Following the mass shooting during religious services at Tree of Life/L’Simcha Congregation in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh Oct. 27 during Shabbat services that left 11 Jewish worshippers dead and six others injured, parishioners of St. Bede Church, the closest Catholic parish to Tree of Life — only a half-mile away — walked to Tree of Life to show their loving support amid tragedy.
Father Thomas Burke, administrator of St. Bede Church, said that before the 11am Mass Oct. 28, parishioner Robin Maier asked if the faithful could walk to Tree of Life to bring flowers and say prayers. After mentioning it in his homily, he told the Register, “We had more than 200 people gather after Mass — we had 200 parishioners showing our love and our solidarity to the Jewish community.”
Robin’s husband, John, said this sign of prayerful support was a way “for our community to express solidarity for our neighbors.”
Neither Robin nor John take credit for organizing this impromptu walk from St. Bede’s to the synagogue.
“At that moment, we were the Catholic community closest to that synagogue,” Robin said, “and I really felt it was super important for our Jewish neighbors to know their Catholic neighbors really care for them.”
During the walk, they discussed the right prayer to say and decided, “Psalm 23 is always the right one,” Robin said.
The victims of the massacre were identified as Joyce Fienburg, 75, a retired university research specialist; Dr. Richard Gottfried, 65, a dentist; Rose Mallinger, 97, whose 61-year-old daughter Andrea Wedner was also shot, hospitalized and expected to fully recover; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, an admired family physician; Rosenthal brothers Cecil, 59, and David, 54, active synagogue members (David was initially safe but went back to try to help his brother); Sylvan and Bernice Simon, 86 and 84 respectively and married in this synagogue 62 years ago; Daniel Stein, 71, a new grandfather; Melvin Wax, 88, a retired accountant who was leading Shabbat services in the synagogue’s basement at the time of the shooting; and Irving Younger, 69, a family man and grandfather.
Besides Wedner, those wounded in the shooting include Daniel Leger, 70, a nurse and a chaplain at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital, where he remains in critical condition after two surgeries; four male police officers, one critical; and two male officers treated and released. One officer remained in the hospital as of Nov. 1.
The shooter, 46-year-old Robert Bowers, was also shot by officers, but survived. At Pittsburgh’s Allegheny General Hospital, Jewish doctors and nurses worked to save his life. One news report quoted Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, Tree of Life synagogue member and president of Allegheny General, as saying the gunman was shouting, “I want to kill all the Jews,” yet “the first three people who took care of him were Jewish.” The gunman was charged Oct. 31 in a 44-count hate-crime indictment.
U.S. Bishops React
The Catholic response to the deadly shootings was prompt, from clergy to Catholic neighbors in the Squirrel Hill area.
Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik released a statement stating that everyone was “devastated” and his heart and prayers were “especially lifted up for our Jewish sisters and brothers and the law enforcement officers who rushed into harm’s way,” noting that the relationship between Tree of Life and the Pittsburgh Diocese has been close over many years.
“Anti-Jewish bigotry, and all religious and ethnic bigotry, is a terrible sin,” Bishop Zubik added. “As we pray for peace in our communities and comfort for the grieving, we must put prayer into action by loving our neighbors and working to make ‘Never again!’ a reality. May God free us from fear and hatred and sow peace in our lives, our communities and in the world.” The bishop also visited the scene to offer sympathy and comfort.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, immediately issued a statement calling for prayer and action. “To our brothers and sisters of the Jewish community, we stand with you. We condemn all acts of violence and hate and, yet again, call on our nation and public officials to confront the plague of gun violence. Violence as a response to political, racial or religious differences must be confronted with all possible effort. God asks nothing less of us. He begs us back to our common humanity as his sons and daughters.”
The cardinal commended “to Our Lord the victims, including first responders, and for the consolation of their families. May Almighty God be with them and bring them comfort at this tragic time.”
A saddened Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said in his statement, “Religious and ethnic hatred is vile in any form, but the ugly record of the last century is a lesson in the special evil of anti-Semitism. That evil has not been stamped out. Rather, it has been resurgent in many areas of the world for the last several decades. It has no place in America, and especially in the hearts of Christians.”
He expressed his and the Philadelphia Catholic community’s “heartfelt support and prayers” for the victims and their families. “May God give them courage and solace, and may this be a statewide wake-up call to resist religious hatred.”
Close Catholic Ties
Victims were mourned by Pittsburgh’s Catholics because of the close ties both religions have had in the community over the years. Shooting victim Dr. Gottfried was a dentist in practice with his wife, Dr. Margaret Durachko. For the past seven and a half years, he volunteered at Catholic Charities’ free dental clinic.
“His heart was as big as the ocean and always for other people,” said fellow dentist and volunteer Dr. Richard DeFilippo, a Catholic Charities board of director’s member. He explained how Gottfried would serve the dental needs of immigrants and people who fall through the cracks, something the dentist also did together with his wife at another clinic.
“They’re the kind of people who reach out and serve God by serving others,” DeFilippo said, adding that “not only was Richard’s heart in the right place, he was also an incredibly good dentist. He gave people [at the free clinic] top-quality dental work and would never sell a person short and rush through a procedure.”
DeFilippo, who worked closely with Gottfried and knew him as a friend, said he had “an inward glow” and that a smile was always on his face. His kindness also alleviated fears of children who were his patients. “His love of God was very obvious, too,” DeFilippo said. He “dove into his Judaism” and was a devout Jew, wearing a Star of David visibly so all the patients could see people serving them were not always Catholics. “He wore his faith on his sleeve as a badge of honor.”
What’s more, Gottfried’s wife, Margaret, is Catholic. At St. Athanasius Church, where she serves as a lector, the Gottfrieds were highly involved as mentors in the marriage-preparation program. Friend, neighbor and fellow parishioner Mary Locante said, “They worked a lot with couples for mixed marriages. It was very effective because of their relationship being from two different faiths.”
Locante also remembered Richard as “very much an optimist” who never said a “negative word about” anyone.
“There are not enough of those,” Locante said. “I was talking to Peg, and she said he’s a martyr; he died for his faith.”
Thinking of the loss of his colleague and friend, DeFilippo reflected, “The world is missing something today because Richard is gone.”
Father Terry O’Connor, administrator of several local parishes, grew up in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood as the son of the late Bob O’Connor, former mayor of Pittsburgh, and Judy O’Connor.
“My mom’s Jewish,” he said. “Squirrel Hill is a tight-knit community and a wonderful place to grow up,” which makes the tragedy all the more “traumatic” and “really shocking, a great loss to everybody, especially to the Jewish community. Everybody was hit in the heart,” he told the Register.
His family knew some of the victims. In the midst of the tragedy, as he attended funerals and interacted with local Catholics, he recalled, “It was heartwarming to see how people came together. It involved all different nationalities and religions.”
“It was so powerful for me to see the outpouring and concern,” he said. He was overwhelmed with calls and text messages asking, “How is your mom? How is the rest of your family doing?” Mrs. O’Connor is safe, as she attends another synagogue.
Reflecting on the events, Father O’Connor explained, “God is in charge of it all. Priests can change hearts, bringing Jesus to the world and changing people’s hearts. With so much anger and hate, we have our work cut out for us.”
“It feels so surreal,” said Judy O’Connor, after attending a memorial service for the two brothers. “You want to be with everybody. You just want to come together and do something. People ask, ‘What can we do?’ But you don’t know what to do.”
“I hope people remember when they realize exactly what could happen,” she added.
St. Bede parishioners are neighbors of the synagogue’s congregants, including the deceased.
“This is really devastating for us,” Robin Maier said in the days that followed. “As a child, I lived in a house two blocks away from Tree of Life. My parents still live there.” On her way to St. Bede School, she always walked past Tree of Life. Today she still walks past this synagogue daily on her way to work, although now from the Maier home, only six blocks away, directly next door to a girls’ yeshiva and two blocks from the Jewish Community Center that Robin describes as “the heart of the Jewish community.” Father Burke is a member of the Jewish Community Center.
John Maier notes that a Catholic in this setting is in direct contact with the roots of the Church’s tradition and faith. “Our children have a much better understanding of the Mass because of the exposure to the Jewish traditions.”
The Maiers explained that people from the other two parishes Father Burke oversees — St. Charles Lwanga and St. James — were also part of the Oct. 28 gathering at Tree of Life.
“These are our people,” she said of the Jewish community, “and they were terribly hurt.”
Msgr. Ron Lengwin, Pittsburgh’s vicar for church relations, described the “very close relationship between the Jewish and Catholic faith communities since the 1960s, when Cardinal [John] Wright was here. Every bishop since has kept that closeness.”
A priest-rabbi dialogue carried on for many years, and a continuing longtime program called “C-JEEP” (Catholic-Jewish Education Enrichment Program) brings understanding of both faiths into schools, for example.
Because of these strong bonds, Msgr. Lengwin reflected, “The Catholic community has been deeply touched and the entire Pittsburgh community also.”
The heartfelt response has reached beyond Pittsburgh. Gary and Meredith Krupp, the Jewish co-founders of Pave the Way Foundation (PTWF.org), are grieving for their lost brothers and sisters.
“This is a tragedy,” Gary said. “The problem is: Hatred exists. It’s hard to logically discuss it. How do you talk about it when you try to logically speak about these atrocities of man’s inhumanity to man? You can’t.”
In September, the Krupps were invested as Knight of the Grand Cross and Dame of the Grand Cross in the Order of St. Gregory the Great, marking the first time in the Vatican’s history of the medal that a husband and wife were knighted together. She is the first Jewish woman in history to be knighted, her husband noted, and he is the only Jewish man in history to be knighted, first by St. John Paul II and then raised in rank by Pope Benedict XVI.
Gary stressed: “The problem, really, is the [lack of] moral compass. This modern culture is completely dismissing religion, and this is what happens.”
Yet, amid horrific violence, hope remains.
Judy O’Connor sums up a solution this way: “Love your neighbor.”
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.