By Lois Rogers | Correspondent
It’s been decades since NYPD Detective Steven McDonald first brought his message of love, compassion and forgiveness to the Catholic schools, religious education programs, service organizations and worthy causes in the Diocese of Trenton.
But when Det. McDonald passed from this life Jan. 10 to the heavenly realm that was undoubtedly his eternal destiny, folks remembered their first encounters with the hero cop like it was yesterday. Unfailingly they spoke of Det. McDonald’s courage as he nobly carried the cross that rendered him paralyzed by a teenager’s gunshot while on routine patrol.
They spoke of his love for his family, and most of all, they spoke of his faith, his “unshakable love of Christ, his message of forgiveness and peace and his focus on doing good, standing up for what was right.” That was how Dominica Vullo, coordinator of religious education in Holmdel’s St. Catharine Parish, put it the day after he died.
St. Catharine is the spiritual home of Det. McDonald’s sister, Clare, a catechist there, and her family: husband Timothy and sons, Matthew and Timmy. It was also, Vullo recalled, a place Det. McDonald came every spring for 10 years to “speak to the Confirmation class. To give his witness.”
His visits, she said, were “a highlight of the year,” she said. “They were heartwarming. … He would teach the eighth graders to stand up for faith and to do good. He gave each class a book on forgiveness and a prayer card that read: ‘you are special to the Holy Spirit. There is no one else like you in the world.’”
“Year after year, it was a remarkable event. He was supposed to come again this April and we are all heartbroken for the family.”
The family, she noted has had many difficult times. Included among them was Timmy’s near brush with death in an automobile accident with a drunk driver which was the subject of a Spotlight on the Diocese’s Realfaith TV show.
“We’re taking this to heart,” Vullo said. “It’s very hard.”
In St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, memories of Det. McDonald are equally strong, said Mary Lou Merritt, who was on staff there for many years and arranged for his many visits on Christian Service Days with the seniors.
Merritt, who retired from SJV in 2006, is now pastoral associate in Precious Blood Parish, Monmouth Beach. She believes his appearances “probably influenced more young people than you can calculate. He inspired so many seniors each time he came.
The visits were not easy to accomplish, she said. “They were very involved. He was always accompanied by two officers – one drove and the other rode in the (handicap accessible) van with him.” Because of his fragile health, it wasn’t unusual for a nurse to be on board.
“The first year, the program began at 9:30 a.m. and ended at noon. Three of the boys who heard him played football. They went up to him and told him they would love it if he would come back at night to see them play.”
“That meant that two police officers had to come back with him, it wasn’t just turning around. It involved tremendous planning but he came back that night and he came out on the field.”
No one who was there ever forgot it, she said.
Another memorable night was a retreat Det. McDonald gave for the students in Keyport’s Jesus the Lord Church. “He came and spoke about the importance of relationship with Jesus – that prayer is really a conversation with someone who loves us and that someone is Jesus,” she shared. “It was a little church and the sound of his respirator filled the church. It was silent except for his voice and the respirator. It’s the silent things you remember.”
The Knights of Columbus featured Det. McDonald recently in their film, The Grace To Forgive. John A. Gazis, former district deputy for the Knights of Columbus, and a member of St. Martha Parish, Point Pleasant, got to see that grace in person at the organizations state convention in Wildwood in 2008.
Like Merritt, he remembered the quiet that settled in as Det. McDonald delivered the keynote address.
“It was absolutely amazing,” Gazis said. “The Knights invited him down to give the speech and offered him a hotel room to stay overnight. He turned down the room saying he wanted to go home to his family that night.”
But, Gazis said, the speech Det. McDonald delivered was “incredible. Usually at these conventions, some people are still talking during dinner, but you could have heard a pin drop that night it was so quiet. Even the waiters and waitresses didn’t clear the tables so they could listen. He spoke about forgiveness. It was a great speech.”
Det. McDonald’s mere presence as an advocate for life was enough to hold people spellbound at hearings in Trenton on a proposed assisted suicide bill.
Both Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, and Dennis R. Castellano, a non-denominational chaplain, who naturally opposed the legislation, called him an inspiration.
“He was probably an example of the meaning of Christian,” Brannigan said. “He put his life into it. Very early on, he forgave the young man who injured him. He was very spiritual and active in the pro-life movement. He came to Trenton to testify in opposition to the assisted suicide bill – any time he came he inspired everyone.”
Castellano, who was given two and a half months to live four years ago after being diagnosed with brain tumors, quickly bonded with Det. McDonald. “He was just an inspiration in the way he spoke about life. He had such a passion for life. There he was in a wheel chair and on a respirator talking about living. That gave me such encouragement.”
When Castellano got an email from a friend telling of Det. McDonald’s death, he was “heartbroken, yet relieved. The Lord had brought him home where there was no sickness, no ailment. God took him where there is no more pain or suffering.”