In N.y., A Chance To Pay Their Respects Throngs Were Drawn To A Public Memorial For Jfk Jr. ''i Feel Like I Knew This Young Man.''

Posted: July 23, 1999

NEW YORK — At the old building where people have gathered for births; where they have sung, cried and prayed; where the powerful and powerless have knelt before something greater than themselves, they came, wanting solace, wondering why.

John F. Kennedy Jr., Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, Lauren Bessette - too young, too soon gone.

Their deaths last week hurt, and so people came, as they so often do, to church.

By midafternoon, the pews were full at Old St. Patrick's Cathedral, a dusty-colored building that seats 660, and still they came. People lined the narrow street outside the church where believers have gathered since 1809, pressing against police barricades erected that morning.

A quartet of little girls grasping violins played something sad; an old lady living four stories above stuck her head out to listen. In the distance, past the uniformed officers and television trucks, came the thin skirl of bagpipes, the martial tat-tatting of drums, as an Irish band teamed up for the memorial to the three victims. Skinny, tattooed young men paused outside bodegas, straining to hear better.

Police stopped traffic two blocks away, and still they came - executives in walking sneakers, others with strollers, slow-strolling matrons who paused in the heat. Before the day was done, police would estimate 3,000 people had paid their respects on the street, despite the faulty public-address system, regardless of the thunderstorm that growled in the distance.

"Yes, it's hot," said Gladys Berstein, 59, who lives 20 blocks away. "But I feel like I knew this young man. And his wife was so pretty."

And so full of promise, said the Rev. Colm Campbell, one of six priests who spoke during the 90-minute public Mass for Kennedy, 38; his wife, Carolyn, 33; and her sister Lauren, 34.

All died last Friday in an airplane crash off Martha's Vineyard, Mass. Their cremated remains were buried at sea yesterday, and private family services will be held today and tomorrow.

"I've ministered to families who have suffered from serious illness, accidents and murder," said Father Campbell, standing under arches soaring 70 feet above the church's gray terrazzo floor. "But never have I had to minister to a family that has suffered all these, over and over, as the Kennedys have."

Throughout the congregation, where worshipers squeezed against one another in the building heat, people nodded in unspoken agreement. They looked at three candles burning near the altar.

Yet in death, said Father Campbell, there is life. In a series of readings he referred to different books of the Bible: Romans, John, and this from the book of Lamentations:

The Lord is my portion, sayeth the soul; therefore will I hope in Him.

John Jr. was determined to be his own person, despite his famous name, said Carolyn Ryan, executive director of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, which sponsored the service.

"He refused to live in his father's shadow," she said in a eulogy. "He marched to his own beat. But he followed his father's exhortation - to ask not what we could do for him, but what he could do for us."

Leslianne Scott, 35, of Brooklyn, once ran into the Kennedy couple on the street. Starstruck, she did what so many people do.

"I said, 'You're John Kennedy Jr.!' " recalled Scott. "He smiled and said he was, so we spoke for a few minutes. They were both so nice."

The young Kennedys had the common touch, agreed Kenny Almos. He arrived early, got a good seat in the church, and emerged saying he felt better than when he went in.

"He ate at our restaurants. He rode bicycles on our street," said Almos, who lives in Manhattan near where the Kennedys lived. "He was a part of us, but he was a prince too."

But even royalty dies, said Eric Wyndham, of Stony Park, N.Y. The living, he said, must have faith.

"It was a beautiful, moving service. I had to fight back tears," said Wyndham. "After you sit through something like that, you have to believe in a higher power."

The service ended with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," sung by a tousle-haired tenor in a starched white shirt. Then everyone filed out, priests and laymen, kilt-wearing pipers and green-clad girls striking drums, altar boys stepping carefully.

And still, people remained against the barricades, where they had sweltered for two hours, wanting to stay a moment longer, to say one last goodbye.

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