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She had no family, so strangers show 'their goodness' by honoring her at funeral Mass

The Rev. Michael Rieder, pastor of St. Joseph

The Rev. Michael Rieder, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Ronkonkoma, sprinkles holy water onto the casket of Celia Teresa de Jesus Alferez during her funeral Mass on March 12, 2021. Credit: Gregory A. Shemitz

A woman who died earlier this month with no known family was honored by strangers, who last week attended her funeral Mass at St. Joseph Church in Ronkonkoma — just so she could be surrounded by "friends."

The Rev. Michael J. Rieder, pastor of St. Joseph Parish, said he was "in awe" when about 50 parishioners, none of whom had known Celia Teresa de Jesus Alferez in life, came to the Mass on March 12.

"What I saw," Rieder said, "was not so much the sadness of her death, but the amazing goodness of our parishioners. … We need some light and some hope. Maybe that was a piece of why people decided to respond this way.

"I'm in awe of their goodness."

Rieder, an East Rockaway native who came to St. Joseph about seven years ago after serving at St. Therese of Lisieux in Montauk, said officials at St. Joseph first learned about Alferez when contacted by Moloney Family Funeral Home following her death in a nursing home March 7.

He said the parish staff learned Alferez had made her own arrangements — and that little else was known about her.

"For each funeral," St. Joseph ministry of consolation staffer Clare Antonucci said, "the funeral home will reach out and tell us, 'These are the next of kin' or 'This is the person who will help coordinate the Mass,' and then a member of our staff will contact those people so we can discuss everything from readings to hymns … so we can learn more about the deceased, in order to better personalize the homily. I was told she might have a brother who lived in Colombia, but no one knew how to contact him or where he was, and I was told she had a friend who used to visit her, but when we called the number it had been disconnected. We had no idea if any of those people were even still alive.

"Basically, all we knew was her date of birth and her date of death."

Thinking Alferez would be alone in church, Antonucci wondered how she might find people to attend the Mass.

Fellow ministry of consolation member Michele Nappi suggested they post a note on the parish Facebook page.

That post, Antonucci said, didn't mention Alferez by name, but simply described the circumstances.

"Within two minutes," she said, "we got a response from someone who said, 'I'll be there.' I thought maybe we'd have 10 people show up. We ended up with 50 — and another 15 following the Mass on a livestream."

In fact, several of the parishioners attended the burial at nearby Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Coram.

Even now, a week later, all church officials know is that Alferez was born April 23, 1936, that she was baptized in the Catholic Church, that she died March 7 and that she chose Ave Maria and On Eagle's Wings to be played at her Mass. They also learned she was a lay Carmelite — that is, that she followed the Carmelite Order of the Ancient Observance — and that, at one point, she attended services at St. Joseph. One parishioner recalled inviting her to Easter dinner one year, Rieder said.

But, he said, that's pretty much it. They don't even know where she was born.

A former neighbor on Hans Boulevard in Lake Ronkonkoma said she was saddened to learn from a reporter Wednesday that Alferez had died.

"She was a very nice woman," Ann Steinberg said, "very sweet. We used to help her, like if we saw her walking we'd offer her a ride, since she didn't drive, and we used to trade Christmas cards. … She was very religious, that I know, and she used to send a religious card every year. But then one day she was gone and we never knew what happened to her," she said of herself and her husband. "It's very sad, that she died like that, but I'm glad to hear about how people were there.

"I just wish we would have known," Steinberg said.

Still, the story of her funeral has resonated with faithful across the nation, told in an article this week by the Catholic News Service.

"One of the things you learn about death is every one of them is a tragedy for the family," Rieder said. "Sometimes, when it's your job it can almost be, 'Oh, it's another funeral.' But I've become much more aware it's never just another funeral and I think on top of that COVID has raised awareness of not just the delicacy of life, but the sacredness of it. This was just a moment where we could all say, 'God's here. We're going to be OK.' Like those birthday drive-by parades we've seen, or people getting together on Zoom … it's people saying, 'I need to do something. Here's the opportunity. I'm going to do it.' "

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