New York’s Irish community returned en masse to Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in lower Manhattan, last Thursday evening to mourn the loss of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, Carolyn Bessette, and her sister Lauren.
Led by Carolyn Ryan, executive director of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, which helped organize the memorial Mass, those present saluted Kennedy in poignant memory of his famous gesture to his slain father, the nation’s 35th president.
"He never asked what we could do for him but rather what he could do for us," Ryan said, paraphrasing one of President Kennedy’s famous lines from his 1961 inaugural speech.
President Kennedy, whose great-grandfather had emigrated from Ireland, was the first Catholic to occupy the White House.
Among those present in the overflow congregation was Kennedy family member Sergeant Shriver. When his presence was announced, the congregation rose in applause.
So many people turned up for the service that the doors of the cathedral were closed after about 1,000 mourners crowded in.
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Outside, as the mournful sound of bagpipes wafted on the humid air, thousands of people, some of them in tears, wound their way up Mott Street. Adjoining streets were closed by police to accommodate the mourners.
Recalling President Kennedy’s famous trip to Ireland in 1963, Fr. Colm Campbell said: "He was a man who was, for the Irish community, part of our faith, heritage, culture and family. He helped us hold our heads high."
For many in the congregation, the emotions were surely stirred with the playing of "Danny Boy" following communion.
In conclusion, Ryan, placing her hand to her forehead, asked all those present to join her in salute. Then came the powerful recessional hymn "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Although the service was initially organized as the Irish community’s farewell, many others joined in what was the only public service to which all were welcomed.
"Obviously, the whole of New York feels the way we do and wants to share the occasion," Campbell said. "The family has been through so much tragedy and so many in the Irish community has suffered with them and have empathy for them."
Campbell said that people loved JFK, Jr. because they saw him as a "compassionate and caring man, but in a quiet and unobtrusive way."
The ashes of Kennedy, 38, his wife, 33, and sister-in-law, 34, were buried at sea Friday morning during a solemn ceremony aboard the Navy destroyer the USS Briscoe off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, not far from where the plane they had been flying crashed a week earlier.