Fighting a chilly wind that whipped across the grounds of Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Berwick in late October, Father William Barbee paused at the edge of the parish property, taking in the site of more than 150 American flags placed in the ground there.
“Each one represents a veteran and their story,” he said, reflecting for a moment before adding five more flags to the display.
The stirring flag tribute at Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph parishes, both of which Father Barbee serves as pastor, honored veterans and raised funds for the Archdiocese of Military Services leading up to Veterans Day.
Established by St. John Paul II in 1985, the Archdiocese for the Military Services serves approximately 1.8 million Catholics at 220 U.S. military installations worldwide and more than 150 VA Medical Centers throughout the country.
For a $5 donation, community members could sponsor a flag at either of the Berwick parishes and add a name tag to it, in honor of friends and family who have served our country. The project reached its culmination on Veterans Day, when parishioners read aloud the names attached to the flags and prayed the Rosary for them.
“I thought, at the beginning, that if we had 50 flags at each parish, it would be pretty good. Well, we had over 150 at each parish by the end of October,” said Father Barbee.
By November 11, that number totaled upwards of 500.
“I think Berwick has a strong pulse of patriotism. I think that is why the outpouring has been so strong of a response,” Father Barbee said.
Appointed pastor of Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph parishes in June of this year, Father Barbee served as an Army chaplain from 1987-2015.
“Military chaplains are very important because the men and women in service – and their families – move around quite a bit. Catholic chaplains provide continuity, stability, something familiar, along with the sacraments. The chaplains minister to the entire family, and also in deployment into a combat zone. Chaplains nourish the living, care for the wounded and honor the dead,” he said.
David Hough is Post Commander of the Father Albanese Catholic War Veterans Post 1419 in Berwick, named for Father Francis Albanese, the first pastor of St. Joseph Parish. The post was established in 1947.
Hough lives near Immaculate Conception Church, where he is a parishioner. He said he was impressed by the patriotic effort, and pleased to see the number of flags increase during the past few weeks.
“It’s a great project, and I think it’s a wonderful thing that we’re doing this to help the Military Archdiocese,” said Hough, who served five years in the Navy and 17 years in the reserves.
Jeannette Lewis, of St. Joseph Parish, expressed her gratitude for the parishioners’ expression of patriotism. Her late husband, James, repaired B52s as a member of the Air Force, and her grandson is serving in the U.S. Navy.
Lewis recalled Memorial Day celebrations at St. Joseph under the longtime pastorate of the late Father Dominick Mammarella, himself a World War II veteran who completed 30 combat missions on B-24 Bombers prior to entering the seminary. Following Mass on Memorial Day, the congregation at St. Joseph’s would process to the cemetery for a ceremony that featured a reading of “On Flanders Field,” patriotic music and a salute to fallen service men and women.
“There’s always been a lot of patriotism and support here,” Lewis said. “When my husband died in 1987, my family said, ‘You have to move back to Pottsville; you have no family there.” And I said, ‘But I have the family of St. Joseph Church.’”
Joe DiPippa, who served in the Air Force from 1969-1792, choked up with tears when he saw the display of more than 150 flags on the front lawn at Immaculate Conception.
“I spent one year in Vietnam. As everybody knows, when we came back, it wasn’t a good situation,” DiPippa said. “[The flag project] is a great idea, and I hope what comes out of this is that the support goes to where the veterans need it. Hopefully, our good pastor continues this program and keeps it going from here.”
Father Barbee, who served as an Army chaplain from 1987-2015, offered a message to the faithful in observance of Veterans Day:
“Please support – with your prayers and your actions – our veterans who have served and those who are currently serving. And especially for those who are serving, pray for them,” he said.
(Photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness