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Fire, police chaplain is eulogized

Priest who offered comfort is honored as one of their own.

December 01, 2006|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

He never manned a hose, wielded an ax or rushed into a burning building to save a life. Yet on Thursday, John Francis Sammon was memorialized in a manner befitting a fallen firefighter.

Hundreds of current and former firefighters and police officers packed the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove to remember Sammon, a Roman Catholic priest who for more than 60 years counseled the victims of disaster and supported those whose job was to confront it across Southern California.

Msgr. Sammon, who went to work carrying a Bible and an emergency radio, died last week at age 90.

"He was always there in the most trying of times," said Chip Prather, chief of the Orange County Fire Authority.

"His sense of humor would pop out at just the right moment. No matter how tense the situation, him being there meant that everything was going to be OK."

Beginning in Compton in 1942 and later in Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Orange County, Sammon volunteered as a chaplain to an ever-growing roster of police and fire agencies.

"He not only prayed for us, but he prayed with us," said Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona, who recalled Sammon speaking at his Sheriff's Academy graduation in 1976. Years later, the monsignor was there to offer support when some deputies died in the line of duty.

"He was a part of our families," Carona said. "Whenever we needed him, he'd be there for us."

Sammon had a police badge and wore a helmet and firefighter's jacket. He often showed up before the red trucks did, causing some to wonder about his communications system.

"People started saying I get my calls from above," he once said.

Through the decades, he became an institution, and then a legend, as indispensable as water to generations of firefighters.

"I think he looked at all of us as his children," said Kevin Nida, president of the California State Firefighters' Assn., an organization for which Sammon, naturally, was chaplain.

"There is no more noble work than to help those who help others."

Fire sirens frightened Sammon when he was a child growing up in Pittsfield, Mass. By the time he attended seminary in Maryland, that fear had transformed into an admiration for those who risked their lives to help others.

Sammon found a calling and began showing up at fires -- so many, in fact, that he was questioned by authorities who suspected he was an arsonist, said Mike Tooley, his grand-nephew.

It was a funny story, one that fit the sly humor of a man known as a practical joker who filled his office with stuffed animals, a model train set, bowls of candy and Snoopy cartoons.

"Of all the things I remember about Uncle John, it was his attitude," said Tooley, an Orange County firefighter. "It was always positive no matter what the situation. I never heard him say a negative thing about anything or anyone."

Tireless, Sammon served as the Orange County diocese's liaison to a dizzying array of groups, including the Boy and Girl Scouts of America, the Knights of Columbus, overseas missions and anti-drug efforts.

Sammon, whose funeral Mass will be today at 10 a.m. at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange, presided over so many weddings, funerals, graduations and official dedications over the decades that he became known as the "Vicar of Invocations."

"John Sammon was the best-known Catholic cleric in Orange County," Bishop Tod D. Brown told the crowd Thursday. "And his fame, shall we say, went far beyond the county line."

Perhaps more than anything, though, Sammon will be remembered for presiding over countless tragedies as a beacon of stability amid chaos.

For that, Sammon was given a firefighter's send-off: taps; three sets of three rings of a fire bell signaling the end to an emergency and a return to quarters; and his casket being placed onto the back of a fire engine, which after a moment of silence, drove away with its lights flashing.

mike.anton@latimes.com

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