Family, friends say goodbye to 19-year-old quake victim

Gengel remembered as voice for the poor

By Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / February 21, 2010

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WORCESTER - The tearful father of 19-year-old Britney Gengel, whose love for his only daughter led him to mobilize US officials to search for her missing body amid the rubble of Haiti’s earthquake, yesterday called her a “shining star’’ whose generous heart inspired her to help people in one of the world’s poorest countries.

“She was the voice of those who didn’t have one,’’ Leonard Gengel said, speaking before some 1,000 mourners who filled St. John’s Catholic Church, for her funeral Mass yesterday. “Now she will be a voice for the poorest of the poor in Haiti. We will continue her dream.’’

Gengel, his wife, Cherylann, and sons Bernard and Richard, delivered an emotional eulogy during a solemn funeral Mass that drew quiet laughter as well as tears from a congregation that included US and Haitian officials. Britney, a sophomore communications major at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., found her “calling’’ among the poor in Haiti, her mother said.

“She fell in love with the people of Haiti, but especially the children,’’ Cherylann Gengel said, looking toward her daughter’s casket. “As a mom, I ache for the children of Haiti, but I am so proud of my daughter.’’

Britney was one of 14 students and staff from Lynn University taking part in a three-week service trip called “Journey of Hope-Haiti.’’ Gengel was in her third-floor room at the Hotel Montana when the 7.0-magnitude quake struck on Jan. 12, just one day after the college group arrived.

The Gengels initially were told that Britney had survived, which prompted her father to shout joyfully “she’s alive’’ to television news crews. But the report was later found to be false, and en route to Florida for what they thought was going to be a reunion with Britney, her stunned parents learned that two professors and four students, including their daughter, were still missing.

Leonard Gengel urgently appealed to US officials, all the way up to President Obama, to help find Britney and the others. He traveled to Haiti with a contingent, including US Representative James McGovern, a Worcester Democrat whose district includes Rutland, where the Gengel family lives.

Gengel did not find his daughter’s body, but the trip is widely believed to have stepped up rescue efforts. Yesterday, the grief-stricken father singled out McGovern, US Senator John F. Kerry, and other state and local officials, for bringing home his missing daughter’s body, and family and friends for supporting the family in the past month.

Britney Gengel was the last of the six Lynn University victims found. Her body was returned to the United States on a military plane last week.

“If it were not for the brave souls, and all that everyone did, we know, in our heart, we would not have gotten her back. We are eternally grateful to every one of you for how you have helped us these past 30 days,’’ Leonard Gengel said.

In her eulogy, Cherylann Gengel praised her husband of 27 years for lobbying for the recovery effort.

“This really would not have happened if Len did not advocate for our daughter. I need to publicly thank Len for everything he did for us,’’ she said and the congregation stood in applause.

Kerry, McGovern, US Senator Scott Brown, and Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray were among officials in attendance, as well as Emmanuelle Dupiton, Consul of the Consulate of Haiti. The Rev. Robert J. McManus, bishop of the Diocese of Worcester, was among nine clergy, including two Haitian priests from the Boston area, who participated in the 90-minute Mass, marked by prayer, silence, and song, including a performance of “We are the World’’ by the choir at Wachusett Regional High School, where Britney graduated in 2008.

“This has been a story of faith all the way through,’’ said the Rev. John Madden, pastor of St. John’s Church, where the Gengel family worships.

Madden noted the “unspeakably terrible’’ destruction in Haiti, and said Britney was there to do God’s work. “God calls us to serve one another,’’ he said as mourners listened in silence. “Britney was spiritually blessed. What is most important, I think, is that she did it with such joy, with such vitality.’’

The priest recalled how effectively Britney organized the church’s annual Christmas toy drive. “I mean, she was in charge - not her mother, not her pastor,’’ Madden said, eliciting laughter from mourners.

She was also a normal teenager. Her mother recalled the spirited teen whom she’d drop off at the movies with a girlfriend - only to later learn her daughter had sneaked out the back door to meet a boyfriend. At 15, before she was old enough to drive, Britney and a friend borrowed Cherylann’s car to go for an ice cream in another town. “Britney was not perfect, OK?’’ her mother said to laughter.

But when it came to helping others, there was nobody more “fabulous’’ than Britney, her mother added.

“We will continue Britney’s work to help the people of Haiti,’’ Cherylann said. “You know why?’’

“Because she was fabulous,’’ Britney’s mother, father, and two younger brothers said in unison.

Kathy McCabe can be reached at