George Mullen Jr. grew up in Cutchogue, in a house on Depot Lane built by his father, George, a plumber. His maternal grandparents, the Kaelins, lived an easy half-mile walk north on Depot Lane.
Young George went to kindergarten through eighth grade next door to the family home, in the two-story red-brick building that is now the administrative offices for the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District. One of his first jobs was working as the janitor for the Sacred Heart Catholic school, just west of the elementary school in Cutchogue and next door to Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church.
Later, he was hired to be the sexton in the church, a job he began in the 1970s and from which he retired in the early 2000s. His workplace was so close to the family home that he could walk back and forth to his jobs if he wanted to. Never married, he lived with his parents, then when his father died with his mother, Rosemary, who died when George was 51 years old.
“George’s responsibilities included opening the church doors before Mass, closing them after Mass, cleaning up and helping keep everything going,” said his sister, Rosemary Brennan. “He knew everyone in the parish, knew everyone’s names, loved talking to them, loved talking about history. He was very well liked. He had a big heart.”
Mr. Mullen, 82, died April 8 in Stony Brook University Hospital from the devastating effects of COVID-19. There are, as of this writing, 653 COVID-19 deaths in Suffolk County. Each of the dead has a story to tell, a life lived, a biography that perhaps only family members know anything about and the world outside that small circle will never know.
By all accounts, Mr. Mullen was a small-town man. He may have left Cutchogue after he graduated from Southold High School, but friends say he returned within weeks. This was home; he could not pull himself away and wouldn’t until nearly the end of his life. Many residents of Cutchogue, particularly those who knew him in the parish church, would see him walking around, or at the post office, or walking by the fire house in the years when he lived at Peconic Retreat, a kind of adult group home on New Suffolk Road in Cutchogue.
His life largely unsung accept by the family members he leaves behind, his name won’t be in any history books of Cutchogue or Southold Town. But Mr. Mullen represents another name, another life lost in the mounting death toll of a horrific virus that has swept in and claimed lives and forever changed the way people live.
In keeping with the social distancing rules that now delineate our lives, a small group of family and friends gathered Tuesday morning in Sacred Heart Cemetery on Depot Lane to say goodbye to him. Virginia McCaffrey, who also grew up on Depot Lane and who attended the little elementary school where George’s mother was the third and fourth grade teacher, walked over from her house to the cemetery to pay her respects.
Father Peter Allen, who was the long-time priest in Sacred Heart and for whom Mr. Mullen worked, conducted a prayer service. Monday was a heavy storm day; Tuesday morning the sun was bright and warm as everyone gathered.
“I knew George well,” said Father Allen, who is now retired and living in Nassau County. “He was a good hearted, simple man who always did what was asked of him. When I came to the parish in 1990 I knew him as the sacristan, which is the formal name for that job.
“He would do anything for anybody. He was always kind. He was a lovely man.”Virginia McCaffrey
“He was hired by Father [John] Henry before I got there,” Father Allen added. “He retired, maybe, around 2003 or so, sometime around then. He opened the church, cleaned it, did the technical work. A sacristan is someone who cares for the church — that was George’s job.
Mr. Mullen knew Sacred Heart was started before the turn of the 20th century by Irish farm workers, who, through hard work, bought farms from owners they had once worked for. Some of the founding Irish family names, like Haggerty, are memorialized inside the church on beautiful stained glass windows. The church is now shuttered, a “for sale” sign decorating the curb in front of it, a reminder than even the historic and the sacred can be marketed.
He knew the oft-repeated story that, when the Polish people came to Cutchogue after the turn of the century to work on farms, they had to stand in the back of Sacred Heart during Sunday Mass. This was the Irish church, their church. By the 1920s, the Poles — by then farmers and landowners themselves — built their own church, Our Lady of Ostrabrama on Depot Lane.
“At some point he went to that adult home across from the fire department,” Father Allen said. “He was never in the best of health. He could not live on his own. I didn’t give a eulogy at the cemetery. I said his soul was in the hands of God.”
Ms. Brennan said her brother left Cutchogue about three years ago. He went to different adult homes in Suffolk County, before exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, which eventually brought him to Stony Brook.
“He was in the hospital a week or a week and a half,” she said. “I was going over to see him and they stopped people coming in because he tested positive. … I last saw him in late February or early March. They had him on oxygen. They thought he would stabilize. For a while he was holding his own.”
Ms. McCaffrey said, “I knew George when I was a kid. I knew him better when he worked at the church, as I ran the education program at Sacred Heart. He was very quiet. He was never in a hurry to do anything. But he got it done.
“He would do anything for anybody,” she added. “He was always kind. He was a lovely man.”
Peggy Kaelin, who also attended the Tuesday service, said when she and her husband, Fred, married in 1971 in Sacred Heart, it was George who came through at the eleventh hour with a second car that was needed for the wedding. As Ms. Kaelin and her husband raised their family, they made sure to invite George to their home for Thanksgiving, knowing he was alone.
“He was a great storyteller,” she said. “He saved us on the day of our wedding — and I will always remember that.”