Forming the Future: St. Raphael School, Medford, honors first responders

MEDFORD -- When Diane Guarino became the principal of St. Raphael School this year, one of the first things she asked her pastor was whether they could do something for First Responders Day.

Upon hearing her request, Father Paul Coughlin, the pastor of St. Raphael Parish in Medford, agreed to hold a schoolwide Mass for the occasion. Guarino personally dropped off flyers to the police and fire stations to invite local first responders to the event, which was held in St. Raphael Church on Oct. 28.

The school's students in grades two through eight typically attend Mass once a week, with different grades coming on different days. But for this Mass, all the students, numbering about 300, were present, along with a few dozen police officers, firefighters, and EMTs from Medford and Somerville.

The Mass began with the singing of the National Anthem and a procession of flags. During the homily, Father Coughlin asked the students questions about the role of first responders.

"I thought every day was First Responder Day. And it is, in one sense. They're here when we need them," he said.

After giving his homily, Father Coughlin asked everyone in the assembly to extend their hands and bless the first responders with him.

The Mass was followed by a reception with breakfast for the guests. As people left the church, older students handed out cards with a prayer of first responders.

The principal and the pastor both have personal connections with local first responders. Guarino has relatives on the Boston Police force. Father Coughlin serves as chaplain of several organizations, including the Medford Police and Fire Departments, the Somerville Fire Department, and the Irish Police Officers Association of Massachusetts.

Some students at St. Raphael School also have parents or other relatives who are police officers, firefighters, EMTs, doctors, or nurses.

"Not only is this the community, it's also mom or dad, or someone that you know," Guarino told The Pilot during the reception.

Since becoming principal, Guarino has tried to make the school a police-friendly community. Officers come in to read to the students or have lunch with them. Earlier in October, they had a K9 demonstration for the students.

Guarino recalled that the first time they had an officer visit, she asked the students what they think when they see the police. Many said it gave them the sense that someone is in trouble, or something is going to happen.

"We're trying to get away from that," she said, that they are trying to teach the children to "trust the police. They're here for us, to help us, to make us safe, not to be afraid of them," Guarino said.

Father Coughlin also tries to let first responders know that the Church is there for them. Many come to St. Raphael Parish for weddings or baptisms.

"It's important that we make that connection with them because, for the most part, I'm the only connection they have to the Church," Father Coughlin said.

When he is at the scene of a fire, firefighters may approach him with questions about receiving the sacraments or enrolling their children in the parish school.

"It's answering their questions, putting them at ease, making them a little more comfortable with the Church and the Church's ministers," Father Coughlin said.

He said he thought the Mass was "very well received."

"We usually call (first responders) when we're in trouble or need some help. It's good to be able to invite them to a happy event," he said.

Father Coughlin and Guarino both expressed hope that the Mass for First Responders Day will become an annual event.

"It's great to have a day that's set aside just to say 'thank you.' And that's what we did," Father Coughlin said.