SUNSET PARK — When Dennis Morales, longtime member of, died in 2012, his wife Linda was desperate to do something in his memory. The NYPD captain had grown up a few blocks away from the parish, and it was there that Linda went to confide with then-pastor Father Kevin Sweeney.
“I can still see myself standing in the church of St. Michael’s and Linda Morales was there. Her husband had just passed — I think she had been at the funeral home,” he said. He now serves as the bishop of the Diocese of Paterson in New Jersey.
Out of a conversation between Linda and Bishop Sweeney regarding the importance of young children having an opportunity to attend college, a scholarship in Dennis Morales’ memory was born.
“The American dream happens so often that people don’t even realize it,” said Bishop Sweeney.
For 11 years, St. Michael’s Church has offered college scholarships of $2,000 each in memory of Morales, FDNY Officer Thomas Phelan, and Sister Margaret “Peggy” Ford, CSJ. They are issued each year to three parish residents who have established a reputation for “giving back” to their local community.
Another scholarship, called the “Lights of Inspiration,” was established in 2015 to further offer financial support to the emerging young adults in the parish.
The deadline for applying for the scholarships was July 21 — this year’s awardees are currently going through the process of being reviewed and interviewed.
The Morales family and the Phelan family each fund the $2,000 scholarship dedicated to their loved one’s name, said Father Fulgencio Gutiérrez, who has served as the pastor at St. Michael’s for three years. The parish funds the scholarship issued in memory of Sister Peggy.
Morales, an 18-year veteran of the NYPD Emergency Services Unit, died from illnesses he contracted from inhaling toxic materials performing rescue and recovery efforts in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
His wife Linda reads the applications every year for the scholarship that is in her husband’s name.
Sister Peggy also died in 2012 after serving 66 years as a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph. She was the principal at St. Michael’s Catholic Academy from 1981 to 2001, and continued to serve as the school librarian until she retired in 2004.
Sister Peggy was one of the last members of her congregation that had been a part of St. Michael’s Church, “for many, many years,” said Bishop Sweeney, who added: “The connection is that the Sisters of St. Joseph had educated so many children at St. Michael’s School all those years.”
Phelan was a 15-year veteran of the FDNY, which he joined in 2003 and was assigned to Engine Co. 55. He later joined Marine 9 in Staten Island, where he worked as a pilot.
Phelan was serving as a captain on a Circle Line Statue of Liberty ferry cruise when the Twin Towers were attacked on Sept. 11, and he used his boat to help survivors of the attack.
Many years later, it was discovered that Phelan had cancer, which is believed to have been caused by the toxic fumes from the attacks. He died in 2018. Phelan is one of hundreds of members of the FDNY who have perished due to illnesses relating to the terrorist attacks.
The other scholarship offered by St. Michael’s, the Lights of Inspiration scholarship, is funded by the community. The parish youth ministry sells Christmas trees starting at $250 to raise the money. Last year, 45 to 50 trees were sold, the pastor said, enabling St. Michael’s to raise enough money to offer the fourth scholarship.
“It is an activity that the youth group does every year. They sell Christmas trees, and whatever profit we make, we give it out to the community to our teenage youths who are already in college or are going to college,” Father Gutiérrez said.
The Lights of Inspiration scholarship, started in 2015, was born out “of a necessity,” said St. Michael’s youth minister Noel Vásquez.
“We were looking at all the students in the community, and a good amount of them were students that didn’t have any opulence. They were not getting any scholarships or any support to continue their higher education,” he said.
Bishop Sweeney said higher education in some form is becoming crucial and expressed the hope that the scholarships he had a hand in forming can help a few college students from his former community continue their academic endeavors.
“It helps both the students and the parents to say that they can go to a four-year college and see the opportunities that are there. I think the scholarships have done that over the years,” he said.