Bishop takes up ice bucket challenge for priest with ALS

In his 31 years as pastor in Duquesne, the Rev. Dennis Colamarino has led his parish to revitalize its worship, restore its buildings and attract worshipers from miles around — leading to the rare feat for any church in a struggling former mill town: steady growth.

Now in his own time of need, parishioners have been rallying to support Father Colamarino as he struggles with ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the degenerative condition often known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

That includes retrofitting his rectory with an elevator and putting ramps up to the altar area at Christ Light of the World Parish in Duquesne so he can continue to live and minister as much as his mobility has allowed. And they’ve raised more than $26,000 — two and a half times their original goal — for an upcoming walk to benefit ALS research.

And yes, there are ice buckets involved.

Bishop David Zubik will be presiding at a special Mass, including a prayer for the sick, to honor Father Colamarino on Saturday morning. And shortly afterward, in the church parking lot, Bishop Zubik and Father Colamarino will undergo the decidedly more modern ritual of having buckets of ice dumped on them.

It will be the latest permutation of the internet-fueled phenomenon, which has raised nearly $42 million as of Thursday for the ALS Association. The gist is simple: people receive dousings from ice buckets, raising funds through sponsorships, and then challenge others to do the same.

Politicians and other celebrities, both locally and beyond, have been falling all over each other to get under falling ice, as have been a growing legion of people on Facebook. 

This will be a new experience to both Bishop Zubik and Father Colamarino.

“I've been in carnivals where they threw balls at you to get dunked, but never with the bishop,” Father Colamarino said. Plus, the water was warmer then.

He appreciated the bishop’s agreeing to join in.

“It’s a real show of support, of solidarity with me and the people,” the priest said. “We’re anticipating a Christmas-like crowd.” 

Bishop Zubik said he wanted to do more than a brief ice-bucket dousing.

“I wanted to put it in the context of a prayer of support, to celebrate Mass for him, praying for his health with the sacramental anointing of the sick.” He also wanted “to bring his faith community together, to support them as well, because they’re having a tough time, too.”

While some Catholics have raised concerns about ice-bucket-raised funds going to research that could involve embryonic stem-cell research, Bishop Zubik said he would be giving his own donation to the John Paul II Medical Research Institute in Iowa, which only uses adult stem cells.

Aggie Sanker, a parishioner who organized the fund raising, said people wanted to do something to help. “When the (fund-raising) walk came up, we thought maybe this is something we can do.” Then parishioners learned of the ice bucket challenge and jumped at that opportunity, too.

Ray Judie, facilities coordinator and cantor at the parish, said he’s been impressed by how Father Colamarino has sought to use the event to lift others’ spirits: “When you wake up in the morning and can hardly tie your shoes, but he’s thinking about how to enliven things here, it’s such an unselfish act.”

Father Colamarino, 66, is a Carnegie native who was ordained in 1973 and came to Duquesne a decade later, soon becoming pastor of Holy Name Church. He oversaw the restoration of the historic sanctuary — which had been stripped down in recent decades, painted the almond color of “refrigerators from the 1970s,“ he recalled — to its current warmer tones with restored and repainted windows and plaster.

After Holy Name merged with St. Hedwig, becoming Christ the Light of the World Parish, he became pastor, and he later began overseeing St. Joseph as well.

About 15 months ago, Father Colamarino began noticing problems with stability in his feet. A visit to the podiatrist eventually brought him to neurologists who gave him the diagnosis of ALS.

Father Colamarino grieves the losses of such pleasures as cooking, exercising and darting up steps without a second thought. But he’s been moved by how many people have helped him.

”I have a deep spirituality and faith, which I got from my parents,“ he said. ”My mother had lupus for 30 or 40 years. She was in a wheelchair for a long time. We don’t get to choose what we get in life, so we have to make the best of it.“

He’s focusing on having the best quality of life he can. Offered an experimental treatment that involved severe side-effects, he declined. ”If I go out, I'm going out with spaghetti, meatballs and vodka,“ he said.

Peter Smith:, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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