By EmmaLee Italia | Contributing Editor
What could have ended in tragedy became a story of hope for one former resident of Atlantic Highlands, thanks to the timely response of a diocesan priest and local law enforcement.
On Jan. 14, a woman who has not been identified publicly called the emergency line of Our Lady of Perpetual Help-St. Agnes Parish, Atlantic Highlands, leaving only her first name on the voicemail. Father Fernando Lopez, pastor, returned her call after receiving the message alert.
“She thanked me for calling her back, and she told me that she had a bottle of pills and was planning to commit suicide, but that she didn’t want to act against God,” Father Lopez recalled. “She said she wanted to die, but wanted absolution beforehand.”
Father Lopez explained that he could not grant absolution and tried to get more information in exchange for praying with her and offering a blessing.
“I asked her to call 911, but she refused,” he said. “I had to keep her talking, keep her on the line, so I tried to get her to tell me her address and last name. I said, ‘You have to talk to me if you want me to help you.’ After I prayed with her, she hung up. I called her back twice, and there was no answer.”
With no more information to go on, Father Lopez tried to find the phone number in his parish records. Unable to find anything that could identify the woman, he immediately contacted the Atlantic Highlands Police Department, where he also serves as chaplain.
“I gave them her phone number and first name,” he said. “They traced the number, and found out it was from North Carolina.”
The responding officer, Patrolman Christopher Inglis, immediately contacted Verizon’s law enforcement team and explained the situation. Verizon verified the call was made from a cell phone, and pinpointed the location of the call to a specific street address in Wilmington, N.C.
Father Lopez heard no more information until the following day, when the police called to tell him the woman had been found and was safe in the hospital. Apparently she had already consumed an overdose of sleeping pills, and was found just in time to save her life. The woman had been a resident of Atlantic Highlands more than 15 years ago.
“What’s interesting to me is that she kept the phone number from a parish in her area from so long ago,” Father Lopez reflected. “As a priest, we always share in the bulletin that if you are in pain or in need, [you can] reach out to us.”
He further noted that the Church recognizes that people who are severely depressed and contemplating suicide are “not themselves.”
While not professionally trained as a counselor, Father Lopez recounted a few past experiences when individuals came to him for guidance. One even persisted in seeking his priestly wisdom, in spite of being under professional psychiatric care, seeking answers from a spiritual perspective.
“Thank God that in our Diocese, we have Catholic Charities with phone numbers we can call and refer to for professional help and spiritual conversation,” he continued. “It’s good for people to know they can reach out and have a person to talk with.”
In a statement to The Monmouth Journal, Father Lopez said, “I am happy we have such an outstanding police department and they took the steps necessary to save a life.
“My prayers go not only to the woman who hopefully will receive all the help she needs for a full recovery, but also to our police department, especially Ptl. Inglis, and the officers in Wilmington, N.C., who responded so quickly.”