As Father Benjamin Reese was suffering the last stages of ALS at a care center in St. Louis, Missouri, the children, teachers and pastor of Good Shepherd School gathered on the Cheryl Washington playground to pay tribute to the dying priest, and to raise awareness of the progressive neurodegenerative disease.
The 56-year-old priest, who grew up in Aspen and served as a priest for the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., was diagnosed with bulbar onset ALS in July 2013. He died Friday, Sept. 18, 2015, as he was preparing to celebrate Mass.
Local clergy showed their support for Father Reese in 2014 by participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge, a social media phenomenon that resulted in $450,000 in donations for the Iowa-based John Paul II Medical Research Institute, and had 15 gallons of freezing ice water dumped on their heads.
“My hope was, in a symbolic way, to reach out to him,” Msgr. Bernie Schmitz, vicar of clergy in the Archdiocese of Denver, told the Denver Catholic last year. “To let him know there are a lot of fellow brother priests who care for him.”
In 2015, as Father Reese’s condition worsened, Msgr. Schmitz invited Father James Fox, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish, and the Good Shepherd school community, to join him Sept. 14 in a second Ice Bucket Challenge to support Father Reese, and to raise money for pro-life research in search of a cure and enhanced therapies.
The community came together to participate in the tribute, beginning with the students who paid $3 for the privilege to not wear their uniforms to school the previous Friday. They raised $1300 for the John Paul II Medical Research Institute.
Moments before the challenge, after the students gathered on the playground first thing on a Monday, Father Fox revealed that his brother-in-law, Ken Aus of Minnesota, also suffers from ALS. The pastor announced that he was going to match the $1300 donation of the students, thus raising the total donation for pro-life research to $2,600.
The two priests, accompanied by Father Jason Wallace, vice rector of the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, then prepared themselves to be drenched by ice water at the hands of eighth-graders Thomas Krumholz, Tanner Purcell, and Liam Clevenger. Students, teachers and other onlookers cheered.
Msgr. Schmitz, who organized both Ice Bucket Challenges, told Denver Catholic after he received news of the death of Father Reese that he knew his brother priest to be “a man of deep faith.”
“And as I told the kids at Good Shepherd, despite the fact that he suffered from ALS, he never complained,” Msgr. Schmitz said. “He was grateful for the care he was receiving and for the life he was given. His great dream was to finish his degree and he worked at it, albeit slowly.”
“Father Ben was preparing to celebrate Mass when he died,” Msgr. Schmitz continued. “Oh, what a gift that would be for any priest.
“Jesus said about Nathaniel that he was a man of no guile, and that was Father Ben. There was no pretense, just a human being who embraced life and love as it was given to him.”
Father Reese spent his last months at the Mother of Good Counsel Home in St. Louis, Mo., run by the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George.
ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. This disease causes motor neurons to die, and as the disease progresses the brain can no longer initiate and control muscle movement, eventually paralyzing a patient and then death.
Founded in 2006, John Paul II Medical Research Institute is a pro-life non-profit based in Iowa. They specialize in adult stem cells to find cures for cancer, neurological diseases, rare diseases, and chronic diseases. Their institute does not conduct research with embryonic stem cells and believes in upholding the dignity of all human life.
Nissa LaPoint contributed to this report