Soldier 'virtually' attends daughter's first Communion in Weymouth

FOB APACHE, AFGHANISTAN -- A father of two and a parishioner of St. Jerome's in Weymouth might have missed his daughter's first Communion, if his wife, parishioners back home and soldiers he serves alongside in Afghanistan, had not arranged for him to be there virtually using video chat.

Sgt. 1st Class T.J. Bonner depended on his wife Tricia Bonner, who worked with the parish as the community arranged for a video feed, so he could be at St. Jerome's virtually -- if not physically -- for the first Communion of his daughter Riley.

St. Jerome's, the parish where Bonner had both his children baptized, had scheduled her religious education class to receive first Communion that May 4.

Tricia Bonner said she had noticed that a form sent to parents regarding the first Communion asked about any special accommodations families might need. She thought of her husband in Afghanistan, and asked Bishop John A. Dooher, administrator of the parish at the time, for an accommodation to allow the video calling.

She spoke with parishioner Cathy Fallon about trying to use video calling in the parish, and the two went to the parish to check the signal and see if they could use an iPad to connect Riley to her dad.

With the approval of Bishop Dooher, a secure signal in the church -- and T.J.'s uncle willing to hold the iPad for the entire Mass -- the arrangement worked.

"It was very exciting that he was able to be a part of it, that it was something he didn't miss regardless of how many thousands of miles he was away," Tricia Bonner said.

T.J. Bonner serves in the National Guard with the 181st Engineer Company in Zabul Province, Afghanistan at Forward Operating Base Apache, as a construction supervisor -- considered a combat position in the Army.

The Pilot reached him by instant messaging on May 17.

At Forward Operating Base Apache he had been working as part of a large scale construction operation to help the U.S. Military shift security of the country to Afghan forces and prepare for withdrawal; still, the sergeant first class made getting to see his daughter's first Communion a high priority.

As the warzone construction supervisor counted on the Catholic community at his parish in Weymouth, he also counted on the support of his comrades in arms.

"My platoon pitched in and purchased a private satellite system and I was able to see the Communion right from inside my tent," he said.

After shipping out from the United States on Labor Day in 2012, Bonner had not seen his family in just over seven months; so he had more than construction logistics on his mind as the day approached.

After a day of work almost a world away, he had the opportunity to see the first Communion Mass at St. Jerome's as long as the Internet connection stayed up.

"The timing was actually perfect. We are 8.5 hours ahead, so I was able to Skype right around the time I was getting off work," he said.

Bonner said he felt a deep sense of pride as his daughter participated. He had been baptized at that parish and attended there until he was 4 years old when his parents relocated.

"It was a great feeling. I was very proud of her when she was at the altar to read her reading. Although the video was grainy, and from a distance, I could still make her out and hear her voice. It felt as though I was there. I actually caught myself standing up at one point during the Mass because everyone else was," he said.

Bonner said he will complete his second deployment in July and return to teaching fifth grade at Abigail Adams Middle School in Weymouth.

Bishop Dooher said he was impressed by the parishioners' efforts to help unite the family for the first Communion.

"That sense of the importance of the family, and being part of the Church, just was expressed so quickly by people," he said.