By James Lomuscio
Many in Westport knew of her only as Tina, the homeless woman with long, gray-blonde hair and a limp who regularly asked for money, usually a dollar, in downtown parking lots.
Christine Wessel: one of the photos in the program at her service today. James Lomuscio/WN photo
But today as more than 150 filled Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church for her funeral, Christine “Tina” Wessel, 63, became more than just a tragic, homeless statistic.
The Rev. Peter R. Powell, the retired CEO of Homes With Hope, eulogized her as a larger-than-life figure, “Christ in our midst,” challenging the community to do even more to address the needs of homelessness in town.
“We need to transform this community, so that no one else lives and dies the way Tina did,” Powell said.
Wessel was discovered dead in a maintenance shed where she stayed behind the Westport Center for Senior Activities on Nov. 29. She died of gastrointestinal bleeding due to ulcers, said the Office of the Chief State Medical Examiner.
Many who had encountered her over the years described her as always polite, gracious and grateful for the slightest help, be pocket change or a ride. Others commented that her well-spoken, dignified bearing belied her being on the street.
Longtime Westporters Dottie Vecchione and Peggy Radigan were among the first to enter the church.
“I saw her every week, we’d try to help and drive her around,” said Vecchione.
Radigan recalled driving Wessel to the Merritt Superette.
Ellen Naftlin and Larry Ritter at today’s service. Naftaiin put together a photo collage of Christine Wessel. Ritter said he knew her and her brother Ludwig for 50 years. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) James Lomuscio for WestportNow.com
“She asked me to take her to get milk for her cats,” she said, adding that Wessel cared for cats that stayed in the pocket park near the Canal Park housing complex.
“Do you know if they rescued Tina’s cat?” longtime Westporter Ronald Malone asked before the service began.
“They did,” said Vecchione.
“She loved that cat,” Malone said.
The scriptural readings chosen from Psalm 12, Isaiah, St. Paul and St. Matthew stressed the theme of caring for the less fortunate, the hungry, poor and naked.
In his eulogy, Powell said that four times over the years, 25 years since he knew Wessel, the town’s Department of Human Services, Homes With Hope and the Police Department offered to place Wessel in some form of housing, “but she would not accept it.”
“We need to be providing safe, secure, affordable housing that they can accept,” Powell said.
“Our challenge now that she has died is to see how we can treat the next Tina who comes before us,” he added.
Following the service, Powell interred the box containing Wessel’s cremated remains in a memorial garden on the church property.
A reception followed in Branson Hall, and it was there that more light was shed on a woman whom Powell described as “a very private person who lived her life in public …a woman who touched every one of us in a way that would probably surprise her.”
Sharie Ferguson, who lives at Hales Court, said she first met Wessel when she had stayed at the town’s shelter for homeless women.
The Rev. Peter Powell (l) was among those speaking at the service. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) James Lomuscio for WestportNow.com
Ferguson said Wessel would take all of her meals at the Gillespie Center, the town’s soup kitchen, but she refused to stay at the women’s shelter.
Wessel was also known to frequent the Westport Library, Christ & Holy Trinity and the now closed Oscar’s Deli, where the family of the late Lee Papageorge offered her food.
“She was one of the strongest women I ever met,” Ferguson said. “I could not live outside like she did.”
Stratford resident Lynne Hall, who arrived late at the reception, gave more of a glimpse into who Wessel was.
Hall, a friend of Wessel’s mother Marga Wessel, who lived at Oronoque Village in Stratford until her death in 2007, told a story of international intrigue regarding the Wessels.
She described the Wessels as German citizens who came to the United States via England, during World War II.
“Her father Paul was an SS officer, a double agent in Germany,” she said.
Arriving in the United States, they first settled with their son Ludwig, who died six years ago, in Williamstown, Mass. before moving to Westport and later the Georgetown area of Weston.
A photo montage of Christine “Tina” Wessel was on dispay today at her service. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) James Lomuscio for WestportNow.com
“Paul was found dead in the woods behind his home in Westport, shot in the head; he was murdered in retaliation for being a double agent,” she said, though the coroner ruled it a suicide. (A Bridgeport Post article from Jan. 18, 1966 said his body was found in the Georgetown section of Weston.)
Tina, who was 11 at the time, discovered the body, Hall said based on what Wessel’s mother told her. The discovery had a profound negative impact on Tina, Hall said, trauma that was exacerbated later on by abuse at the hands of the family physician.
Hall’s arrival at the reception, however, was not to tell sordid, sad tales from the past but to seek out Richard J. Deviney, a longtime Westport probate lawyer who was present. Deviney had taken Wessel’s case pro bono.
“Her uncle passed away three years ago in Germany; it was just settled and between $300,000 and $700,000 was due to her,” Hall said.
Hall and Deviney hunkered down at one of the tables, while the rest of those paying respects attempted to learn more about the mystery woman Tina who had touched them in some way.
On one table was a collage of childhood and young adult photos of Wesssel and her brother Ludwig.
The photo display was courtesy of Westporter Ellen Naftalin.
“I knew her brother Ludy,” she said. “He was living in Stratford, and when he died, his landlord gave them to me.”
With Naftalin was Larry Ritter.
Mourners enter Christ & Holy Trinity Church today for a service for Christine “Tina” Wessel. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com
“I knew them for 50 years,” he said. “They were both incredibly stoic in a German way. Ludy and I became very close friends in (Staples) high school.
He said it was not known whether Tina had graduated from Weston High School. He doubted it.
“The last time I saw her was three or four weeks ago,” said Naftalin. “She was out on the street in the middle of Myrtle Avenue.”
She said Wessel was on her way to Coffee ‘An.
“I told her about the photos, and she was very happy,” Naftalin said. “She said that one day, if she ever found herself in a place she would like to stay, she’d like to have the photos.”