Where there was a will, there was a way for Sister Leona Didas. Even though her brother died 66 years ago and is interred some 4,000 miles away, she never lost the will to make a first-time visit to his burial site.
"I didn’t know if I would ever get the chance. I guess it was a dream," remarked Sister Didas, a longtime music teacher who retired in 2010.
The way was provided by donations from family, friends and parishioners in Elmira to help finance an overseas trip. On the morning of May 14, Sister Didas finally saw the grave of 2nd Lt. Leo J. Didas in the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial. She became the first member of her immediate family to appear at the grave site of her brother, who died Jan. 2, 1945, near the end of World War II.
Accompanying Sister Didas on her once-in-a-lifetime journey were three Elmira pals: Sister Mary Raymond Joseph Griffin, a longtime friend who is parish visitor at St. Mary Southside; Father John DeSocio, St. Mary’s pastor; and Deacon Paul Sartori, the parish deacon. While in Europe they stayed at the American College at Louvain, a seminary in Belgium where Father DeSocio served as vice rector from 2002-07. (The seminary closed July 1 after 154 years of operation.)
Michael Costik, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rochester who recently concluded studies at the American College, accompanied the Elmira quartet on its three-hour drive to the Luxembourg cemetery. Once there, they met with a superintendent who escorted them past many rows of white crosses to Didas’ grave in Section A, Row 6.
Didas was shot down by German forces on a mission near Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. A fighter pilot for the United States Air Force’s 512th Fighter Squadron 406th Fighter Group, he was honored with the Purple Heart as well as other medals.
Father DeSocio, a longtime military chaplain, performed a memorial service and blessing of the grave. Poignancy was further heightened when the cemetery superintendent rubbed sand on the cross, causing Didas’ name and rank to stand out more clearly. The sand came from Normandy Beach, another key World War II battle site.
"What can I say, going in and realizing he was buried there — it was just a closure," said Sister Didas, whose brother was the oldest sibling and the only boy in her family.
Father DeSocio observed that having this type of closure is vital for people who have lost loved ones in the military: "Psychologically, it’s very important to experience the burial, the wake or the site where he’s buried."
During an interview with the Catholic Courier, Sister Didas became too overcome with emotion to talk any further about the graveside visit. Sister Griffin said this often happens when Sister Didas attempts to discuss her brother. In fact, Sister Griffin said that she, too, was deeply moved by the service in Luxembourg.
"It was awesome," she said, noting that Sister Didas "was just a kid when he flew away (for military duty). To see the actual cross made it very real. We all had tears."
While at the cemetery they also visited Gen. George Patton’s grave, located just a short distance from Didas’. They then moved on to the Sandweiler German war cemetery about a mile away, where many German casualties from the Battle of the Bulge are interred. Sister Griffin acknowledged that some people may be taken aback to learn they prayed for enemy soldiers, but "it was a loss of life no matter how you looked at it," she remarked, adding that prayer of this sort is "the essence of our religion."
"For me it brought a sense of reconciliation," Father DeSocio added, noting that many of the fallen German soldiers were in their late teens.
Later on May 14 the Elmira travelers stopped in Luxembourg City. Other sightseeing highlights during the trip occurred in the Belgian cities of Bruges, Brussels and Louvain, where they visited a number of religious sites.
That’s an ambitious itinerary — yet Sister Griffin, calling Father DeSocio "the perfect tour guide," credited the priest with making the 12-day trip run smoothly. Also making for a positive experience was the close friendship between Sisters Didas and Griffin, who are renowned in Chemung County for their many years of dedication to music teaching and performing.
"We came to Elmira in 1971, so we’ve been teaching together for the last 40 years," noted Sister Griffin, who resides at the Notre Dame Convent with Sister Didas.
For his part, Father DeSocio said he was delighted to be along for the ride, particularly when the very special tribute was paid to Sister Didas’ brother.
"It was just an honor to be there with her. I felt very much part of the family," Father DeSocio said.