Nolan Scully dreamed of being a policeman, or a firefighter like his dad, but those who knew him say he was already a public servant.
“He just had that spark in his heart for people,” said Diana Rogers, Nolan’s grandmother.
The four-year-old whose battle with cancer touched the hearts of many in St. Mary’s County, and around the world, died on Feb. 4 at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, surrounded by family. He leaves behind his parents, Ruth and Jonathan, and his two siblings, one-year-old Brayden and 10-year-old Leila.
Nolan was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare soft tissue cancer, when he was three years old. His family started a Facebook page, titled NolanStrong, where they posted updates on his condition. The page drew more than 100,000 followers, which led to an outpouring of community support, including a NolanStrong 5K, a “Buzz Off Cancer for Nolan” event at a local barber shop, a soccer tournament dedicated in his honor, and several prayer vigils.
“To see that many people respond to him in such a heartfelt way; that is the ultimate pride a grandparent can feel,” Rogers said. “…He made unbelievers believe. He brought the community together in such positive way.”
Rogers said her husband, Burris, had to make several trips with his pick-up truck to transport all of the toys that people from all over the world sent to Nolan. He also received many cards, which he would always open individually and get excited about, Rogers said. Even if he had never met the person, he never said that he didn’t know them, but rather would say, “That is my Facebook friend” or “those are my workers,” if the card was from a fire department or police station.
“He truly never met a stranger,” Rogers said.
After his diagnosis, Nolan’s ability to do certain things was limited, but his grandmother said he accepted his limitations with grace. One of his favorite activities grew to be standing at the front door or going on walks and waving at everybody who walked by.
“He never questioned a reason why he could never do [something], he just made the best out of not being able to do it,” Rogers said.
Nolan’s dad was the chief of the Leonardtown Volunteer Fire Department until the time of Scully’s diagnosis, when he stepped down. Throughout Nolan’s battle with cancer, several first responder communities helped to make the boy’s dream of becoming a policeman or firefighter a reality.
While Nolan was at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the city’s Police Commissioner swore him in as an honorary police officer, and Nolan came to be known as “Sgt. Rollin’ Nolan.” The Hollywood Volunteer Fire Department awarded him an honorary membership, and the Leonardtown Volunteer Fire Department installed him as an associate member.
On Feb. 10, the funeral procession began at the Hollywood Volunteer Fire Department, and as the casket was carried out of the building, at least 100 first responders stood outside saluting the young officer. The Maryland and St. Mary’s County flags flew at half-staff, and a picture of “Sgt. Rollin’ Nolan” was displayed on the screen in front of the firehouse.
Nolan got to ride alongside the first responders, as his casket was placed on top of a fire truck that led the procession to St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church in Leonardtown. The truck was followed by dozens of others, which all had #NolanStrong written on the side. Officers from seven St. Mary’s County fire companies, 11 out-of-county fire companies, and six law enforcement agencies participated in the funeral and procession.
At the interment following the funeral Mass, the police officers and firefighters did the “last call,” which is a ceremony traditionally held at the funerals of fallen officers. The officers use their radio to page the fallen officer three times, and after receiving no response, they announce that the person’s time of service has ended.
The funeral Mass at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church was live streamed in the gym of Father Andrew White, S.J. School and in the Leonardtown and Hollywood Volunteer Fire Departments. Father David Beaubien, the pastor of St. Aloysius, was the main celebrant of the Mass. The concelebrants were Father John Ekeocha, from MedStar Georgetown University Hospital; Father Dan Carson, the administrator of St. Francis Xavier in Newtowne, where Nolan was baptized; Father Charles Gallagher, the pastor of Our Lady of the Wayside in Chaptico; and Father Raymond Schmidt, the pastor of St. John’s in Hollywood.
Nolan’s grandmother said he had planned his own funeral Mass, choosing only happy music, such as “This Little Light of Mine.” He also wanted everyone to wear red, his favorite color, or to wear a “NolanStrong” T-shirt, which many people did to honor him.
“He wanted everyone to smile and be happy,” Rogers said. “So even in the end, he was not thinking of himself.”
At the beginning of the liturgy, Father Beaubien read a letter of condolence from Cardinal Donald Wuerl, expressing his deepest sympathy for the family and assuring them of his prayers.
“Our loving Father gave us Jesus to help us triumph over grief and even death,” Cardinal Wuerl wrote. “In Him we are not separated from those we love…. We take comfort in the faith that life has changed for young Nolan, not ended.”
Nolan was excited to go to heaven, Father Beaubien said, and dreamed of heaven being filled with things that four year olds love, like iPads and nerf guns. His parents would often tell him that it was okay to go to Jesus in heaven, and that when he did, there would be no more cancer treatments. As he listened to them talk, he would just smile and say “okay.”
“He never questioned anything his mother and father said about going to Jesus. He had more faith than I did,” his grandmother said.
“There was a spiritual maturity in him beyond his four years,” Father Beaubien said in his homily on Feb. 10.
After it became clear that Nolan did not have long to live, Father Ekeocha completed his sacramental initiation, giving the four-year-old First Holy Communion and Confirmation. Nolan had not eaten in 10 days, but that did not stop him from setting down his iPad and giving the priest a smile and his full attention.
“It seems that the graces of Nolan’s Baptism had already been forming a protective shield over and around him against fear, giving a special peace, tranquility, and most of all, the spirit of love, compassion and care focused on others, not on himself,” Father Beaubien said.
While his family was grieving, Nolan would minister to them with love and patience, Father Beaubien told the Catholic Standard. He would tell his mom not to cry, because it wasn’t her fault, and his last words were, “Mommy, I love you.”
“Considering the innocence of his soul and the apparent graces that abounded in him, it is possible to have confidence that Nolan is already seeing his God and Savior,” Father Beaubien said.
Through the way he reached out to others in love, Father Beaubien said Nolan reminds him of Jesus’s own self-identification in the Gospel, when he said that he did not come to be served, but to serve (Matthew 20:28).
“The Lord asked Nolan to bear the cross in a special way,” he said. “With determination, as if learned from the Lord, Nolan carried that cross and did it out of love.”
Father Beaubien said he hoped people would continue to tell Nolan’s story, because “there are too many extraordinary and remarkable details about Nolan’s life, suffering, and death to keep silent about.” He encouraged everyone to think of Nolan whenever they are going through suffering, and remember to be “NolanStrong.”