FARGO — Until recently, Cass County Sheriff’s Deputy Katie Violet wore her uniform without hesitation, knowing she was making a difference in her work, shaped, in part, by her father’s long career as a highway patrolman. But things have changed for her, as with many of her comrades across the country.
“I’ve never been so uneasy just going to the jail from my house,” says Violet, also a mother and wife.
She’s even considered waiting until arriving at work to change, but she worries she’ll miss helping someone in need, or a situation requiring attention, along the way. “It’s a really hard place to be in.”
The rising stress of the job brought on by the unrest in the streets of our nation’s cities, and the negative perception toward police officers in particular, is why Violet hopes to attend this year’s Blue Mass at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Fargo.
The first Blue Mass took place in September 1934 at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., to honor and pray for public safety employees, and has since grown nationwide. “Blue” signifies the blue-colored uniforms used by many in these services.
At St. Anthony’s, it began in 2016, after the fatal shooting of Officer Jason Moszer. “It became apparent to the whole community that we’ve got an incredible police force and we need to support them; we need to pray for them,” says the Rev. Raymond Courtright.
That year, Courtright was becoming more attuned to area law-enforcement, having been asked to serve as a police chaplain to meet the spiritual needs of officers and their families. “That fall, I had my training with Pastor Paul Nynas (of Hope Lutheran Church).”
Bishop John Folda celebrated the first Blue Mass, and will be present this year, too, Courtright says, noting that it’s usually well-attended by varied denominations.
“I think, especially now, it’s helpful to get a lot of different faiths together, and for the first responders, to let them know, ‘You guys do matter, you’re important to us, and we thank God for you.’”
‘This was for me’
Despite the positives in the field, Courtright says the media has been quiet on those counts. “What a travesty,” he says, noting the lack of fair and balanced coverage following the murder of Grand Forks officer Cody Holte in May.
“Criminal lives matter, but not at the expense of others,” he says, adding that the contempt developing toward law enforcement “is beyond any rational behavior or thought.”
Courtright says the countless lives saved and the many protected from harm — of all races — by law enforcement also deserve attention.
Certainly, he says, those who heed the call to this vocation are held to a higher standard. “The authority you have (in law enforcement) is incredible, and that authority comes to you from God.”
That’s best balanced through faith, he adds, noting that Catholics consider St. Michael the Archangel, a warrior against Satan, the patron saint of law enforcement.
“When you have things blowing up, you want someone out there who’s going to protect you, and at the same time, doesn’t go overboard,” Courtright says. “It’s something you practice, you grow with, and you turn to the Lord to strengthen.”
Growing up in tiny Wyndmere, N.D., Michael Sanden of the Fargo Police Department knew as a young boy he’d someday be a police officer. “I always just knew this was for me.”
He worked for a while as a narcotics detective, mostly on the night shift. Now he’s the sergeant overseeing training at the new Fargo Police Academy. Throughout his career, faith has provided his “backbone” and grounding, he says.
“If you don’t have that foundation, it makes it so difficult. No amount of pay or benefits will help make up for you missing Christmas, or your kids’ birthday, or working overnights, or dealing with some of these tragedies and difficult situations.”
Sanden says now, when law enforcement is being called into question, it’s especially important to look at the statistics and recognize the millions of contacts law enforcement personnel make each year with civilians.
“The vast majority are nonviolent arrests without any incident at all,” he says. “One bad incident gets thrown into the spotlight and makes it seem like this stuff is happening all over the country, every day, all the time. It’s just not true.”
“We have a challenging job,” he continues, inviting anyone with concerns to go on a ride-along to observe a typical day. “We take over 100,00 calls for service a year here in Fargo alone… We can’t do this job without the support of the community.”
‘It will get better’
John Lien, a retired Moorhead police officer, says, “Especially within the last year, I think it’s important for our law enforcement officers to know the public is praying for them,” emphasizing also that the majority are “trying to do the right thing, when it comes to being ethical and upholding the Constitution.”
Lien says that while in active service, he often brought faith into his work, praying for everyone he encountered throughout the day — including those who’d been difficult.
“Some people just go to a job because they want to pay the bills, which is important, but with a job that has the stresses that this does, law enforcement is a special career,” he says. “And it’s one of those jobs you have to have a passion for in order to do it right.”
That means employing both the “warrior and guardian” mentalities needed to keep people safe. “There’s a push right now to take warrior training out of law enforcement, but… we deal with life-and-death situations, and need to balance those two out.”
Courtright observed that many don’t want police officers around — until they’re in trouble. “It’s like the shepherd dog. When the wolf shows up, they’re really happy a protector is there.”
Lien says he hopes the Blue Mass, and other related events, will help his fellow officers stay encouraged in these difficult times.
“It’s God’s work and it’s an important job, and I just think this country is worth fighting for,” he says. “I hope they don’t lose sight of this fact. It will get better.”
Violet says the Blue Mass is “an opportunity to draw support from one another,” regardless of faith. “At the end of the day, you pray you’ll make it home and safe” she adds. “Ultimately, it’s in someone else’s hands, and that’s where the faith part comes in.”
“We want to strengthen and uplift our law-enforcement members and first responders,” Courtright concludes. “They’re an extension of God’s authority, and we want them to be secure in that reality, and be proud of it.”
Along with the Mass to pray for all local public service personnel — including firefighters, correctional officers, 911 operators and EMS personnel, both licensed and civilian — the event will recognize retired Fargo Police Chief David Todd, with a special, first-time honor.
If you go
What: Blue Mass for public safety workers
When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 30
Where: St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, 710 10th St. S., Fargo
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Sept. 25, 2020.]