By Ralph Iannotti

CONNELLSVILLE (KDKA) — About 120 people turned out Tuesday night in the social hall of the Connellsville Church of the Immaculate Conception Parish.

It was the first of seven sessions in a series of drug education and prayer services being held throughout the 4-county Catholic Diocese of Greensburg.

Dr. Paul Niemiec, the Director of Counseling for Greensburg Catholic Charities, told the gathering, “We’re worried about things like opioids, for example, that will kill you; it’s a culture of life issue, people are dying from this.”

The numbers are sobering. In Pennsylvania alone last year, there were more than 4,600 fatal drug overdoses. That compares to just under 1,200 highway deaths statewide and 671 homicides in 2015.

The DEA estimates 13 people in Pennsylvania die of overdoses each and every day.

“Every pastor of a parish knows the stories behind those statistics,” Bishop Edward Malesic, head of the Greensburg Catholic Diocese, said. “Every pastor knows the people they buried, and the loved ones of those people. The stories keep coming, whenever I’m out, I hear stories about a son who is addicted, [they say] please pray for him, Bishop.”

Mary Sampey is the Evangelization Director for the Connellsville Catholic Community.

Last December, Sampey’s sister, Angela Phillips of Uniontown, died of an accidental heroin overdose at the age of 34. Angela’s drug addiction, like that of so many others, started with painkillers.

“Angela, she had children, she was a loving person, an incredible seamstress, incredibly talented,” Sampey said, “and I really want people to know it could happen to anyone.”

Sampey said she is continuing to grieve over her sister’s death, but she is channeling that grief at meetings like the one in Connellsville, and she is in speaking at many Diocesan schools, trying to help others faced with a family drug crisis and to let them know they’re not alone.

“It started about Angela to me, and it became about a bigger purpose,” she said. “It became about helping other people and giving a voice to those families that don’t have one.”

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