ROCHESTER, N.Y. — When they awoke Feb. 20, 1967, Father George
Weinmann and Sister Lilian Marie McLaughlin 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
Father Weinmann, the pastor, rushed into the burning building to
save the Blessed Sacrament inside the tabernacle. Sister McLaughlin, a School
Sister of Notre Dame, who was a teacher at the parish school, soon followed to
Neither made it out. Sister McLaughlin, who had turned 26 just
two days earlier, died on that Monday afternoon. Father Weinmann, 77, lost his
life two days later.
Fifty years after the fact, the profundity of their heroic deeds
is still felt deeply, as evidenced by the overflow crowd at the Church of the
Annunciation for a 50th anniversary memorial Mass celebrated by Rochester
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
The homilist, Father Dennis Bonsignore, said the priest and nun
provided a stirring example of their belief in the real presence of Christ in
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.
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 Chapter 2, Verse 20, of St. Paul's
Letter to the Galatians.
During his homily, Father Bonsignore noted he had acknowledged
the St. Philip Neri fire on the 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.
Fantigrossi was the firefighter who carried Sister McLaughlin out of St. Philip
Neri. The incident had left him so distraught that he fell away from the church
for many years.
But after the 1992 Mass, Father Bonsignore said, Fantigrossi
experienced healing and renewal. A poem written by Fantigrossi, who died in
2016, can be found at http://nerifire.webs.com. It is titled "I Held an
Angel in My Arms."