Members of the Tri-Parish Choir served as pall bearers during the funeral for one of their members in January. (Submitted photo)

When Mary (not her real name), a long-time choir member at Blessed Savior Parish, began developing breathing problems a couple of years ago, her parish and choir friends jumped on board to help in whatever capacity they could.

The nearly 50-year-old was diagnosed with lung deterioration and, for more than a year, Mary alternated between hospital and rehabilitation stays. Those medical care facilities served as bookends for her occasional and increasingly rare return visits home.

According to Christy Presser, choir director of the merged St. Philip Neri, Corpus Christi and Our Lady of Sorrows choirs, Mary was grateful to members who drove her to medical appointments and helped with her home and self-care.

“She talked about all of her wonderful neighbors who cut the grass, cleared the snow, picked up mail and gave her care when needed,” said Presser. “I have known her all my 30 years at Corpus Christi and then later, the merged Blessed Savior Parish. She was a member of the choir all those years, except when she was ill.”

Mary lived alone, as her parents were both deceased; she had an aunt that did what she could but, due to her own health issues, wasn’t able to help as much as she had hoped. Thankfully, her parish and neighbors stepped up to become her lifeline. Her “choir family” was so tightly woven that two of the members took her cats, which she lovingly referred to as her “fur babies.”

“She couldn’t have the cats because she was accepted for a lung transplant surgery and her home had to be completely sanitized in preparation,” said Presser. “She was helped by the Multi-
Cultural Commission, which she was very involved with, as well as the choir members.”

The volunteers brought her homemade meals, refinished floors, and cleaned and organized the kitchen and the rest of her home.

“The one thing we tried to find for her were 24/7 caregivers for her during the transplant and afterwards,” said Presser. “This is a huge hurdle for anyone seeking a lung transplant. Without a spouse or a live-in person, it seemed impossible to get the caregivers and then get on the transplant list. We ran out of time despite having the help of a lawyer who specialized in elder care law and Title 19. We were doing everything as fast as we could.”

Because Mary had no family to assist her, two of the choir members volunteered to serve as her medical and financial powers of attorney so she could get her final affairs in order. The planning included preparing for her funeral as well as assisting her with offering heartfelt forgiveness and love to someone she had been estranged from for many years. Her efforts touched the individual, broke down the barriers and he ended up attending her funeral.

The choir members remain connected through weekly emails and a prayer list that is shared among them each week. This helps them keep up with each other during their time apart.

“We had been praying for (Mary) for so long and two days before she died, I sent the urgent message for prayers and news of her going to the ICU and choosing not to go on a breathing tube,” she said. “The doctor said she would never come off the breathing tube if she chose it.”

Dealing with Mary’s funeral and the COVID-19 restrictions was challenging, as she requested the choir sing specific songs, something that was difficult since the choir had not held rehearsals since the beginning of the pandemic.

“I rehearse with individual cantors to prepare for our liturgies and was able to do some of this for the funeral,” said Presser. “I chose music that I knew the choir would be able to sing without gathering to practice.”

For her funeral, which took place in January, choir members participated by placing the funeral pall on her casket and serving as pallbearers. Her aunt served as extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.

“Her dear friend and a neighbor proclaimed the readings,” said Presser. “Other friends and parishioners led the intercessions and helped with Holy Communion. As the choir sat in the pews and a few safely distanced cantors led the singing, I felt a spirit among us that I will never forget. I turned to the choir, sitting in the pew with masks on and directed an incredible joining of voices. They were singing their faith and putting it into action out of love for (Mary). Those choir members who could not attend promised to pray and sing from their homes.”

Presser said that most of the music at the Mass was well known, but there were a few unique pieces that seemed especially appropriate.

When the pandemic forced Presser to record virtual selections of the choir, she got creative, and brought the choir to Mary’s house and recorded them singing on her front porch. At one point, she came outside, and they recorded her singing one of the songs, and added it to the choir mix.

“I will treasure having that time with her,” said Presser.