It was the kind of funeral that was so thoughtful, so prayerful, so perfect…and so Irish!…that you would have thought Bernie planned it himself, with his wife Kathleen, now a widow, double checking to be sure every detail was taken care of.
While hundreds gathered at St. Agnes Church Wednesday morning to say a final farewell to the Shore Casino owner of the last half century and even longer that that of the Casino in the Park in Jersey City, Generous, Kind, Big-Hearted were the descriptions of the day.
Known for his generosity to everyone, but especially every police, fire and emergency team, volunteers for every charitable or military organization who asked, as well as to young couples who wanted a wedding reception to remember, and everyone else, so many were there at the funeral to say their last thanks to a great guy. Police from Highlands, Middletown, Jersey City and so many other places lined up alongside the Atlantic Highlands police department, who were there from the very start of the day until the very end, their way of reminding Kathleen they will always be there for her. The Middletown Police and the fire department, among so many other gestures, said their own final farewell to Bernie, displaying a huge American flag over the entrance to Bayview Cemetery, their reminder to the stream of cars that Bernie was truly a patriot. The Middletown Police Department gave a very formal and professional 21 gun salute at the cemetery, and through the courtesy and swift action of Congressman Chris Smith, the US Army Color Guard folded the American flag draped over Bernie’s casket and presented it to Kathleen with the respect and thanks of the President of the United States, the US Army, and a grateful nation.
Following the funeral, there was the usual perfect repast at the Shore Casino that Bernie had done for so many others. It was Jay, Kathleen’s son, who put aside his own grief at the loss of the father he knew, the boss he worked so diligently for for so many years, the guy he loved as a friend, who directed that spectacular team of Shore Casino employees to prepare a buffet with everything from salmon and whitefish to a roasted pig and Steamboat roast. It was Jay who ensured that the moving screen atop the Casino said a welcome to the crowd from the Casino, a farewell from Bernie, and a thank you to all The Shore Casino team, themselves all in grief over the loss of their boss, lined up military style at the door to the Casino to show Kathleen their great love and respect for her before going to their culinary, waiting, bartending and serving duties in true Shore Casino style.
But it was the mass with three priests on the altar that brought so many to tears, from Father Jarlath’s first blessing and the hymn reminding Kathleen and family “Be not Afraid” to the sorrowful “I’ll take you Home Again Kathleen” as Kathleen and family escorted Bernie out of church. Even the readings by his granddaughter, Katie Connors and grandson Dr. Joseph Connors, reminded everyone of Bernie. Katie read from the Bible that “the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.” And Joseph spoke of love, how it conquers all, and how it is the best of all virtues.
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Bernie’s long time friend, Bob Waldron, who was also buried with a mass at St. Agnes at the time of his death, was present for this mass in the person of his widow, Diane Waldron, Bob and Diane’s daughter, Abigail Swanson and her husband who carried up the gifts, and Bob’s granddaughter, Macy Swanson, who sang the beautiful Ave Maria.
It was the incredible wonderful voice of professional singer Colleen Kelleher, well known in Jersey City for her Irish music, concerts and stage appearances, and a close friend of the Sweeneys, who joined the parish’s music coordinator Courtney Grogan in providing music that calmed the audience, gave them time to reflect on their own Bernie memories, and lifted the spirits of a broken-hearted family. Kathleen’s daughter, Kathleen and her husband Jeff, never left Kathleen’s side throughout the entire day, helping her comprehend, as Kathleen herself said, “I won’t have anybody to fight with!”
And Jay, the same Jay who has been at Bernie’s side for every wedding, funeral, PBA party and every other event that went so spectacularly at the Casino over the years, gave a eulogy about his step-father that came from the heart, including the poem he included and the special friends of Bernie’s he remembered, from Dick Stryker and John Amici, who both joined the Atlantic Highlands police as pallbearers, to high school friends from Snyder High in Jersey City.
The Irish were in fit form for Bernie’s funeral, coming from all over Jersey City and the New York area as well as Florida to be there for Kathleen and bring greetings and special flowers from relatives and friends in Ireland.
It was a spectacular Irish send-off for a spectacular Irish man. For me, Bernie was there in spirit enjoying every second, but scoffing with a growl, “Come on, now, this isn’t for me. Get on with it now.”