Uvalde Catholic priest prepares funeral for Texas school shooting victims

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UVALDE, Tex. – Scribbled on the white board affixed to a presbytery wall inside the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart was a grim list: funeral after funeral, sometimes two in one day, all of which will be held here for the students and teachers killed last week at Robb Elementary School.

Inside the presbytery, Father Eduardo Morales met with families of victims, took calls from ministries across the country and prepared to lead an evening mass for a small group of parishioners – a kind of prelude in relentless grief which awaits him for the next two weeks.

“There’s a lot of pain and suffering,” he said over the weekend, ahead of an impromptu vigil for the victims behind the church, which houses the city’s only Catholic congregation. “But we cannot lose faith. Faith must be part of this journey to find comfort.

It’s not the first trip of its kind for Morales, a man who has both an intimate knowledge of this tight-knit, largely Hispanic community and a stark view of what much awaits in the city of nearly 16,000 inhabitants.

Born and raised in Uvalde, Morales – known as “Father Eddy” to his parishioners – grew up with 10 siblings just two blocks from Sacred Heart. Almost 26 years ago, as some family members returned from San Antonio after watching celebrate him his very first mass, his sister, Michelle Contreras, was killed in a car accident, several longtime parishioners said.

More recently, he presided over a painful funeral as the coronavirus pandemic ripped through Uvalde.

But as one of the few local religious leaders tasked with comforting a town overwhelmed by new grief, he must now find a way to persuade stunned and grieving families that their slain loved ones are in a better place.

“I just pray that he has enough energy to be in all the Masses,” said Estela Murillo, 72. as she slipped inside the church on Monday evening, holding an unlit white candle. “It must be overwhelming. It must be impossible.

Morales stuck to a few key tenets last week, putting them at the heart of sermons he delivered from the pulpit and speeches he recited at firesides: Anger cannot turn into hate. The lives of victims should be celebrated. The parish – and the city – must try to heal together.

This is a particularly sensitive command in Uvalde, where some relatives of victims have expressed outrage at the slow response of police officers to the shooting, some of whom are also parish members.

“I’m not going to explain to them what happened. I can’t,” he said of the parents, many of whom he met to discuss homilies or provide advice. “Just being present can be more meaningful than trying to say things that may not comfort them.”

On his own, Morales has compartmentalized his own grief. Even as offers of help poured in from priests and parishes near and far, he insisted he would attend the 11 funeral masses scheduled at the church.

Though he couldn’t help but smile a little as he described the opportunity he had on Sunday to bless President Biden, Morales was circumspect about how the tragedies in his life have affected him, dismissing any sudden center of attention role.

“The way I work is that I have things to do,” he said Monday, his face framed by thick rectangular dark glasses. “I keep doing, doing, doing, and then when it’s all over, it’s all my emotions” that run amok.

In this small rural community, some older scars had not yet healed before the new wounds were sustained. Uvalde County’s coronavirus death rate — 542 deaths per 100,000 population — is nearly twice the national average, according to data tracked by The Washington Post.

In August 2020, as the pandemic ravaged southwest Texas and suspended Sacred Heart’s regular operations, Morales posted periodic updates to his church-affiliated Facebook page, trying to comfort parishioners.

“Unfortunately life happens and for several weeks we have had a funeral mass just about every day and this week was no exception,” he wrote. “We ask that you keep all those we have lost in your prayers and remember their extended family members from time to time.”

This week, Morales repeated the same rhythm of funeral masses, their rituals intended to soothe the grief of survivors. But the sudden loss of children – all so young that he presided over some of their first communions only a few years ago – meant there was a new level of tragedy to overcome.

“When someone was sick with covid, we weren’t sure if they would survive, he said. “These kids were at school celebrating their last days of school not knowing it would be their last day of life.”

Morales was out of town, vacationing in Boston, when he received the urgent call from Archbishop of San Antonio Gustavo García-Siller last week on the tragedy at home.

He arrived in Uvalde late Wednesday, and by the time he woke Thursday morning there was more devastating news: Joe Garcia, a faithful parishioner whose wife, Irma, was one of two teachers killed in Robb Elementary, had died of a heart attack. after visiting a memorial to the victims.

The two clergy went to talk that day with Joe and Irma’s four children inside the single-story white brick family home, where a crowd of 50 extended family members had gathered in a mixture of grief and support.

“The main key is to connect with them, to be present with them in gestures and attitude,” said García-Siller. “We need to build trust with presence and service because it will be a long journey.”

But García-Siller said Morales already had a big head start: He could address everyone in the room by their first name — all because he pastored parishioners who were his friends and neighbors. of childhood. On Wednesday, Morales concelebrated the Garcias’ joint funeral, although García-Siller delivered the homily.

The Morales clan is perhaps best known locally for their mother’s role in fighting school segregation in Uvalde, where Mexican Americans were confined to schools — including Robb Elementary — with fewer resources. His mother, Genoveva Morales, helped organize a six-week student strike in 1970 and was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that forced the district to bus students away. A high school in the city is now named after the Morales family in his honor.

Genoveva Morales would eventually send some of her children to Sacred Heart Catholic School, but she didn’t expect any of them to end up joining the priesthood.

She didn’t take it well at first. As he told the American Statesman from Austin in 1996, she told him, ”They’re going to lock you up, and we won’t see you for years. And you’ll only come home to tell me they’re going to send you to Africa or South America.”

Six years ago he moved, down the street from her. On Monday, a black car carrying his mother pulled up outside the church and Morales walked up to the vehicle to greet her.

“I’m fine. I’m fine,” he told her.

The funeral sequence at Sacred Heart Church began on Tuesday afternoon, with the service of 10-year-old Amerie Jo Garza, the first child victim to be memorialized. Hundreds of people – some in Boy Scout uniforms, others in purple, an apparent nod to her favorite color – filled the modest white church for the funeral mass.

After recalling Garza’s creativity and his dream of becoming an art teacher, he prepared the congregation for the upcoming days of funeral by previewing one of his favorite sayings in times of mourning.

“You will hear me say this at every funeral celebration we have,” Fr Eddy told his parishioners. “We are not in the house of God to celebrate his death. We are here to celebrate his life. We are here to celebrate the life that allows him to continue to be with us.

Annie Gowen in Uvalde and Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.

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