Last October, the parishioners at St. Patrick's Church in Chatham, N.J., were horrified when their pastor, Father Edward Hinds, was found murdered in the rectory. Tuesday, in an article appearing in The Wall Street Journal, former presidential speech writer William McGurn described his experiences “as a guest” in the St. Patrick's community, where he has seen firsthand over the past months the love and compassion of a community struck by tragedy.
The community of Chatham, where St. Patrick's is located, houses about 10,000 residents and is generally a peaceful area. Parishioners were shocked when Father Edward, pastor at St. Partick's since 2003, was found dead on Oct. 23. He had been stabbed 32 times with a kitchen knife.
The murder made national headlines as the church janitor, Jose Feliciano, was arrested. Feliciano, known in the parish as “Mr. Jose,” had worked at the church for 17 years, where he and his family were also parishioners.
Feliciano had recently been dismissed due to parish finances.
According to authorities, Father Edward had called 911 from his cell phone on the evening of Oct. 22 and reported that he was being attacked. When the call cut off, the dispatch operator called back, and Feliciano allegedly answered and said “everything’s fine.”
Unable to trace the location of the cell phone, the operator could not send police.
Authorities said that investigators later found the priest’s cell phone, bloody clothing and bloody towels at Feliciano’s home.
Most newspapers had ended their coverage of the story with parishioners grieving and hissing at the mention of forgiveness, McGurn said. “But if that's all you know about St. Pat's, you would have a most incomplete picture.”
McGurn described how his eldest daughter attended St. Patrick's when other plans fell through at the last minute. His daughter was in the same eighth-grade class as Feliciano's youngest daughter, and the two girls played on the same basketball team.
He told how he had watched Mr. Jose's daughter graduate from St. Patrick's School the previous Friday night. “When this young lady walked across the gym floor to collect her diploma, she did so secure in the knowledge that at St. Pat's she is more than a student,” he said. “At St. Pat's she is loved.”
McGurn spoke of how Fr. Edward “would have wanted his blood to bring forth the best in his flock, to bear witness to the redemptive love symbolized by his collar.”
“This doesn't mean Mr. Jose should not answer for his crimes, if indeed he is found guilty,” he explained. “It does mean St. Pat's could never allow this to be the end of the story.”
“This is a community, you see, defined by the belief that whatever he may have done, Mr. Jose still has a soul, and that love, if it is to be worthy of the name, imposes special claims on behalf of the innocent and the inconvenient.”
“And so the people of St. Pat's rallied,” McGurn continued, speaking of the staff, teachers, coaches and parents who tried to keep things normal for Mr. Jose's daughter as she worked her way towards graduation.
He recalled how parents at a meeting asked what to tell their children to prevent them from saying something harmful to the girl. The principal replied, "Tell them, 'when you speak, let Christ fill your hearts'."
And that's what they did, he said, describing how his daughter and the other eighth-graders would “wrap their classmate in their love,” refusing to let any hatred touch her.
McGurn was not surprised by the charity shown by the members of the community. “The people of St. Pat's hold, as an article of faith, that Father Ed's love remains operative in this world, and ours in his,” he explained.
“With that in mind, they took a crime that bound two of their men in tragedy—one murdered, the other the alleged murderer—and handled it with the grace and good sense that America's little platoons so often rise to when we most need them.”
Reflecting on the experience, McGurn expressed his gratitude to be able to witness the community's response to such a difficult situation.
“As for this guest and father, let's just say how grateful he is that his own eighth-grader could come of age in a place where the commandment to love was deemed most precious when it was most difficult,” he concluded.