Team Samaritan House rider draws strength from teammates in battle with brain cancer

Anya Semenoff

Last June, Luis Bernardez finished his second Ride the Rockies with Team Samaritan House. Having just recently retired from his job working as a physicist in California, he was ready to enjoy a new chapter of life in Bozeman, Mont., with his wife, Kellie. Luis assumed he would eventually return to the annual Colorado cycling tour but thought that aspiration could wait for someday farther down the road. Then in December, he received news that altered every plan: He was diagnosed with glioblastoma — brain cancer.

Luis knew he had no more time to waste waiting for someday.

“When you have time to live and do stuff, you tend to put things off a bit. And so this year, I decided I would try to do it again,” said Luis, 57, during a phone interview with Denver Catholic.

Following a near-immediate surgical procedure to remove the tumor in December, Luis underwent 42 days of chemo and nearly seven weeks of radiation. The intensity of the treatment made it hard to imagine undertaking a weeklong, 432-mile cycling ride through the Rocky Mountains.

“At first, he didn’t want to do anything, and then he started thinking about things,” said Kellie, Luis’ wife of 21 years. “It’s a different ride for him. In the past he’s been able to work out and get in shape for it, but this time it’s just to experience the whole thing.”

Ride the Rockies started in 1986, a creation of The Denver Post. The annual tour follows a different route each year in June, and typically involves cycling over 400 miles in total distance over six or seven days.

Team Samaritan House has fielded a team in the ride for nine consecutive years to raise money to support families and individuals experiencing homelessness. Started by team captain Tom Schwein and co-captain Tom Dea, it began with only six riders in 2010 and has grown steadily, with 50-60 riders participating in Ride the Rockies this year, according to Dea. Each rider on the team is asked to raise a minimum of $1,500, with all funds going to Catholic Charities’ Shelter Services in four locations in northern Colorado, including the counties of Denver, Larimer, and Weld, as well as a location on the Western Slope. Fundraising continues through October, and Team Samaritan House has a goal of $250,000 for this season.

For co-captain Dea, it is a blessing to meet and include the many different people that God brings together to support the team.

“Luis got involved the second year in 2011. He was a college friend and he was in my wedding, and I was in his. Luis is an exceptional athlete and he was excited to join the team. I invited him  and am thankful he accepted,” Dea told the Denver Catholic in an email sent from this year’s Ride the Rockies route. The race ran June 9-15.

When Kellie told Dea about Luis’ glioblastoma diagnosis, Dea was shocked, but still wanted to welcome his longtime friend to return to the ride for a third time.

“Not knowing whether he was willing to accept the challenge was hard, but once he agreed, I was stoked for the opportunity to spend a week with my college buddy,” said Dea.

The encouragement from Dea and the other Team Samaritan House riders, as well as from those who have donated to Catholic Charities in support of Luis’ ride, has been felt by both Luis and Kellie.

“Everyone so far has been very happy that he’s able to ride at all, and they’re very happy they’ve supported this whole organization in general, the whole Team Samaritan House and all of Catholic Charities. It’s been wonderful for all of them,” said Kellie.

Though not a practicing Catholic himself, Luis acknowledges a tangible sense of faith in the prayers offered for him by Dea and his teammates, and in all that surrounds him.

“[Faith] is more contemplative now,” said Luis. “Of course, God is all in on this, as far as things go. It does seem like God is there every day. I just seem to look around and He seems to be ever-present.”

Moving forward, Luis will continue chemotherapy treatments for as long as possible and won’t put off appreciating the time he does have.

“Because of the cancer, it makes you feel like you need to do the things that you want to do,” said Luis. “It’s kind of like the bucket list. You gotta get rid of those things.”

COMING UP: Thomas Fitzsimons: The unsung Catholic Founding Father 

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As our nation celebrates the day of its independence and subsequent founding as a country on July 4, a look back some lesser-knowCatholic history of this historic event seems warranted.  

George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin: these are names every American knows. Pull out your wallet and you’ll likely see at least one of their faces on the money you carry aroundAnd while this nation was founded on principles rooted in Christianity, none of these men were Catholic. In fact, of the men history calls the Founding Fathers of America, only two were. 

Many may already be familiar with Founding Father Charles Carroll, a Catholic and signer of the Declaration of Independence, and whose brother John was the first Catholic bishop assigned to what would become the United States. However, Carroll was not the only Catholic who played a role in the founding of our country. The other was Thomas Fitzsimons, a name that is not mentioned much (if at all) in U.S. history classes but deserves to be recognized nonetheless.  

The unwieldy named Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, published in 1887, paints a vivid picture of Fitzsimons and the way his faith informed his character. While the other Founding Fathers were meeting and deliberating about the Declaration of Independence, Fitzsimons joined the Continental Army anfought on the frontlines against the British army. 

Captain Fitzsimons commanded his company of militia until 1778, when France entered the war. British troops withdrew from Pennsylvania and began to focus on the southern states. It was at this time that Fitzsimons became more involved in politics at the state level. In 1782, he became a delegate at the Continental Congress. In 1786, he was elected as a Pennsylvania state legislator and served for three terms until 1789. In 1787, he was selected to represent Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Congress, where the United States Constitution was written and ratified. He, along with Daniel Carroll, were the only two Catholics to sign to Constitution. 

Born in Belfast, Ireland in 1741, not much else is known about Fitzsimons’ family. He had three brothers – Nicholas, Andrew and John – and one sister, Ann. He and his family immigrated to America as early as 1760, where they became residents of Philadelphia. It was here that Fitzsimons would stake his claim as a businessman and politician. 

In 1763, Fitzsimons married Catharine Meade, whose brother, George Meade, would later go into business with Fitzsimons and build one of the most successful commercial trade houses in Philadelphia. Throughout his life, Fitzsimons was in close correspondence with Bishop John Carrollthese letters revealed insights into the Catholic Founding Father’s personal life. In a letter to Bishop Carroll in 1808, Fitzsimons wrote of being married to Catharine for 45 years. Additionally, local baptismal records show that he and Catharine stood as sponsors at the baptisms of three of Meade’s children. 

In 1774, Fitzsimons began his first foray into politics when he was elected as one of 13 Provincial Deputies who were given authority to call a general meeting of the citizens. It is believed he was the first Catholic to have ever held public office in the budding United States. Even so, anti-Catholic bigotry was common at the time and did exist within some of his fellow statesmen, such as John Adams, who once said in an address to the people of Great Britain that the Catholic faith was “a religion that has deluged your island in blood and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world.” 

Fitzsimons’ first stint in public office was brief, only lasting from May to July, but it was a foreshadowing his future involvement in state affairs. As the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Fitzsimons formed a company of soldiers to fight against the British army. He was assigned to the Third Battalion under Col. Cadwalader and Lieut. Col. John Nixon, who was the grandson of a Catholic. Behind the scenes, as George Washington and the like organized committees and framed what would become the Declaration of Independence, Fitzsimons ascended to the rank of Captain and continued to serve his country as a soldier and patriot.

In addition to his tenure as a commanding officer and politician, Fitzsimons also found success in other ventures. In 1781, he helped found the Bank of North America, the United States’ first de facto central bank, and served as its director until 1803. The latter years of his life were spent primarily in private business, but he maintained a consistent interest in public affairs; even Fitzsimons wasn’t exempt from the old adage, “once a politician, always a politician.” 

Through all of these endeavors, and even after befalling troubled financial times in the early 1800s, Fitzsimons remained a diligent philanthropist. He gave immense support to St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia and was invested in the improvement of public education in the commonwealth. As one of his contemporaries wrote after his death in 1811, “he died in the esteem, affection and gratitude of all classes of his fellow citizens.” 

Fitzsimons was buried in the graveyard of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia, which is now part of Independence National Historical Park. His name may not be a household one like Washington or Jefferson, but Fitzsimons can be remembered as something of an unsung Founding Father of the United Statesa man whose life of quiet faith, humble service and admirable patriotism exemplifies the values that this country was founded upon in a simple yet profound way.