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For Duquesne priest, Ice Bucket Challenge is personal

| Friday, Aug. 22, 2014, 7:54 a.m.
Diocese of Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik
Diocese of Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik
The Rev. Dennis Colarmarino
The Rev. Dennis Colarmarino

A Catholic priest in Duquesne has invited his bishop to take part in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge on Saturday.

The Rev. Dennis Colamarino, pastor of Christ the Light of the World Parish, has been living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis for 15 months. He challenged Diocese of Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik to join him on Saturday after the parish's 11 a.m. Mass to take the plunge.

The fundraising phenomenon began when a professional golfer in Florida was challenged by his swing coach to dump a bucket of ice water over his head. He did so for his wife's cousin living with ALS. He then challenged three people and the rest is history. The Ice Bucket Challenge has exploded on social media, resulting in nearly $42 million in donations to the ALS Association since July 29. Children, athletes, celebrities and others have jumped on the Ice Bucket Challenge bandwagon, challenging others to dump ice water over their heads or donate $100 to the ALS Association.

“My parishioners and I are doing the Greater Pittsburgh Walk to Defeat ALS in September and I thought this would be a nice way to raise awareness,” Colamarino said. “I called the bishop and challenged him to join me and he said yes, that he'd like to do it with me.”

After Mass, the Duquesne Police Department will close traffic to South First Street — the church is located at 32 S. First St. — where Colamarino and Zubik will take their seats to await the frigid deluge.

“This is fun,” Colamarino said, “and it brings people together. I thought this was the right thing at the right time. It's a little inane and fun. It's something out of the ordinary for us uptight adults. It's fun and everyone has fun with it. And it's raising awareness and money for ALS.”

The Ice Bucket Challenge began on July 29. Through Thursday, the ALS Association has received $41.8 million in donations, compared to $2.1 million during the same time last year. There have been 739,275 new donors to the ALS Association.

ALS first was diagnosed in 1869, but it wasn't until 1939 that Lou Gehrig brought attention to the disease — a progressive neurodegenerative disease that eventually can lead to total paralysis and death. The disease has claimed the lives of many, including Hall of Fame pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Sen. Jacob Javits, actors Michael Zaslow and David Niven and Sesame Street creator Jon Stone.

Colamarino has been in ministry for 41 years, 31 of them serving the parishioners at Christ the Light of the World and St. Joseph parishes in the city where he grew up. Since his diagnosis, they have stood by his side.

“I wouldn't be able to be here if it weren't for them. They are more than parishioners — they are my family,” he said, noting the sanctuary has been remodeled and an elevator installed in the rectory. He gets around with a walker or scooter and recently was fitted for a wheelchair. He no longer is able to drive because he's lost use of his right leg.

He was not diagnosed immediately. Seeking medical care for a foot problem, Colamarino was not finding any relief. His primary care physician suggested going to a neurologist.

“I went and she said it was ALS. She said I would die in two years, so I should go home and make a will,” he said. “That was quite shocking.”

He made an appointment with an ALS specialist in Pittsburgh and goes every four months to determine if the debilitation is spreading. The disease has started to affect one of his hands.

Muscle weakness is a common early sign of ALS. Early symptoms can include tripping, dropping things, abnormal fatigue of the arms and/or legs, slurred speech, muscle cramps and twitches, and/or uncontrollable periods of laughing or crying. The hands and feet may be affected first and eventually speech, swallowing, chewing and breathing are impaired.

Despite mobility challenges, the priest continues to fulfill his duties. “I started to get tired, so I asked the bishop for a helper,” he said, noting the assistant is a Duquesne native and New Castle priest.

Referring to something his neurologist told him, Colamarino said, “This disease will not define who I am. Every morning I get up and say my morning prayer and thank God for another day.”

Reflecting on how ALS has changed his life, he classifies things as BD or AD — Before Disease or After Disease. “Before I would jog three times a week and cook meals. I love to cook for myself and friends. But that life is over. Now I can't drive or lift a frying pan. When it comes to meals, everybody brings them to me. There's not a day goes by that somebody calls to see what I need. Every day someone is bringing a meal and that gives us quality time to spend together.”

Although his life has changed dramatically, Colamarino remains upbeat. “We don't get to choose our life so you just have to make the best of it. I'm surrounded by so much love. I often cry, not for myself but because I can't believe I'm so loved.”

He doesn't look too far down the road, but he is looking forward to Saturday and the ALS walk. “We've formed a team, Team Father Dennis, for the walk and we are leading in the amount of money raised. We set a goal of $10,000 and so far we're up to $25,000. I think Saturday's event may kick it up even more.”

To join or support Team Father Dennis, visit

Carol Waterloo Frazier is an editor for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1916, or

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