When volunteer firefighter David Apps was killed in an explosion while battling a fire in a paint store on Easter Sunday 1970, it seemed like the world ended for his widow.
Virginia E. (Catalan) Apps was alone, hundreds of miles away from her family in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, with four young children to raise.
She had gone from her parents' home to the home she shared with her husband and wasn't prepared for the life of being a single parent that lied ahead. As was the custom of the time, her husband was the breadwinner and she raised the children.
Her life in Corry, a small, rural community in western Pennsylvania, centered around family and her church, St. Thomas the Apostle Church, and of course, the love of her life, her husband David. She had to learn to be the head of the household, all while raising four children, the oldest who was 13 and the youngest who was 5.
The grieving widow, her children under tow, followed the hearse and returned to her hometown on Aquidneck Island and persevered against all odds to raise her children and build a life for herself.
On Saturday, nearly 51 years after the fire that changed her life, she died at the age of 84 in the home of her youngest daughter, Patricia Bowen, and her husband, Keith Bowen, where she lived the better part of the last two years of her life, due to complications from dementia and Alzheimer's.
A proud and quiet woman who always conducted her life with dignity and grace, her life, and the changes she was forced to make became an example for her children, 11 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren on how to lead their lives.
She instilled in them an undying work ethic, her kind heart, giving nature and trademark stubbornness.
Virginia was a kind, good-natured, selfless, and nurturing woman who put others' needs before her own. She was a caregiver and did everything within her power to raise her children and took in foster children, many of whom returned to see when they were adults.
She was smart, funny, and part detective when it came to unearthing the mischief of her children and grandchildren, family members said.
She raised her children with a momma bear protectiveness when bad influences knocked on the door but would also encourage them to branch out and leave the family nest when the time was right.
She was not infallible. She made mistakes, but those errors were always motivated by love.
As a grandmother, she loved her grandchildren equally and had an intuitive sense about when she was needed and thought nothing of changing her life and doing what was necessary to support them.
She kept her kitchen cabinets stocked with the favorite foods of her grandchildren and imparted to them life lessons without lecturing. She provided her grandchildren with structure and kept them in check, while also showing them kindness and encouragement to be the best person they could be.
She was also quirky, and her grandchildren recalled trips with her to the beach where she fed French fries to seagulls.
And in her death, she would want her family, including her three surviving siblings, to celebrate her life and remember her by emulating the qualities she admired most, her children said.
"I saw the explosion in town. It was like a mushroom cloud. I saw it from the house," said David J. Apps Jr., of Corry, Virginia's oldest child and only son, recalling the Easter Sunday his father and four other firefighters perished in the fire. "That was a painful night for mom."
His mother taught him and his siblings that family always came first and to be "honest and forthright" with people, he said. "She was selfless and thought about everyone."
"She cared about people and always extended herself to help others," said Cynthia Brown of Portsmouth, Rhode Island. "She never gave up."
"Her life was about family. She had an open heart and open door to all," said Nancie Apps Maijala of DuBois, Pennsylvania. "There was always family all around her."
"We lost a great part of us," Bowen said. "She was dedicated to family, always there for family and proud of who her kids and grandchildren were."
"Nana was like our Mother Teresa. She was always caring for people. She was always there for you, said David Brown, her oldest grandchild.
Her work history included being a cafeteria worker at the former Henry F. Anthony School; the manager of the convenience store Dutchland Farms; a foster care mother; the assisted care facility Blenheim-Newport, where ironically she worked in the Alzheimer's/dementia wing; and numerous private duty cases throughout the Newport, Rhode Island, area.
She was especially proud when she finished her education and became a certified nursing assistant and a medical technician.
Besides her husband, she is preceded in death by her parents, Gaston August and Edwina (Perry) Catalan; seven siblings, Anthony Catalan, Alfred Catalan, Richard Catalan, Roger Catalan, Evelyn Catalan, Carolyn Catalan and Gaston Catalan Jr.; and a grandson, David James Apps.
She is survived by Thomas Catalan, David Catalan and his wife, Kathy, and Christine Catalan, and many nieces and nephews and great nieces and nephews.
Family and friends may call at St. Thomas the Apostle Roman Catholic Church, 203 W. Washington St., Corry, Pa., on Wednesday from 10 a.m. until the time of the funeral Mass there at 11 a.m. The Rev. D.G. Davis III will officiate. Due to CDC regulations, masks and social distancing will be required.
Funeral arrangements are under the care of Bracken Funeral Home Inc., 315 N. Center St., Corry, Pa.
To sign the guest book or send condolences, please visit www.brackenfh.com.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Corry Volunteer Fire Department, 14 E. South St., Corry, PA 16407; or the Alzheimer’s Association, 1600 Peninsula Dr., Suite 15, Erie, PA 16505.
Arrangement for calling hours, a memorial service and burial in Portsmouth, R.I., are being finalized at this time. Connors Memorial Funeral Home, 55 West Main Road, Portsmouth, RI, is handling the arrangements.
Burial will be in Old Portsmouth Cemetery, Portsmouth, Rhode Island, alongside her husband and her parents.