ROCHESTER -- When they awoke on Feb. 20, 1967, Father George Weinmann and Sister Lilian Marie McLaughlin, SSND, did not know that by early afternoon they'd perform actions that would cost them their lives -- and render them modern-day martyrs in the eyes of many.
Yet when danger stared them down, in the form of a fire spreading through St. Philip Neri Church, they responded as only people with great faith might.
Father Weinmann, the pastor, rushed into the burning building to save the Blessed Sacrament inside the tabernacle. Sister McLaughlin, a teacher at the parish school, soon followed to assist him.
Neither made it out. Sister McLaughlin, who had turned 26 years old just two days earlier, died on that Monday afternoon. Father Weinmann, 77, lost is life two days later.
Fifty years after the fact, the profundity of their heroic deeds still runs deeply, as evidenced by the overflow crowd at Church of the Annunciation for a 50th-anniversary memorial Mass Feb. 26 celebrated by Bishop Salvatore R. Matano. Among the attendees were family members of both Father Weinmann and Sister McLaughlin, as well as parishioners of the former St. Philip Neri Parish on Clifford Avenue.
The homily was given by Father Dennis Bonsignore, who said the priest and nun provided a stirring example of their belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Sister McLaughlin's brother, Jim, who traveled from his home in Los Angeles for the memorial Mass, said he wasn't surprised that his sister was brave enough to defy the common safety logic of getting away from a fire.
"There are few people who would go toward it. She was one of them," he said to the Catholic Courier.
Bishop Matano told the congregation that Father Weinmann and Sister McLaughlin are models for all Catholics to follow in giving fully of themselves to Jesus.
"We pray that in imitation of Sister Lilian Marie and Father George Weinmann we can say, 'It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,'" Bishop Matano said, quoting Galatians 2:20.
During his homily, Father Bonsignore noted that he had acknowledged the St. Philip Neri fire at the time of its 25th anniversary in 1992 while serving at Irondequoit's St. Cecilia Parish. On that day, he said, Peter Fantigrossi happened to be present not knowing that Father Bonsignore would be preaching about the fire. It so happened that Fantigrossi was the firefighter from Rochester Fire Department Engine 9 who carried Sister McLaughlin out of St. Philip Neri. The incident had left him so distraught that he fell away from church for many years -- but after the 1992 Mass, Father Bonsignore said, Fantigrossi -- who died in January 2016 -- experienced healing and renewal. A poem written by Fantigrossi, "I Held an Angel in My Arms," can be found at http://nerifire.webs.com.
That website, devoted to Father Weinmann and Sister McLaughlin, was begun in 2011 by Dan DeFord, a member of Irondequoit's St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish. DeFord said he was spurred to launch the site after having attended St. Philip Neri in the mid-1990s and hearing often about the fire. (A new St. Philip Neri Church was completed in 1969 to replace the destroyed building; the parish closed in 2003.)
A poignant moment occurred following the Feb. 26 memorial Mass when Jim McLaughlin and his sister, Evelyn McLaughlin Sabino, met several members of the Fantigrossi family for the first time -- as well as DeFord -- during a reception in Church of the Annunciation's hall.
The 50th-anniversary liturgy and website are among several efforts to keep the memory of this tragic, yet inspirational, occurrence fresh in the minds of current and future Catholics. The tabernacle that was in the fire is now located at Sacred Heart Cathedral, where it is a focal point of a eucharistic chapel created during the cathedral's renovation that was completed in 2005. In addition, Bishop Matano noted the heroism of Father Weinmann and Sister McLaughlin during his opening remarks at a press conference in November 2013 when he was announced as the new Bishop of Rochester.
Regarding the large congregation at Church of the Annunciation on Feb. 26, "I was blown away," Jim McLaughlin remarked. Sabino, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, expressed similar appreciation that her sister's supreme sacrifice continues having such a notable effect.
"It is wonderful to know she is remembered," Sabino said.