KENT—It is not often that a small, rural town has a brigadier general in a church pulpit.
But that is what Kent enjoyed for 16 years under the ministrations of the Rev. Thomas Berberich, former pastor of Sacred Heart Church.
The town was saddened to hear of the Dec. 26 death of Father Berberich at the age of 93 in Cromwell. It was the culmination of a long career of service to his nation and his God.
Father Berberich was ordained a priest in 1959, but his sense of service did not end at the church doors.
While assisting at St. Mary Parish in Derby, he became involved in the fire service, joining Storm Engine Company as a volunteer firefighter and ambulance driver.
He was the first and only priest to graduate from the New Haven Fire College and went on to serve the Connecticut State Firefighters Association as Catholic chaplain for 40 years.
In 1994, the CSFA named him Firefighter of the Year, and in 2012 inducted him into the Connecticut State Firefighters Association Hall of Fame.
In a Facebook posting, Mary Ann VanValkenburg noted that with his death, the Kent Volunteer Fire Department “lost a beloved friend.”
“‘Father Tom,’ as he was known by many, had a remarkable life and a passion for the fire service from a young age,” she wrote. “…. Serving as chaplain for the Connecticut State Firefighters Association for 40 years, Father Tom was deeply committed to the mission and members of KVFD. This was shown by his presence at many parades or other department functions as well as at structure fires, providing care and comfort.”
After two parishioners died in Vietnam, he began a long career in the U.S. Army. He enlisted and served as chaplain from November1966 until October 1967, at Fort Dix, N.J., before asking to be transferred to Vietnam for active duty.
He accompanied young soldiers into battle, ministering to their spiritual needs at night and received three bronze stars and the Air Medal Award for courage and bravery during the Tet Offensive of 1968.
And his concerns about military personnel did not end with his return to the United States.
He served for 24 years as chaplain at the Rocky Hill State VA Home & Hospital, starting an alcohol rehabilitation program and caring for veterans suffering from PTSD.
After the Army, he served as chaplain for the Connecticut National Guard, retiring in 2001 with the rank of brigadier general.
He was a lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion and in 2012 was inducted into the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame.
Father Tom continued his never-ending passion for helping those in need while also serving on many state-level and town committees.
In Kent, he served on the Social Services Task Force, the advisory board of Kent Affordable Housing and the Kent Veterans Memorial Committee, and was a trustee of the Kent Historical Society.
“He was a wonderful, wonderful guy,” recalled First Selectman Marty Lindenmayer, who knew him as a parishioner.
“I can talk about him as a pastor. He was one of the most heartfelt and loving individuals you could imagine,” he said.
“He stared at you with those sparkling eyes, and he would engage people, resting his hand on your shoulder and taking your hand. Everyone know how honest he was,” Lindenmayer related.
Lindenmayer recalled that it was Father Tom who swore his Naval officer wife, Kathleen Lindenmayer, in as a captain during a ceremony held at the Sloane-Stanley Museum in the early 2000s.
Catherine Bachrach, a champion of social services and affordable housing in Kent, said Father Tom gave “new meaning to the word ‘ecumenical,’ reaching out and collaborating with everyone he touched, whether that was a one-on-one contact, such as his visits with parishioners and non-parishioners alike [during] his visits to patients and residents at The Kent, or working with organizations in town.”
“I think of him every time we walk on River Road and see the monument to a Civil War veteran there, knowing he was responsible for obtaining that stone,” she said.
Bachrach noted that in 2003, he was part of a task force that advocated for greatly increasing the hours of the social services director from two hours a week to 15 hours.
“Since 2003, members of that group and others worked to make the position of social services director full time, which finally happened two years ago,” she said.
“The current services, including an active food bank and senior center and even the formation of the Kent Community Fund in 2006, are a direct result of the work done in 2003, with the help and encouragement of this wonderful man,” she said.