By Matt Kabel
Being the parent and caregiver to a beautiful daughter with special medical needs made attending Mass challenging over a five-year span. I would go with my sons when I could before dropping them off at CCD.
One week a few years ago, a young priest in his homily likened God to Wi-Fi. He said that when entering church, we should shut off our phones and outside distractions and instead tap into that Wi-Fi. It was the first time in my adult life that a priest had said something relatable to both me and current times. Since that day, I always enjoyed having that priest for Mass and looked forward to his homilies.
Six months ago while sitting in a Manhattan hospital PICU, we received the devastating news that our beautiful six-year-old daughter, Sally, would not survive the day. Her health had been in decline after battling childhood cancer three years earlier. That afternoon a friend miraculously texted and asked if we needed a priest, offering to make urgent arrangements with our parish – St. Patrick’s in Bay Ridge. We agreed and a few hours later that same youthful priest came rushing into Sally’s hospital room. I remember experiencing a sense of extreme relief, both for what he represented and knowing he would bring us much needed comfort in the darkest moment of our lives. He spoke to us not only as our priest, but almost as if he were a life-long friend.
That priest was Father Gregory McIlhenney, or just Father Greg to us, and little did I know that he would bring lasting light to the darkness I would endure over the coming days, weeks and months.
A few days later as we sat in the rectory to discuss Sally’s funeral, my wife and I again were relieved to confirm that Father Greg was the same jovial and inspiring priest that I came to know on Sundays. He brought not only comfort and understanding as we read of our “wish list” for Sally’s services, but he assured us that her spirit no longer occupied her remains. Instead, she was everywhere he said. We should reflect on the old memories, but we as a family needed to create new ones with the confidence that she would still be a part of them. You have no idea the peace that these words gave us at that moment, and still do today.
Due to circumstances outside of our control, we were unable to hold Sally’s funeral until six weeks after her passing. Throughout that difficult period, Father Greg stayed in touch with us to provide ongoing emotional support with constant check-ins.
Joy and Levity
On the day of the funeral, he had us as mentally prepared as anyone could be in such a terrible situation. A church packed with Sally’s community, including many non-Catholics, found a connection to our faith through Father Greg’s inspiring words and actions that day. This included playing the song “Remember Me” from the movie Coco, and knowing Sally’s love of high-fives surprised us by asking everyone to high-five during the sign of peace. The church was filled with smiles and the sound of slapping hands, a much-needed moment of joy and levity on a difficult day. In that moment, he managed to channel Sally’s presence to all who were there.
Following the funeral, we held a Celebration of Life party, where I donned a yellow tutu that I often wore during triathlons to raise awareness for childhood cancer. Father Greg, ever the rock of support for us those days, donned one as well. I can’t tell you how many times I heard comments like, “If more priests were as relatable as him, I’d go to church more.” It wasn’t so much his specific actions that drew this response, but an ability to connect with people where they are, not where they’re supposed to be.
Two days later at the burial of Sally’s urn, we experienced a heavy downpour of rain. Father Greg again brought levity sporting yellow sunglasses despite the horrid weather while finally putting Sally’s remains to rest after six emotional weeks. It was an ending I badly needed.
But I realized shortly after, that I didn’t know how to pick up the pieces of my shattered life.
Luckily, Father Greg’s support didn’t stop there. For the last four months, I’ve visited him every other week where we both just sit and talk. I share my struggles, my wins and everything in between. He allows me to vent my bottled-up emotions without judgement, instead recommending a path forward that is filled with faith, kindness and hope. He’s coached me into being a better friend, co-worker, husband and father through those sessions. He’s encouraged me to be like my daughter, Sally, who taught us to find joy even in the hard times and to be a beacon of light for others.
Father Greg continues to be a rock of support for our family, a bond forged through a difficult path. More than that, he has actually become the faithful friend that he exuded in the hospital room that fateful day.
For that, Father Greg has certainly been the shining light we so badly needed, and we are forever grateful for that friendship.
Editor’s Note: In the Bay Ridge community, Sally Kabel is remembered as “Sweet Sally Sunshine.” This year, the neighborhood’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade (see centerfold) was dedicated to her memory.