ROCHESTER — As bagpipers played a Celtic air and a police honor guard carrying flags processed down the nave of Blessed Sacrament Church Oct. 16, Albert Piacelli — a former “Officer Friendly” — prepared to pass out bulletins to Mass-goers.
Piacelli, who retired from the Rochester Police Department in 1978, served as an usher at the Ninth Annual Blue Mass, which honors area law-enforcement personnel. The church was packed with both uninformed and non-uniformed police from all over Monroe and Livingston counties. Prayers were said for all law-enforcement personnel, with specific mentions of Jewish and Muslim officers in addition to Christians.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Piacelli said of the Blue Mass. “People look up to the policemen and see that they go to church, too.”
Piacelli served more than 24 years on the force, retiring as a plainclothes officer. He added that he especially enjoyed visiting schools as one of his department’s original Officer Friendlies, explaining police work to students. He also noted that his Catholic faith was never far from his mind when he served as a police officer walking neighborhood beats. For example, he said, it could be a tense moment knocking on the door of a couple’s home when they were fighting, since an officer never knew whether the couple might stop fighting each other and unite against the officer.
“You hoped somebody was up there,” he said, pointing heavenward.
God is present in police work, according to Lt. Wil Johnson of the Rochester police, who’s also a deacon at St. Thomas More Church in Brighton. Deacon Johnson gave the homily during the Mass and joked about the presence of police vehicles in the church’s parking lot.
“I would dare bet a whole bunch of people are going by the church this morning and wondering ‘Wow! I wonder what happened there?'” he said as the congregation chuckled.
During an interview after the Mass, Deacon Johnson noted that as a public servant, he doesn’t overtly bring God into his police work, However, he said, he feels his police work is akin to his ministry.
“I’m reaching out to the community, I’m helping out in the community — the two go very much hand-in-hand,” he said.
He added that police are much like church ministers in that they must be with people in times of tragedy.
“We’re there when they’ve lost people; we’re there to comfort them; we’re there at the very beginning of their crisis; we’re there before the priest,” he said.
When asked about this year’s seemingly endless series of homicides in Rochester — including seven murders of victims younger than 18 — Deacon Johnson acknowledged that it’s frustrating, and added that he sometimes wonders if he can have any impact at all on the city’s violence. His faith, however, tells him otherwise, he said.
“Police work is a lot like life in general,” he said. “You have your ups and your downs. You know, in faith, that a better time is coming.”
Commander Edward A. Giblin of the Rochester police is also a deacon, serving at Holy Cross Church in Charlotte. Like Deacon Johnson, Deacon Giblin said he sees his police work as part of his vocation to witness to Christ. He noted that sometimes co-workers ask him about his faith, and have sought his advice or counsel although, like Deacon Johnson, he stressed that he can’t overtly bring his faith into the workplace. However, he said, his faith has taught him to treat even criminals as human beings.
“You can’t ever lose sight of the human dignity of everybody,” he said. “You hate the sin, but love the sinner.”
Joe Sturnic, a recently retired Rochester police captain, also served as a Monroe County sheriff and spent a total of 30 years in law enforcement. A parishioner at Holy Cross, Sturnic said police welcome the Blue Mass each year.
“It gives praise to God, but it also shows the officers that they’re appreciated in the community, something they don’t always see,” he said.
Like Piacelli, Sturnic said that he always felt God’s hand on him when he was a policeman. He noted that his confirmation name is Michael, after the archangel defender of heaven.
“I felt that his hand was with me in a number of cases,” Sturnic said.
In addition to Rochester police, officers from various towns and villages also attended the Mass, along with New York state troopers and New York State Environmental Conservation Officer Chris J. Ward, a parishioner at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Hamlin. Ward said the Mass gave everybody in law enforcement a chance to realize they’re all working for the same goal — “to keep the community safe.”
Among the experiences that have touched his faith was helping to remove bodies from Ground Zero in New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said. He noted that when he’s doing his job, he focuses on accomplishing his sometimes difficult goals, but reflects on it afterward.
“When you have time to slow down and think about it, you’re glad God was watching you,” he said.