Southern Md. church ends 'shocking week' on up note Parish seeks healing in wake of poisonings

November 09, 1997|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

CHAPTICO -- The Rev. John Stack stood outside in yesterday's cold rain, wearing a neon-blue slicker and smoking a cigarette, before starting the most difficult Mass of his eight years at Our Lady of the Wayside Church.

"I just wish it was all over," said Stack, before entering his 60-year-old Catholic church to conduct the first Mass since more than 700 people were poisoned after eating tainted food at the church's annual dinner last Sunday.

Yesterday's Mass came at the end of a very long, sad and bizarre week for Stack and his parishioners. Their quiet, rural community was thrust before the glare of television camera lights. Their plight made headlines. And St. Mary's County even became the butt of Jay Leno's late-night jokes.

But now, as the sick begin to recuperate, parishioners are hoping that life, too, will return to normal -- the way it was before CNN came to town.

"We feel so helpless. We feel sosorry for all the sick. It's just a sad and terrible mess," said Jennie, a parishioner for 30 years who, like others stunned by the past week's media blitz, declined to give her last name.

As church bells clanged above her and her family, Jennie said the close-knit community will nurse itself back to health, physically and mentally.

State and local health officials have said stuffed ham, a Southern Maryland specialty, was the likely carrier of the salmonella that sickened more than half of the 1,400 who ate here. Health officials are still investigating how and where the ham became contaminated. But already the county is considering stricter food-safety standards for the many church and fund-raising dinners held across Southern Maryland this time of year.

Two people who ate food served at last week's dinner here have died, although the exact cause of their deaths has not been determined. Autopsy results are due this week.

At yesterday's Mass, parishioners were asked to pray for one of their own who died: Grace Oatley, 81, who will be buried this week.

Standing before his congregation, Stack conceded it had been a "murky, sad, shocking" week. But he asked folks to think of it as a brief descent into one of life's many tunnels. And, he said, the thing about tunnels is: "all of a sudden you come out the other side and there's beautiful sunlight."

A 69-year-old, chain-smoking Bronx native, who lives next to the church with his black Labrador retriever, Tank, Stack has tried over the past week to console the many church volunteers who organized last week's dinner and who are now feeling guilt and remorse even as they wonder what went wrong.

He asked his congregation yesterday to remember that they are not alone, that they are connected to one another.

"I wasn't born here and I wasn't raised here, but people here have a fiber that runs through them. And when things get tough, they turn to God and they turn to each other and they work together. And when they get into a tunnel, they turn together and walk toward the light," Stack said.

Stack told the congregation that he had been asked if last week's "tragedy" would force him to cancel future church dinners.

"No, no. We will continue it in the years to come," he said, as 140 heads nodded in agreement. "It is not impossible. We will get through this."

Afterward, in the parking lot, the mood was one of relief. Maybe the worst has passed, people said. Maybe they would survive after all. Some folks even slapped friends on the back and joked, "Hey, I see y'all survived."

And a few talked about their priest's closing words, just moments earlier. He said: "This tunnel will be short. We will return to being the same parish we have always been -- good, happy, God-loving, God-fearing people."

And 140 voices echoed off the dark-wood rafters: "Amen."

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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