As the city of Prescott, Ariz. grieves the loss of nineteen elite firefighters, Sacred Heart Catholic Parish is also coping with the “whirlwind” of the past few weeks.
“I honestly believe that when death comes, no matter how it comes, that the Resurrection is my source of hope,” Fr. Darrin Merlino, the new pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Prescott, Ariz. told CNA July 8.
Recently, his parish has endured tragedies that could tempt anyone to fall into despair.
Just as the Doce Fire consumed some 10,000 acres of land northwest of Prescott, the parish's pastor, Fr. Daryl Olds suffered a severe stroke which sent him to the intensive care unit. As Fr. Merlino took over as pastor a day later, he learned of a parishioner's suicide and the death of a close friend's father.
Just as “things kind of calmed down,” around the parish, Fr. Merlino heard news of the Yarnell Fire burning just south of Prescott. The next day nearly an entire team of firefighters from Prescott were killed in their attempt to build a fire line around the blaze.
“It was just overwhelming,” the priest said.
For nearly a week, the parish fielded calls from friends of the deceased, but Fr. Merlino was surprised that none of the firefighters who were killed were registered as attending his parish.
“I mean, statistically speaking, there's always Catholics in the fire department,” he said.
Then, after Mass one day, a parishioner came up to him “very distraught” telling the priest that his roommate, John Percin Jr., was one of the firefighters killed in the fire.
Originally from West Linn, Oregon, Percin was new to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, but was known to be a natural athlete, “free-spirited” and generous.
Because he was so young – only 24 years-old – and fairly new the the area, Percin was not a registered parishioner, but had a reputation as someone who would have “given the shirt off his back.”
The young man's father, John J. Percin Sr., broke down to Fr. Merlino the day after nineteen white hearses bearing the remains of the fallen firefighters made their way through Prescott.
“Everyone and their mother wants to interview him, poor guy,” the priest said.
After speaking with the young man's father it was clear his parents “were very proud of him.”
“He was kind of one of those kids who'd made some mistakes but he accepted it, moved on,” he said.
Before he went out to work on what local station KATU reported was his first fire, Percin prayed for protection for himself and his team.
“Lord watch over us as we go into battle. Amen!” he wrote in a June 30 Facebook status.
In wake of the tragedy, Fr. Merlino focused his homily last Sunday on the hope of the resurrection, reminding those in attendance that “we'll all be reunited someday.”
“This is a fact, it's a reality,” he added.
Although his parish is “a little numb right now,” they have decided to put up a plaque in memory of Percin, just next to their memorial for children killed by abortion.
Another one of the young men who lost his life, Grant McKee, 21, reportedly lived with a family of parishioners for a short time and dated their daughter.
As the mother of the family spoke to Fr. Merlino after Mass, he said it was clear the boy was “very dear to their heart.”
“She couldn't really talk about him at all,” he said, “she was just in tears.”
The parish has also devoted their gym to housing about 400 firefighters who needed a place to stay while paying their respects to those who lost their lives.
On June 30, the Granite Mountain Hotshots responded to a fire started by lightning the day before. It quickly spread from 200 to 2,000 acres within a matter of hours due to a shift in winds.
Cut off from their exit, nineteen of the twenty firefighters sought refuge under their foil-like emergency shelters which proved to be insufficient. The lone survivor was spared because he was farther away from the fire line serving as a lookout.
Aged 21 to 43, many of the Prescott 19 leave behind wives, fiancées, and young children.
“This is our 9/11,” Fr. Merlino said. “God can't be blamed for these things; God is here to help us through the tragedy.”
A Memorial Mass will be held at Sacred Heart Parish on Thursday, July 11 at 6 p.m. for the fallen firefighters.