Berkeley balcony tragedy: I'm no stranger to family tragedy, says Northern Ireland-born priest consoling the relatives
A Northern Ireland-born priest who has comforted the families and friends of six young Irish people killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse has called the last week one of the most emotionally draining of his life.
But Fr Michael McAleenan, who is originally from Banbridge, also revealed that he has had more than his own share of family tragedy. His father died by suicide 13 years ago, his mother dropped dead 11 years ago, and six months later his brother Gerard, a keep-fit fanatic, died suddenly at the age of 40.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph as the families of four of the young people killed prepared for an all-night vigil with the coffins in St Columba's Church in Oakland, not far from the scene of the tragedy, Fr McAleenan said he was asked to preach at a service for the bereaved families and friends because of his past experiences.
He said: "Like these young people I came to the US in 1986 on a J1 visa and I can have a certain empathy with the families because of my own losses."
He learned of the tragedy when a friend sent him a text the following morning asking if he was going to the hospital. "Because of the time difference people in Ireland knew what had happened sooner than many of us here.
"I contacted the Irish Pastoral Centre to find out more and was asked to go to one of the hospitals where the injured had been taken. While I was there I had to tell one young man that his friend had become the sixth person to die. That was very hard."
He added: "Yesterday I visited more of the injured in two other hospitals. Fortunately, their injuries do not seem to be life-threatening.
"When I arrived at one hospital the father of the injured boy said that I was just in time as his son was going to surgery. I anointed him but had to tell the boy not to be afraid. Sometimes when people see a priest they think the end is nigh."
Fr McAleenan says that he has been unable to sleep for several nights during the past week because of the emotional strain, but says that the families' ordeal is much more difficult to even contemplate.
"Obviously as a priest I cannot think of what it would be like to lose a child.
"But I do know what it was like when tragedy struck my own family and I would not wish that on anyone. My sister, who lives out here, and I have been home to Banbridge three times - each time for a sad occasion.
"Perhaps I have learned to be a better priest because of those experiences. God prepares you for the work you have to do, although this past week has been extraordinarily difficult."
He says that the bereaved families now just want to get home and bury their dead children. "They say that time has stopped for them. In the hospitals the parents keep saying how awful it must be for the other parents. Everyone is doing all they can to help.
"I remember when I came out here on a J1 visa and how we enjoyed ourselves and then I think of how my own mother and father would have reacted if they had received the same awful news that those families did this week. It doesn't bear thinking about." He revealed that he had received a message from one of the priests involved in the Clonard Novena in Belfast this week saying that all the congregations were praying for them.
Fr McAleenan was a late vocation.
Now aged 52, he was ordained 10 years ago in St Patrick's Church in Banbridge, where he had been baptised, made his First Communion and was confirmed.
"It was the place where I buried my mother, father and brother and my ordination was a very emotional time for me, but also very joyous," he said.
At the end of the conversation it was back to the church to prepare for the all-night vigil by the parents who spent a couple of hours alone with the coffins during the day before opening the church to other J1 visa holders and then the general public to pay their respects.