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Trip to Uvalde, Texas leaves Capitol Hill pastor ‘still coming to terms’ with how deep community trauma remains

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — In a way, priests are no different from anyone else. They feel the need to get away from the usual routine for a few days to refresh and rejuvenate. There is always the beach, the woods, the big city.

But Father Dan Carson, the pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in Capitol Hill? He went to Uvalde, Texas.

Father Carson was one of 14 Catholic clergy and lay leaders to spend three days in the city where feelings are still raw and wounds of all kinds are slowly healing from a mass shooting at an elementary school he a year ago that claimed the lives of 19 students and two of their teachers.

The visit was organized by Catholic Extension, which provided aid and support to Catholic institutions in “mission territory” – where the number of Catholics is low, the percentage of Catholics in the total population is low, or where the diocese covers a vast expanse of territory.

Murals along a wall in Uvalde, Texas, feature the portraits of the 19 children and two adults killed in a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde on May 24, 2022. (News Photo OSV/Rich Kalonick, courtesy of Catholic Extension)

Founded in 1905, what was then known as the Catholic Church Extension Society built Sacred Heart Church in Uvalde the following year, and the parish primary school soon after.

“Honestly, I’m still processing,” Fr. Carson said of the intense May 24-26 trip. He added that he considered preaching about what he saw in Uvalde the weekend after his return, but realized he was not ready to do so yet.

Father Carson spoke briefly about standing in front of Robb Elementary, the site of the massacre. “I stood before the crosses of the people” who had been killed, he told the Catholic Standard, the archdiocesan newspaper in Washington. “I imagined standing in front of my school – and I couldn’t imagine a kid getting this done here, let alone 21” victims.

The priest and pastor tweaked his rule of no homilies at the moment for a Mass for eighth-grade graduates of his own parochial school. “We graduated eighth grade the day after I got back,” Father Carson said. While celebrating Mass, he let his outgoing parochial vicar, Father Brendan Glasgow, preach the homily.

“I felt compelled to say a few words about the trip” before the end of the mass, Father Carson said. That’s what he did. And then he thought of the words of Saint Teresa of Calcutta: “I alone cannot change the world. But I can throw a stone that can create many ripples.

“I wouldn’t have done this,” Father Carson said, “without the trip.

Chicago-based Catholic Extension intended to rebuild a spiritually shaken city within a week and a half of the massacre, according to Joe Boland, the organization’s chief of mission. One such plan was to provide 30 full scholarships to children who wanted to transfer from Robb Elementary to Sacred Heart School. “Not just the first year, but all the years they were there,” Boland said.

Scholarships were offered to “surviving children, some of their siblings, and siblings of deceased family members”.

Father Carson marveled at the work of the Sisters of Therese of Jesus, more commonly known as the Theresian Sisters. The order continues to endow the school with the Sacred Heart and one of the Teresians is from Uvalde.

“The efforts of the sisters – they really try to heal, (and see) how they can help with the healing,” Fr Carson remarked. The Theresians established Camp I-Can in the town last summer for the children of Uvalde. “One sister gathered all these nuns together and they all enjoyed the experience,” he said. Camp I-Can also returns this summer.

One of the camp activities is art therapy, which helps children express their feelings when words seem so difficult to use. Adults on the Catholic Extension Tour also took part in an art therapy session to learn what it was like, and their creations have been preserved for future use in one of the many memorials that now dot Uvalde, a population of 15,000 and roughly equidistant from San Antonio and the US-Mexico border.

“There are memorials for every person” who was killed in the massacre visible throughout the city, Father Carson said. “You see a lot of people hugging and crying. … There are a lot of raw feelings 13 months later.

Father Carson gave credit to the townspeople. “They try to find many ways to heal,” he said, although he remembers the case of an adult. “She had to cover her ears” when the news helicopters whirled overhead, he said, “because it makes her think back to that day.”

Much attention has been given to a Robb Elementary student named Noah lately, thanks in part to a New York Times article chronicling his experience and recovery.

Noah’s classmates did not survive the attack. Although Noah was shot, he survived because “his teacher protected him”, Father Carson said. The teacher also perished. It was estimated that Noah and the shooter were in the same classroom for 70 minutes as police dithered over how to respond.

Noah’s father said of the attack, “God is a compass, but you can move on.

During his visit there, Father Carson met Noah, who is now one of the students at Sacred Heart School.

The extension delegation also had the opportunity to celebrate Mass with Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio. When the Archbishop spoke about gun violence, Fr. Carson noted, “you could feel his anger.”

A nun from the traveling group also expressed her frustration: “It’s got to stop, but I don’t know how,” Fr Carson recalled saying about the gun violence.

While in the San Antonio area, the extension group visited a nearby refugee center. Father Carson described the situation of a family there. “A family has two sons, they are 15 and 13 years old. They had to leave the house. They didn’t want their sons selling drugs,” and the drug gangs revolved around the two teenagers. “Every family we met there was similar,” he said, adding, “Our ancestors were like that 100, 200 years ago.”

They also visited a memorial to the 53 migrant workers who were smuggled into the United States in a truck trailer but died of asphyxiation or heat exposure. This incident happened barely a month after the May 22, 2022 school shooting.

Father Carson was asked where God was in the midst of horrific evil and untold tragedy.

“Certainly in the volunteers and the nuns,” he said. The Extension group was in Uvalde at the Church of the Sacred Heart for a commemoration of the first anniversary of the massacre. Although some families didn’t want to go because it would bring back unwanted memories, and others were lured to Disney World to distract them from the tragedy, “the church was packed,” he said. added.

“For me, it’s seeing families clinging to their faith. I think people sometimes stray from their faith or turn away from their faith,” Fr. Carson said. In Uvalde, however, “they rely on their faith to help people grow strong.”

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