Church services held for balcony collapse victims

People comfort each other at a vigil at St. Columba Catholic Church in Oakland, on Friday, June 19, 2015, for the victims of Tuesday's balcony collapse in Berkeley. Photo: David Yee ©2015
People comfort each other at a vigil at St. Columba Catholic Church in Oakland, on Friday, June 19, 2015, for four of the victims of Tuesday’s balcony collapse in Berkeley. Photo: David Yee ©2015

By Tracey Taylor and Francesca Paris

The Consul General of Ireland coordinated a church service Friday evening in collaboration with a local priest to remember four of the young college students who lost their lives as a result of a balcony collapse on June 16 in Berkeley.

The service was held at Saint Columba Catholic Church on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland, just south of the Berkeley border. It was presided over by Father Aidan McAleenan, who has been working tirelessly over the past few days to provide support for the families of the six students who died, as well as the seven who were injured in the accident.

Read complete balcony collapse coverage on Berkeleyside.


Friday’s service was for the families and friends of Eimear Walsh, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster and Lorcán Miller. Services for the other two victims, cousins Ashley Donohoe and Olivia Burke, were being held Saturday in Sonoma County, where Donohoe lived and attended college.

Inside church, photo posted to Facebook by St. Columba at 5:37 p.m. on Friday June 19, 2015
Inside St. Columba Church on Friday June 19, 2015, coffins held the bodies of four of the six young students who died in Berkeley’s balcony collapse on June 16, 2015. Photo: St. Columba Church/Facebook

At the vigil, which lasted from late afternoon to late at night, relatives and friends paid their respects at open caskets with individual seating areas, arranged around a central alter draped with the Irish flag.

A diverse group of family members and friends, of different ages and ethnicities, sat in the pews or gathered around the church’s entrance lobby. People were crying, laughing and hugging.

Slideshows were projected onto the whitewashed walls of the church in four corners with images of the four young students. Photos showed the victims in formal dress, posing for selfies, making funny faces and alongside friends

People comfort each other at a vigil at St. Columba Catholic Church in Oakland, on Friday, June 19, 2015, for the victims of Tuesday's balcony collapse in Berkeley. Photo: David Yee ©2015
People comfort each other at a vigil at St. Columba Catholic Church in Oakland, on Friday, June 19, 2015, for the victims of Tuesday’s balcony collapse in Berkeley. Photo: David Yee ©2015

Grant, the consul general of Ireland to the Western United States, attended the vigil, as did Jimmy Deenihan, Ireland’s Minister of State for the Diaspora. Other officials who visited included Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and his wife, State Senator Loni Hancock, Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan and Berkeley Fire Department Chief Gil Dong.

By around 9 p.m. the caskets were being closed and family members were leaving the church. A large black limo bus had been chartered to transport the mourners to where they were staying.

“The four caskets just left the church. I have never experienced such incredible emotion, and at the same time compassion,” Father McAleenan posted to his Facebook page at 10:08 p.m. Friday. “Our parish put its super best foot forward. Hospitality and gospel love and then some! Thank you for all the prayers love and concern. Keep the families of of those gone to heaven in your prayers. Also remember all those who need healing on every level!”

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates speaks to his wife, State Senator Loni Hancock, after attending a vigil at St. Columba Catholic Church in Oakland, on Friday, June 19, 2015, for the victims of Tuesday's balcony collapse in Berkeley. Photo: David Yee ©2015
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates speaks to his wife, State Senator Loni Hancock, after attending a vigil at St. Columba Catholic Church in Oakland, on Friday, June 19, 2015, for the victims of Tuesday’s balcony collapse in Berkeley. Photo: David Yee ©2015
Berkeley Fire Chief Gil Dong, left, and Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan speak to the press after attending a vigil at St. Columba Catholic Church in Oakland, on Friday, June 19, 2015, for the victims of Tuesday's balcony collapse in Berkeley. Photo: David Yee ©2015
Berkeley Fire Chief Gil Dong, left, and Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan speak to the press after attending a vigil at St. Columba Catholic Church in Oakland, on Friday, June 19, 2015, for the victims of Tuesday’s balcony collapse in Berkeley. Photo: David Yee ©2015

A mass celebrating the lives of cousins Donohoe and Burke was to be held at 10:30 a.m this morning at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Cotati, Sonoma.

Donohoe, from Rohnert Park, was a senior at Sonoma State University where she was studying biology. Burke was about to begin her fourth year in college at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dublin, Ireland.

Buses were departing from outside the Berkeley Police Station on MLK Jr. Way between 7:45 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. this morning to take mourners to the services. After the first mass, the buses were to take people to Sonoma State for a memorial service with the families of the two young women. Mourners were expected back in Berkeley around 5 p.m.

Donohoe will be buried in Sonoma, while Burke’s body will be flown to Ireland for a burial in Dublin, according to Father McAleenan.

Update: 4:30 p.m. The families of the Irish students who were killed in the balcony collapse released the following statement:

Statement issued by the Irish Consulate San Francisco on behalf of the families of Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Lorcán Miller, Niccolai Schuster and Eimear Walsh.

“As we leave Berkeley and return home to Ireland with our beloved sons and daughters, Eimear, Eoghan, Lorcán and Niccolai, we would like to thank everyone in America and Ireland for their sympathy and support, which has been a tremendous comfort to us at this tragic time.

Particularly we thank the local authorities, emergency services, medical staff, parishes and communities of Berkeley. In addition we are forever grateful to the Irish Consul, Philip Grant, and his local team, and also the amazing service and support received from Aer Lingus, the Department of Foreign Affairs, US Ambassador Anne Anderson, and a special appreciation to Minister Deenihan.

We cannot thank enough the students that were in the apartment and apartment complex that night. The manner and speed at which they reached out to our families, to our Consul, and to each other was faultless. Our children were extraordinarily blessed in their friends and we are enormously proud of them.

The sympathy and responses of friends of our sons and daughters, the wider group of students on J1 visas and the program’s sponsoring Agencies (USIT, SAYIT, CIEE and InterExchange) is a testament to their popularity, and to the closeness of these groups from school and university.

The Irish communities of the Bay Area – coordinated by Fr Brendan McBride, Fr Aidan McAleenan, Celine Kennelly and their colleagues at the Irish Immigration and Pastoral Center – have been a constant source of support and comfort.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the Donohoe family and Ashley, who was laid to rest today in Sonoma, and with Aoife, Clodagh, Connor, Hannah, Jack, Sean and Niall who remain in hospital and with their families, we wish them a speedy recovery.

We very much appreciate the support and sympathy that has been expressed, but now we ask for privacy so that we can mourn the sudden and tragic passing of our beloved sons and daughters, with the dignity that they deserve.”

Francesca Paris, a sophomore at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is a Berkeleyside summer intern.

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