Blue Mass honors first responders, slain officer

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Staff reporter

 WILMINGTON – Although the Blue Mass is meant to honor all who serve as first responders, the Diocese of Wilmington’s annual service, celebrated May 4 at St. John the Beloved Church in Wilmington, was heavily influenced by the death last September of New Castle County Police Lt. Joseph Szczerba.

County police officers, wearing a black ribbon over their badges, made up the largest contingent at the church, and Szczerba’s family, including his widow, Kathy, sat in the front. After Communion, she received a plaque from Col. Scott McLaren, chief of the county police.

McLaren said the real heroes in law enforcement are not the officers themselves, but the family members who pray each day for their safe return. In the last year, he said, more than 170 police officers had lost their lives in the line of duty.

Officers from the New Castle County Police Department pray during the Blue Mass, which was held May 4 at St. John the Beloved Church in Wilmington. Don Blake/ www.DonBlakePhotography.com

“We all know when we put that badge on it could be our last day,” he said.

Presenting the plaque to Kathy Szczerba, he said, “We’ll never forget you, and we’ll never forget Joe.”

Joseph Szczerba was killed Sept. 16 after he was stabbed during an altercation with David A. Salasky Jr. The officer was responding to a report of a suspicious person in a Wilmington Manor neighborhood. Salasky’s trial on first-degree murder and numerous other charges is scheduled to begin next March.

At a luncheon following the Mass, Kathy Szczerba thanked the officers and others present for their support over the past several months.

“I have learned over the past few months what a tremendous impact his passing has had,” she said.

Kathy Szczerba recalled her husband’s dedication to his job and that he never lost his compassion for the people he served. She noted that he often carried extra coats in his police cruiser to give to the homeless, and he was well-known for taking care of stray animals.

Joseph Szczerba was a man of few words, his wife said, but he felt very strongly about his duties as an officer. She said that is a characteristic common in law enforcement, as officers head into danger to help people they don’t know.

“Thank you for your selfless dedication,” she said. “So few people understand the commitment that you make.”

Bishop Malooly was the main celebrant of the Mass. The homily was delivered by Father Steven Hurley, the chancellor of the diocese, who spent eight years as a police officer in Ocean City, Md., before entering the seminary.

Father Hurley wondered how many of the officers present pretended to be first responders when they were children. He said he supposed the uniforms and prestige that came with those jobs had something to do with those childhood dreams, but that there was more to it.

Children “can sense there’s something much deeper than the uniforms and the trappings,” he said.

These professions demand respected qualities and come with incredible responsibilities, said Father Hurley, who is also the pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Wilmington. The public looks to first responders with trust, he said.

Giving of oneself is central to Jesus’ message, he said. Sometimes, that means laying down one’s life.

First responders are heroes because they don’t let fear overwhelm them, and they respond firmly and resolutely to the forces of evil.

“You are heroes because you show up,” Father Hurley said. “May God bless you and keep you safe.”