ABINGTON — The poinsettias, wreaths, and garlands inside St. Bridget Church Thursday morning spoke to the lingering, festive feelings of the Christmas season. But the seven Marines in dress-blue uniforms who slowly escorted a casket up the aisle of the 150-year-old church reflected something else.
Sergeant Daniel Vasselian, a 27-year-old Marine who was killed in combat in Afghanistan two days before Christmas, was honored before 1,000 mourners in an emotional funeral Mass that celebrated his life and paid homage to his sacrifice.
“There is no greater love than this than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” the Rev. James Mahoney, pastor of St. Bridget’s, told a solemn gathering that included Governor Deval Patrick, US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, dozens of Marines, and hundreds of family members and friends.
Vasselian, serving his third tour in Afghanistan, was killed Dec. 23 in Helmand province, a dangerous region in the volatile south of the country. He was the first person from Abington to die in combat since the Vietnam War, and the packed pews in St. Bridget’s and the snowy streets outside showed how much his death affected this blue-collar community.
Every seat was taken, the balcony was filled, and dozens of mourners stood in the rear of the church for the hourlong service. On the roads leading to St. Bridget’s, yellow ribbons fluttered from dozens of telephone poles, and many residents hung American flags despite the biting winter wind.
“I’ve been living here for 50 years, and I’ve never seen so many people here,” said Una Walsh, 78, a native of Ireland who said she was determined to attend the funeral regardless of the weather. “I said I’ve got to go.”
Mahoney described Vasselian as a fun-loving, popular youth whose life changed in serious and profound ways after he entered the Marines. But one of the traits that remained constant, the pastor said, was his deep embrace of family and community.
“He had a wonderful spirit; he cared so much for all of you,” Mahoney said. “All of us need to make sure we always tell each other, ‘I love you.’ He was able to do that in the most beautiful way.”
Vasselian’s wife, Erin, returned that love in brief remarks from the altar, where she had been escorted by a Marine. She spoke of her husband, a high-school sweetheart whom she married four years ago, as a courageous and personable man. Then, turning to look at the casket, she said, “I love you.”
On Wednesday, more than 1,000 people attended a wake for Vasselian, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who visited the Quealy and Son Funeral Home before departing that night for a diplomatic trip to the Middle East.
After the funeral, Jared Crowley stood outside the church and watched the funeral motorcade depart slowly in a steady snow as an honor guard stood motionless near the hearse and limousines.
“He was one of my brother’s best friends,” said the 31-year-old Crowley. “He was always the life of the party, but he was also one of the most warm-hearted people. It’s amazing how this town came together.”
Steps away, Navy veteran John Butler of Windsor Locks, Conn., stood near a church door with his hand clutched around the staff of an American flag. The 70-year-old is a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcycle group of veterans who attend funerals for fallen service members across the nation.
“I’m here to honor a man who served this country,” Butler said.
A Rhode Island member of the Riders, 66-year-old Fran Bettencourt of Bristol, echoed that sentiment as she clutched a cup of coffee. “It’s the least I can do for someone who gave everything he had,” Bettencourt said.
Vasselian is the second service member from Massachusetts to be killed recently in Afghanistan, where nearly all US troops are scheduled to be withdrawn by the end of the year. His funeral occurred 10 days after services for Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Rodriguez, 19, of Fairhaven, who was also killed in Helmand province.