Anointing of the Sick at the Boston Marathon

Denied access to the terror scene, Father John Wykes sought to administer the sacrament to victims from a distance.

Immediate aftermath of the first Boston Marathon bomb explosion.
Immediate aftermath of the first Boston Marathon bomb explosion. (photo: Wikipedia)

BOSTON — On April 15, when he learned that two bombs had exploded at the Boston Marathon, Father John Wykes grabbed his holy oil and sprinted for the finish line. He encountered two police officers at the corner of Boylston Street and Massachusetts Avenue, two blocks from the blast site. He identified himself as a priest and showed them the holy oil.

Trying to clear the area, one of the officers told Father Wykes to get back. Separately, his brother priest, Father Tom Carzon, also rushed to the site with oils and was also turned away. Both are members of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary and live at St. Clement's Shrine, three blocks from the finish line.

Now, the Boston Police Department has questioned these events.

In response to inquiries, Boston Police spokeswoman Neva Coakley said reports of priests being turned away from the Boston Marathon bombing site were “not really credible.” She added that the department has no policy on allowing priests or other religious access to emergency sites.

No one from the department would clarify whether or not police chaplains would have been allowed on scene.

“I was not daydreaming. I was turned away by Boston police, and so was my fellow priest, Father Tom,” Father Wykes responded. “Yes, we were definitely turned away by them, and there’s no question about that in my mind.”

His experience, first made public here on the Register’s website April 16, has prompted criticism of the Boston Police Department. In a Wall Street Journal article, Jennifer Graham noted, “But it is a poignant irony that Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who died on Boylston Street, was a Catholic who had received his first Communion just last year. As Martin lay dying, priests were only yards away, beyond the police tape, unable to reach him to administer last rites — a sacrament that, to Catholics, bears enormous significance.”

Two of the three killed that day — Martin Richard of Boston and Krystle Campbell, a 29-year-old restaurant manager from Arlington, Mass. — were Catholic. Many of the more than 260 injured, some in danger of death, likely were as well.

The sacrament of the sick — formerly called last rites or extreme unction — involves the anointing of the recipient’s eyes, ears, nostrils, lips, hands and feet. The priest utters special prayers and forgives sins. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the rite gives strength, peace and courage to overcome difficulties associated with serious illness, and it is also preparation for death (1520).

Only baptized Catholics can receive the sacrament.


First Responders

In cases of urgent necessity — when death is imminent or there are too many injured for the priest to reach them all — most of its form can be dispensed with. That is what Father Wykes did when he could not reach the marathon bombing victims. Understanding that many were facing death, he raised his arms and granted the injured general absolution.

“I did administer a sacrament from a distance, and I really believe that the Lord can bridge the gap of two very small city blocks in Boston without much difficulty,” he said.

Father Wykes said he would like to see Boston priests recognized as first responders so that they can serve the spiritual needs of the injured and dying.

Officer Michael McCarty, chaplain coordinator for the Los Angeles Police Department, said the city's all-volunteer police-chaplain program consists of 62 chaplains, six of whom are Catholic priests. The primary purpose of those chaplains is to serve officers and department staff.

But there are times when a chaplain is called for civilians. In all emergency responses, standard procedure in L.A. is to ask the command post leader whether or not the chaplain can have access. The answer depends on the individual situation.

It is not uncommon for investigators to clear a crime scene in order to preserve evidence. At times, the chaplain is able to minister to the injured in a location outside the perimeter or at the hospital. Sometimes those orders are difficult for chaplains, McCarty said.

“It’s a sore topic, even with our guys, because they want to go there, and they want to make themselves available, like any other first responder,” he said, adding that it is very important for chaplains to respect the investigators and the crime scene.


‘Very Difficult Situation’

Father Wykes has only good things to say about the Boston Police force and their actions on race day, with thousands of people packed into a confined, unsecurable area, in the midst of chaos and horror.

The explosions this year caused “absolute pandemonium,” and, afterward, no one knew the attack was over. He said the two policemen he encountered — one uniformed, the other not — were desperately trying to push people away from the site.

“They looked very anxious. They looked very worried,” he said. “They probably had orders to get everyone out of there.”

To make matters worse, the traditional Patriots Day Red Sox baseball game had let out about 12 blocks from the blasts. Tens of thousands of fans were pouring onto the streets, unaware of what had transpired.

Some runners did not understand why they had been stopped just blocks away from finishing their 26.2-mile trek. Heavy cellphone use caused the whole system to jam. Authorities stopped train and bus service, which made leaving the area much more difficult.

Father Wykes said, “I really admire the Boston Police. They were doing their very best in a very difficult situation. I admire their service to the city a great deal.”


Spiritual Needs of the Suffering

The presence of a priest is a great comfort for the injured and dying and their families, Father Wykes said. For nearly five years, he served as a hospital chaplain in Illinois. He witnessed injuries such as “gunshot wounds, stab wounds, burn victims, babies who’d been smothered accidentally or on purpose. It was a wonderful feeling to be able to accompany these people spiritually at a time when they really needed it.”

Father Richard Erikson, who served as an Air Force chaplain during the Iraq War, knows about tending to those injured by bomb blasts. Father Erikson, a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston, is pastor at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Sudbury, Mass., and a Air Force Reserve chaplain with the rank of brigadier general.

The first soldier he saw on his first night at Balad Air Base in Iraq was severely injured. Hit by a roadside bomb, the man was covered in shrapnel wounds from head to toe. He was also Catholic, and when he found out that the chaplain standing at his bedside was a Catholic priest, his response was: “Sweet.”

“His reaction was that it was a great blessing for him that a Catholic priest would be there and offer him anointing,” Father Erikson said.

Father Erikson said Father Wykes responded to the same spiritual needs that troops in wartime experience.

“People think about the meaning of life. Where is God in all of this? If I die where am I going? Is there a heaven?” he said. “They are dealing with life and death.”

Christine M. Williams writes from Quincy, Massachusetts.