By DEXTER DUGGAN
PHOENIX — Mater Misericordiae Mission here, just north of the complex of Arizona state-capital office buildings, is a good place to see babies, toddlers, and kids, brought to the Traditional Latin Mass of 1962 by their parents.
It’s the type of faith community where hope and trust in the future seem to inspire confidence to have larger families, and where God’s guidance is still assumed.
On Father’s Day, June 15, a poster in the foyer of the adjoining church hall advertised a late-summer pilgrimage to visit sites of the English martyrs.
While a trip to the United Kingdom would consume thousands of miles, a modern martyrdom occurred here the night of Wednesday, June 11, perhaps 50 steps from the poster.
The young associate pastor of the Latin Mass community, Fr. Kenneth Walker, FSSP, 28, was fatally shot in the contiguous rectory while the pastor, Fr. Joseph Terra, FSSP, 56, was severely beaten by a violent intruder who disappeared into the night.
Although Phoenix police reportedly feared that the battered Terra wouldn’t survive through the night, a miracle seemed to have occurred. The church’s makeshift bulletin for June 15, which also was Trinity Sunday, said Terra was making “excellent progress,” with “a full recovery” expected.
Even though both of the church’s clergymen suddenly had been removed from serving their people, the historic resilience of the Catholic Church swung into action.
Only a few days later, on Father’s Day, Mater Misericordiae’s regular three Sunday Masses in Latin were celebrated, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation was freely provided, by other clergymen with the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) who arrived on the scene.
The Sunday congregation recited the rosary, as customary, before Mass. The Glorious Mysteries began hopefully, as usual, with the Resurrection.
Although no proceedings for formal sainthood had been rushed prematurely onto anyone’s calendar, the deceased Walker was described by some people here as a saintly young priest.
Parishioner John Thurau told The Wanderer that he recalled Walker’s “young, bright face, almost an angelic disposition. Holiness exuded from his personality,” and complete faithfulness to the Church. “That was his personal gift or charism.”
Another parishioner, Bill Haley, told The Wanderer that Walker, ordained only two years ago, “just had the joy of entering into his own vocation” and was set on bringing people to Christ and Christ to them.
The Phoenix-based Arizona Republic quoted a Knights of Columbus officer, “If there was ever a person prepared for heaven, Fr. Walker was a good candidate.”
An online story in the diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Sun, quoted parishioner Eileen Mallaire: “Fr. Walker was such a sweet, gentle young man. He was a wonderful young priest.”
No surveillance cameras had been pointed toward the nighttime attack, nor could the badly injured Terra provide much of a description of the assailant, news reports said.
During the Father’s Day Masses, police vehicles and news cameras remained outside Mater Misericordiae Mission. With a suspect still unidentified and motive uncertain, who could know what might happen next, there at Monroe Street and 16th Avenue?
The suspense soon was to end. Strong DNA evidence and the word of a few citizens tied up loose ends. One person reportedly went to the police station and said a man had been bragging about beating and robbing a priest.
On the night of Father’s Day, police arrested career criminal, transient, and all-around loser Gary Michael Moran, 54, who had gotten out of prison only a few weeks earlier and reportedly had already skipped a scheduled parole meeting. Moran had just served eight years for a rather similar crime — breaking into an apartment and stabbing a sleeping man.
When news of the church violence broke, some people noted that even hardened criminals usually avoid attacking members of the clergy. But Moran seemed to be a full-plumed inhabitant of Weird World. Making his initial court appearance for the rectory attack, Moran sat in a wheelchair, although he didn’t seem to need to.
Mater Misericordiae’s contiguous rectory, with its barred windows, plainly was part of the structure anchored by the steepled church, which seats about 200 people. It seemed highly unlikely that any potential criminal would have thought he was merely entering a secular residence or some sort of small business.
The same day that Phoenix Police Chief Daniel Garcia announced the arrest, a Requiem Mass for Walker was held at St. Catherine of Siena Church in South Phoenix on Monday, June 16. To the pleasant surprise of the congregation, the injured Terra was able to leave the hospital to attend in a wheelchair. There was no question why Terra needed a wheelchair after the recent attack.
Both of Terra’s hands had large bandages on them, his face showed signs of the battering, and prominent red lacerations crossed the top of his head that was struck repeatedly with a metal rod. But he was alive and apparently rapidly recovering.
One discordant note was that Phoenix’s liberal Democrat mayor, Greg Stanton, seemed to be putting his face before the cameras as often as he could.
As much as the mayor might seem to be adding a note of reassurance, Stanton makes himself more comfortable in his daily chores by rubbing shoulders with Planned Parenthood and homosexual activists — perhaps the expected environment of liberal Democrats, but hardly of orthodox Catholics who turn to the spiritual strength of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, not abortionists and Sangerites.
A person who spent any time around Mater Misericordiae (Mother of Mercy) Mission would have been aware of Walker’s and Terra’s self-sacrificing, dedicated lives. Even when no congregants were in the church, I had seen the two priests seated on either side of the main altar, saying and chanting Latin prayers early and late.
They offered Mass twice daily, at 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., and twice on Saturday morning, as well as the three Sunday Masses. Confession was offered before each of the daily Masses, on Saturday afternoon, and throughout Sunday morning.
The two priests prayed outside abortion clinics each week, as well as providing all the sacramental and personal assistance expected in a parish. However, as a Latin Mass church, it didn’t have traditional boundaries because it drew people from throughout the sprawling Phoenix metropolitan area.
Parishioner Thurau told The Wanderer on June 14:
“A very important aspect of Fr. Terra is his pro-life ministry throughout his tenure…including forceful sermons against contraception and abortion and as a leader of prayer at local abortion clinics. He is very studied in the cultural dynamics and history of depopulation and the destruction of the nuclear family. He gives dynamic sermons which debunk the theories of notorious depopulation advocates such as Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich.”
The two priests, Thurau said, were “incredibly devout and focused on their mission as priests of the Church,” as well as being “equally…faithful in presentation of the Latin Mass.”
Word of the attack spread quickly through the close-knit church family. Thurau told The Wanderer that one of his sons, an altar server at the church, got a phone call about 2:30 a.m. from another server about the violence a few hours earlier. “I practically fell out of bed at the shock,” Thurau said.
Parishioner Haley said he quickly phoned a priest friend after his wife, Maureen, awakened him about 12:30 a.m. when she read the news online.
That priest already was at the hospital where Terra was receiving emergency treatment, Haley said, so he dashed over to be near his pastor.
“The most remarkable thing about that night,” Haley said, was that the seriously injured Terra only talked about other people, not himself, when Haley was allowed to go back to see him.
Although Terra had been beaten bloody, he said, “Hi, Bill, how are the kids?. . . [H]is concern was for my children,” Haley said, adding that Terra also “rejoiced with me about a couple that was just able to have a baby. . . . He was just so happy for them.”
Do Not Be Afraid
Terra even saw a positive aspect to the violent attack, Haley said — the Devil is furious over the good works at the church.
The priest “wants the parishioners to know,” Haley said, “there’s good happening at Mater Misericordiae because the Devil doesn’t like it, and we cannot be afraid….It’s so important that we don’t give in to fear,” which would be “paralyzing.”
KPHO-TV news reported that Phoenix Catholic Bishop Thomas Olmsted said of his visit in the hospital with Terra, “We were moved to tears more than once, but we had many smiles and laughs as well.”
Although Terra sometimes could look stern during his day-to-day work, he had a sense of merriment about him, perhaps a leavening from the Holy Spirit.
Thurau recalled Terra’s “very dry, remarkable sense of humor” by recounting that at a recent party anticipating his 25th anniversary of priestly Ordination, Terra recalled Jesus “saying the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church, so Father told the congregation they shouldn’t fear his involvement would have any dire consequences” for Mater Misericordiae.
Terra’s attraction to the Latin Mass apparently had caused him some career troubles earlier as a priest in a California diocese, but that ended when he joined the FSSP to flex his talents.
As in some other U.S. urban centers, there’s a sharp demarcation in Mater Misericordiae’s neighborhood. The mighty lawmaking apparatus of Arizona state government is only a few minutes’ walk away, but lost-looking souls can wander past the lower-class housing along Monroe Street, which the church faces. Nighttime can feel like a dubious time to be afoot on Monroe.
Directly south of the rear of the church is a six-level state parking garage, with the Arizona State Land Department building immediately to the west of the garage. Walk just past the land department and, behold, there’s the Arizona state legislature and governor’s Executive Tower to the west, and Arizona Supreme Court building to the east. But on Monroe, one understands why the church’s rectory has strong bars on the windows.
Still, The Catholic Sun quoted a Phoenix diocesan official that Mater Misericordiae was felt to be “a safe place to live.”
Vicar General Fr. Fred Adamson added that Terra is “a pretty strong man — he’s not afraid of anybody — and if anyone came in there and asked him, he would give them the shirt off his back. That’s the type of priest he is — a real servant of God,” the Sun said.
“God Is Beauty”
A can-do second-career priest built like a boxer, Terra personally helped in the major renovation of the former Hispanic Baptist church that became Mater Misericordiae in 2010, as well as overseeing the project. The church building retained a modest brick exterior, but the interior was re-crafted like a jewel box.
“A reverent traditional crucifix behind the altar is set amid a rainbow of color in the sanctuary, blue, orange, pink, gold, yellow, red, and white,” The Wanderer wrote in a February 2011 story about the new Latin Mass facility.
Sitting down for an interview with The Wanderer then, Terra reflected on architectural beauty expressed in a place where God dwells:
“God is beauty, that’s one of His attributes,” along with other perfect qualities including justice, mercy, and love, Terra told The Wanderer. “. . . And our hope is to see God face to face. . . . What that means is that the house of God must also be beautiful. . . . So beauty is not a luxury, it’s essential for the house of God, and it should be as beautiful as we can make it.”
Although one couldn’t declare that Mater Misericordiae looks exactly like Heaven, one can hope that Fr. Walker is able to say his church on Earth did a good job at preparing him for the glories of the next world.