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Catholic Life Features

The important role of chaplain in times of tragedy

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After the May 14 shooting at a Tops market on Jefferson Avenue, the community came together. Church leaders from all denominations gathered to pray together as a community. The 10 victims from Buffalo’s East Side became everybody’s neighbors as we learned their names and heard from their families and shared their grief.

Father Paul Seil speaks with a member of the Buffalo Fire Department days after a shooting at a Tops market. As chaplain, Father Seil serves a ministry of presence for first responders. (Photo courtesy of Cheryl Calire)

Always present in times of tragedy, whether intentional or by accident, is a chaplain, a member of the clergy who provide spiritual and emotional support, and the support of being present to fire departments, police departments and others.

“In the departments of first responders in the United States, there is a significant role played by chaplains,” explained Father Paul D. Seil, who has served in that role for the Buffalo Fire Department since 2017. “For me as a Catholic chaplain, it means if a firefighter is injured, I go to the hospital to see how they are and give them the anointing of the sick. Or if they’re not Catholic, I pray with them and offer a blessing.”

Although his role is to support the firefighters themselves, Father Seil makes himself available to victims as well. At the site of fires, he seeks out victims to offer spiritual support. 

When a Conklin resident killed 10 people and injured three during a racially-motivated attack at a supermarket on May 14, Father Seil was one of the first people there.

“After the Tops shooting, I spent most of the day with firefighters with the firehouse that’s right next door to Tops. They were the first EMTs on the scene. They were the first into the supermarket,” he said. “As you can imagine, it takes a toll on everybody. I have spoken to retired firefighters over the years who have told me stories of some of the things they have seen that are still in their memories even though they may have happened 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. They remember things they have seen that are very gruesome and difficult, yet they continued to answer the call.”

He has met victims of the Tops shooting at prayer services. One victim, Ruth Whitfield, was the mother of retired Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield Jr. Father Seil was with him when he found out his mother had been shot.

Father Seil feels compelled to visit the site often. He was there May 17, with Bishop Michael W. Fisher and other Catholic representatives, who had come to pay their respects to the victims.  

“I’ve been down to the site a number of times to talk to people. I would say in the last month, I’ve probably been there 20 times. I just go by. I say a prayer. I don’t want to say I’m obsessed with it, but there is something about it that draws me there to say prayers.”

Father Seil is the son of a firefighter who suffered a career-ending injury at a fire in 1964.

“I remember as a third-grader, the chaplain at that time was a priest by the name of Father Bob Mack. He came to the house at 2:30 in the morning to tell my mother that my father had been critically injured,” Father Seil explained as his reason for seeking the chaplain position. “I know a lot of cousins and uncles and friends who are firefighters, so that has helped me on my way to see this as a vocation and a ministry.”

Father John Gaglione has served with Emergency Medical Services in Buffalo and Erie County beginning in the 1970s. He calls chaplaincy a ministry of presence to the first responders. Many times it does turn into a counseling session and sometimes is a spiritual situation.

Father Paul Seil joins Bishop Michael Fisher, Sister M. Johnice Rzadkiewicz, CSSF, and Cheryl Calire in meeting the team from the Buffalo Fire Department that responded to the Tops shooting on May 14. (Photo courtesy of Cheryl Calire)

“They come into contact so many times with traumatic situations that’s really affected them,” he explained. “We’ve had young children who’ve died in a house fire. The majority of people we deal with are volunteers also. This really impacts their lives when they come across this type of situation. It’s important, I think, that we’re on scene to support them, not only during those times, but during the times when there is nothing that serious that they can get to know who we are and know that we are available to them.”

He recalled a house explosion in Orchard Park that killed one of the residents. Father Gaglione was there on site. The funeral was at the parish, he was able to follow through with the family by being present to them.

   “I think they just feel somewhat comforted to know that someone is there with them,” he said looking back. “In some situations, you are saying a prayer with them or just supporting them emotionally by being present in the situation.”

Father Seil said the ministry is not for everyone, but there are a lot of people who could do the job.

“It is a specialized ministry. You are dealing with situations of life and death,” he said. “There’s not a formula for being a chaplain to the fire department or the police department either. There are guidelines to follow and things we can do, but when it comes right down to it, you’re in the heat of the battle if you will. You have to make decisions in how to handle it spiritually and emotionally, and even physically sometimes based on what you’re presented with. You can learn it, but you need to invest time in it.”

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