Five years after his death, Dominik Pettey’s ‘mission’ unfolds in people’s acts of faith, love and mercy
Oct 30, 2019
“I will spend my heaven doing good on Earth.” – St. Therese of Lisieux
Like they have been since their son Dominik died five years ago, on Nov. 1 Magdalena and Patrick Pettey will be surrounded by the love and faith of family members, friends and people they don’t even know, as they gather together for an outdoor Mass at his gravesite in section 24 of Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring at 8:30 a.m.
In 2014 on Nov. 1 – All Saints Day – they experienced one of parents’ worst nightmares, as they learned that their 17-year-old son had been killed in an accident, struck by a car in the early morning while he waited with four friends on the side of the road after the car they were riding in had run out of gas, and the teens were waiting for help not far from the River Road exit on the Beltway.
What happened next for Dominik Pettey’s family and friends, and for many others in the days and years to follow, is a mystery that his parents believe can only be explained by faith and God’s enduring love and mercy.
“For some reason, God wanted this kid,” said Patrick Pettey, recalling how the news made them distraught emotionally, and how he found some consolation after a sleepless night when he went to an early morning Mass the next day, All Souls Day, at his parish church, St. Bartholomew in Bethesda, and heard a young priest preach about the purification of souls, and small crosses were displayed with the names of each parishioner who had died that past year.
That week in planning for Dominik’s Funeral Mass, the Petteys realized that their parish church and nearby Catholic churches would not be able to accommodate the mourners, who would include many hundreds of classmates and fellow students from Gonzaga College High School, where Dominik was a senior and a star hockey player, and the hundreds of other students from area Catholic and public schools expected to attend.
The family received special permission to hold the Funeral Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., the largest Catholic church in North America that rarely has funerals in its Great Upper Church. A standing-room crowd of thousands of people attended Dominik Pettey’s Funeral Mass on Nov. 8, which in the Dominican liturgical calendar is the Feast of All Souls. The Petteys named their son Dominik – the Polish variation of Dominic -- in honor of a Polish Dominican priest friend, and that order shared a relic of St. Dominic that was placed on the altar during his Funeral Mass.
Magdalena Pettey is the daughter of Polish immigrants, and she and her family have a special devotion to Divine Mercy. When Dominik was 11, their family visited the Divine Mercy shrine in Poland, and the boy ran up and kissed the tomb of St. Faustina, the Polish nun whose writings popularized that devotion. Before his Funeral Mass at the basilica, the congregation prayed the rosary and the Divine Mercy chaplet, and a large image of Jesus’s Divine Mercy was displayed at the foot of the altar.
At the Mass, the parents’ eulogy to their son was read.
“As we mourn the loss of our beloved son, we want everyone to know that however tragic, his sudden death was the will of God. We earnestly believe that God would not have taken him from this Earth at the pinnacle of his life unless He had a mission for him,” they said.
In their eulogy, Magdalena and Patrick Pettey thanked people for their outpouring of love and solidarity, and they asked people to honor their son by taking his prayer card that had the Divine Mercy prayer on it. “On our son’s behalf spread the message of Divine Mercy and practice acts of mercy and kindness towards one another. Share with the world that we have an all-merciful God and that no sin is too great that He cannot forgive it,” they said.
The Petteys concluded their eulogy with the words, “It doesn’t stop here. Let the love you feel for celebrating Dominik’s life continue to inspire you to seek, love and trust in God to fill that place in your heart like Dominik did. Let us all fight for heaven!”
Reflecting on what happened then and what has happened since, Patrick Pettey said, “It’s all the Holy Spirit. That’s the only way to figure this out.”
Last year, the Petteys established a website, dominikpettey.com , that includes reflections on his life and death and the impact of both. The website describes him as “a regular kid” who was spirited and warm-hearted and was devoted to his Catholic faith from a young age. Along with telling about his triumphs, which included playing on Gonzaga’s championship ice hockey team, it chronicles some challenges that he faced, like a ruptured appendix during his junior year that led to ongoing health problems and struggles with his schoolwork. His father concedes that Dominik’s teen years were sometimes hard, and he was defiant at times.
But Patrick Pettey added that in the days, weeks and years after Dominik’s death, “We found out he was the most beloved kid who would do anything for anybody,” including tutoring a student he didn’t know, and encouraging friends who needed help and support.
The Gonzaga community, and students and graduates from other local Catholic schools, began reaching out to the family, with calls, visits and texts that continue to this day. The website notes that each year in Boston and in other cities, Gonzaga alumni and students attending college in those areas attend a prayer service or Mass on Nov. 1 in Dominik’s honor, and they typically send the Petteys a group photo, with each person holding up their index finger on each hand, to represent 11, the number on his hockey jersey. Gonzaga students at the beach have gone to church on Aug. 5, his birthday.
“He (God) is obviously using Dominik in some small way to bring people closer to Him,” said Magdalena Pettey.
She added that parents have also joined her for coffee, to tell her “that Funeral Mass was their reversion to Catholicism, or maybe they’re taking it more seriously now.”
Since their son’s death, Magdalena Pettey said, “We’ve experienced so much love. It lifts us up.”
Patrick Pettey noted, “The (Gonzaga) boys still visit us. On Sunday, friends from Visitation asked to come by.”
The spring after Dominik’s death, the Petteys were presented with his diploma at Gonzaga’s graduation. Since then, the school has established a scholarship fund in his name that has raised more than $300,000.
In their backyard, the Petteys have a wooden cross that Gonzaga students painted purple in Dominik’s honor. On one side, the number 11 was painted, and the other side includes the signatures of hundreds of Gonzaga students, and classmates placed it as a roadside memorial at the site of his death. Patrick Pettey retrieved the cross when he heard that Beltway construction would be done in that area.
On Nov. 8, the anniversary of Dominik’s Funeral Mass, Gonzaga’s hockey team will play its annual Dominik Pettey Memorial Purple White Hockey Game at 5:30 p.m. at Fort Dupont Rink in Washington to honor their friend and former teammate.
The Petteys’ driveway includes a hockey net, and inside the house are special mementos of Dominik’s life, including a hockey stick from a fellow Gonzaga student who played on a national team, photo collages of Gonzaga students and hockey players with Dominik, and a dog tag made by a Gonzaga student engraved with “#11 in heaven.”
A table in the foyer of their home reflects the Pettey family’s enduring faith and their steadfast belief in Divine Mercy. Behind the table hangs an image of Our Lady of Czestochowa who is revered as the patroness of Poland. On one side of the table is Dominik’s senior portrait, near a Divine Mercy candle that is kept burning, and on the other side is a display of the prayer card from his Funeral Mass, near four small wooden crosses engraved with his name and the dates of his birth and death, carved from the same wood as his casket by Trappist monks.
The Petteys’ devotion to Divine Mercy was also demonstrated by their forgiveness toward the woman who drove the car that struck and killed Dominik. They called her that week to tell her that they would be praying for her at his Funeral Mass, and they wrote to the prosecutor acknowledging that the crash was an accident and asking that she not be charged with manslaughter. Since then, they have met with her several times and become friends. The woman works as a clinical psychologist, and her patients include military veterans who have experienced war trauma.
“For me, mercy and forgiveness is like a freedom. I am free. I can sleep at night,” said Magdalena Pettey. “I am so happy that I was able to forgive her because I have peace in my heart, and she has peace in her heart.”
She added, “God forgives us, and we forgive others… I go to Confession, and He forgives me all the time. We’re all sinners. If we are forgiven and our slate is wiped clean and we believe in the sacraments, how can we not allow someone (else) to feel like that?”
Patrick Pettey said his son has inspired him to deepen his own faith by attending daily Mass. “He did it to me. I need it (the Mass) every day,” the father said. “I need the Word, I need the Eucharist, I need to strive for holiness. I’m on that path now. I’m just a much better person because of this. It made a positive impact on my life in the most important way, in my spiritual growth.”
He also said that shared experience with his wife has made their marriage stronger, and he’s thankful to God for that.
In the years since, the Petteys have given talks to groups of mothers and fathers, sharing how their faith and their belief in Divine Mercy has helped them endure the tragedy of the loss of their son. The Petteys’ three children include Dominik’s older brother Nicholas and his younger sister Veronika.
When asked about her advice to parents, Magdalena Pettey said it’s important to rely on the sacraments, and she noted, “Never give up hope. Cling to Christ.” Patrick Pettey added, “Keep God in your family all the time. We know so many parents are going through so many things. Faith is the cement that can save your family.”
As they emphasized in their eulogy, the Petteys believe God does indeed have a mission for Dominik, and for everyone. Magdalena Pettey said, “If people can get one step closer towards Christ, then Dominik’s mission is working.”