El Paso massacre is personal for two Maryknoll priests from our diocese

Curtis Reliford kneels next to a cross in honor of Jordan Anchando, one of the victims of a mass shooting Aug. 3 at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas. Maryknoll Father Bill Donnelly, a Peoria native, serves two parishes near the site where 22 were killed and 24 injured, while Maryknoll Father Mike Gould, a Merna native, assisted there until recently. (CNS/Callaghan O'Hare, Reuters)

CANUTILLO, Texas — Two retired Maryknoll priests born and raised in the Diocese of Peoria are very familiar with how the Aug. 3 massacre at the Walmart in El Paso is deeply affecting the people of the region.

“There has been a tremendous outpouring of grief and prayer and it’s still going on,” said Father Bill Donnelly, MM, a Peoria native and longtime missionary who for the past two years has guided St. Patrick Parish in Canutillo, just northwest of El Paso.

The church is about 20 miles from the shopping center where a gunman’s Saturday morning rampage earlier this month killed 22 and injured 24.

People draped in Mexican and U.S. flags take part in an Aug. 4 rally against hate a day after a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas. (CNS/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

“You have to live here to realize how it hits the people,” said Father Donnelly, 85, in a telephone interview with The Catholic Post on Aug. 9. “I’ve met people who couldn’t even talk about it,” added Father Donnelly, who also serves Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish a few miles further up Interstate 10.

None of the victims were from his churches. A parish catechist, however, was in the store when the shooting began.

“She ran across to a McDonald’s and hid in the bathroom with many other people for a long time,” said Father Donnelly. “She could hear the shots.”

MASSES OFFERED FOR VICTIMS

Father Donnelly said he became aware of the tragedy via a phone call from a sister who now lives in Omaha. He turned on the television and then turned to his pastoral duties — four weekend Masses, two at each church in both English and Spanish.

“I spoke about it at all Masses, and we prayed about it” said Father Donnelly. “That was my homily. How we feel so sorry. I offered those four Masses for the victims, those killed and wounded.”

Until recently Father Donnelly was assisted at the parishes by Maryknoll Father Mike Gould, a native of Merna who was back in central Illinois when the shooting occurred. Father Gould, 92, celebrated the 65th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood this summer. (See related story here.)

“Maryknoll has been (in Canutillo) for maybe 15 years with old retired guys from Latin America that want to help out a little bit,” Father Gould told The Catholic Post. He served for six decades in Bolivia.  Father Donnelly spent 35 years in Guatemala.

“THIS DOES NOT DEFINE EL PASO”

Both priests said the gunman’s hateful, racist motivation — he posted a screed online railing against an “invasion” of Hispanics into the U.S. and later told detectives he was targeting Mexicans — added to the grief and worry of local residents.

“That hurts people on both sides of the border,” said Father Donnelly.

St. Patrick Church in Canutillo, Texas, is staffed by Maryknoll priests. (Photo from parish website)

“Since I’ve been here I consider Juarez (a Mexican city of 1.3 million just across the border) and El Paso as just one big city together,” said Father Donnelly. “They are not, of course, but it is one culture.” An international bridge over the Rio Grande links the two cities and is crossed both ways daily by many workers and students.

“They’ve been living that way for years,” said Father Donnelly. “Eighty percent of the people in El Paso speak Spanish.”

The current political climate and accompanying fear of roundups and deportations also adds to the stress, said both priests.

The people of the region are adamant that the shooting “does not define El Paso in any way,” added Father Donnelly. “We’re one of the safest cities in the country. El Paso is strong, and we’re coming together.”

MOTHER CONSIDERED A HEROINE

Both Father Donnelly and Father Gould lauded the work and words of Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso on behalf of migrants and the poor. One of several refugee centers operated by the El Paso Diocese is located near St. Patrick Church, and the Maryknoll priests have spent time there.

“The center is for teenagers who come without their family,” said Father Gould. “They turn themselves in and have a contact in the U.S. They stay at the center till they get things worked out.”

The youth are given food, clothes, and can go to classes at the center.

“They also go over to our parish a couple of times a month to meet with parish youth and have a pizza and sing and dance and pray,” added Father Gould.

Father Donnelly said he was especially moved by the example of Jordan Anchondo, a mother of three who died while shielding her 2-month-old baby from the gunfire. Her husband also was killed.

“She’s considered a heroine here,” said Father Donnelly. “A loving Mama. People get tears in their eyes just thinking of her. We’re praying for that little baby boy. What is life going to be like for him?”

Unfortunately, Father Donnelly is no stranger to massacres. He served in a remote region of Guatemala during its civil war.

“I saw what few Americans got to see,” he told The Catholic Post. “People who were caught up in that war, who were really suffering.”

Father Donnelly contracted tuberculosis while in Guatemala and, in more recent years, suffered a heart attack while in the U.S. to raise funds and promote the work of Maryknoll. Because he would not be able to get emergency medical help if needed in Guatemala, he opted to assist with the El Paso area churches.

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