was mobbed with people, standing in the side aisles, behind the sanctuary and more. The vigil service was also live-streamed to two gathering spaces on the parish campus where many parents and adults gathered, leaving the church space to Ava’s classmates, friends and teammates.
“This is a celebration of someone we love,” Fr. Auth said as the evening began. Expressing his gratitude to Ava’s family and all in attendance he added that it was a “celebration of all those things that made her special, of why we love her.”
The service consisted of music and Scripture highlighted by the Gospel of Mark where Jesus tells his disciples to “let the children come to me” (Mark 10:14). And Fr. Auth did, engaging the students and friends in conversation about Ava. The true sense of the evening came through sharing among those who knew and loved her best. Helpers holding wireless microphones darted through the crowd to the many who wanted to share a memory or story about their friend. Testimony, accompanied by a lot of tear-tinged laughter, painted a picture of a girl who was a fierce competitor, a loyal friend, a defender of those in need and a face of boundless joy.
One girl saved notes that Ava would write her, seeking strength from them when needed. “Stay strong and make them wonder why you’re smiling,” she shared from one of Ava’s gifts to her.
Durgee Jr. High School Principal Thomas Fraher reminded all that healing has already begun. “Make no mistake: Ava is here supporting us as well.” Another staff member remarked that “everyone was welcome in her circle.”
As the evening came to a close, the lights were dimmed as candles were lit. Fr. Auth asked the crowd to think about Ava. “What would she say to us?” he pondered. “Value the things she valued, live the values that she lived. Find that value.”
After her favorite song, “Rescue,” was played, Father offered, “We remember that Ava is in the presence of the saints and the angels.”
To those gathering in these houses of the Lord, no truer words could be said about both Ava and Brexialee.
“Brexi’s Legacy” is the GoFundMe page for Brexialee Torres-Ortiz’s family: https://gofund.me/af7d4b3b.