DENVER — When 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo was shot to death as he lunged at a gunman to protect his fellow classmates, he was just three days shy of graduating from STEM School Highlands Ranch.

His heroic split-second decision made for a weightier advancement, Bishop Jorge Rodriguez, auxiliary bishop of Denver, said at the teen’s private funeral Mass, May 17 at St. Mary Church in Littleton, Colorado.

“Kendrick graduated not with an academic degree, but he graduated in humanity and Christian life,” Bishop Rodriguez said in his homily. “Heaven, brothers and sisters, is the true graduation.”

Calling Kendrick “a holy young man” and “a good disciple of Jesus Christ,” the bishop celebrated the Mass with five other clergy, including St. Mary’s pastor, Father Javier Nieva. In his homily, the bishop said, “Kendrick gave everything he is and everything he had — family, a future, a degree, his life — so other young men and women could go back to their families, have a future, graduate and live.

“Only a young man with God in his heart and possessing a big, good heart can do what he did: to lay down his life to save his friends.”

At the end of life, we will be examined on one thing only, the bishop said — our love.

“Kendrick’s life is like the echo of Jesus’ words,” Bishop Rodriguez said, quoting John 15:13: “‘Greater love has no man than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.’”

The Scripture verse was used on memorial cards for Kendrick and was cited by others touched by his heroic selflessness during a May 7 shooting at the suburban charter school in which eight other students were injured, including one of two senior boys who, inspired by him, subdued the shooter. A second shooter was restrained by a security guard. The shooters, who are in custody and facing numerous charges, including murder, were students at the school.

Born to John and Maria Castillo on March 14, 2001, in Denver, Kendrick was an only child. He liked that he was born on Albert Einstein’s birthday — and that the date is also known as Pi Day (in honor of the mathematical constant), which is often marked by eating pie.

“He would make my wife aware of that so he could get a piece of pie,” John Castillo told the Register. “He was kind of a nerd that way. I loved that about him.”

Kendrick had an ever-present grin, enjoyed taking his Jeep four-wheeling, relished fishing and hunting with his dad and watching movies with his mom, liked working on automobiles and computers, was keen on robotics, had a soft spot for the elderly and a deep sense of patriotism, and welcomed serving others at church and school.

“Patriotism, faith, his love for humanity — that was Kendrick,” his father told the Register.

Grade- and Middle-School Days

Along with John Castillo, a Catholic priest, two Protestant ministers, friends and teachers eulogized Kendrick at a May 15 memorial service that drew 3,000 people to Cherry Hills Community Church in Highlands Ranch. The service was heralded by several reminders of Kendrick’s love for life. Hundreds of Jeeps showed up with their owners in a show of support. Likewise, a caravan of law enforcement vehicles led the formal procession, while robotics creations lined the wide footpath up to the church.

Charlene Mollis, Kendrick Castillo’s principal through eighth grade at Notre Dame School in Denver, told the assembly her former student’s concern for others was apparent from the start. On his first day of preschool he spotted a crying child across the room and immediately went to him.

“Kendrick put his arm around him and told him it was going to be okay,” Mollis said. “That was just the beginning of Kendrick’s countless acts of kindness and love at Notre Dame.”

Other memories Mollis shared:

First grade — “He did everything at 110%.”

Sixth grade — “He was helping most teachers with computer issues.”

Middle school — “He was the youngest usher at Notre Dame Church.”

Seventh and eighth grade — “He loved technology and science … and received impressive awards at the science fairs.”

At his eighth-grade graduation, recalled Mollis, Castillo was presented with the “Principal’s Award.”

“It was an easy decision,” she said. “Kendrick had his faith as his foundation. He used his God-given talents to do good. He was service-minded, and he treated others with love and respect. Truly, he was the epitome of a young Christian man.”

 

Service and Friendship

New awards and honors were given to Castillo posthumously at the memorial service.

Joseph Nguyen is past grand knight for Knights of Columbus Council 4844, which John Castillo belongs to and his son participated in — the two gave 2,600 hours in community service to the Knights. Nguyen said that at his parish and school Kendrick exhibited the virtues of charity, unity and fraternity the organization fosters and announced that he was given full knighthood by the organization and enrolled in its prayer guild.

“Today Kendrick is forever a brother in the Knights of Columbus,” he declared, before presenting a plaque to John and Maria Castillo.

Some 85 Knights in full regalia provided honor-guard processions that added stateliness to the memorial service and to the private Rosary and funeral Mass that took place over the next two days. The organization also established a fund to help the family with funeral expenses.

With his voice breaking, John Shallenberger, a family friend and teacher at STEM, also addressed the gathering. He named Kendrick recipient of the school’s annual engineering department award as well as the first to get technology student honor society graduation cords, which he placed on the teen’s coffin.

“He knew more about the engineering labs than most of us teachers, including me,” Shallenberger said. Like others, he recalled Kendrick’s “contagious smile that lit up a room” and praised his unflagging patience with difficult projects and willingness to help others with theirs.

Dakotah Mann, Kendrick’s mentor and robotics teammate, described his friend as “a smart, quippy engineering student” who gave fully of himself to everyone. Noting the fish Kendrick will now never catch, the off-road trails he’ll never traverse, sunsets and snowfalls he’ll never see, Mann urged others to experience them for him.

“The world we live in is one he helped to create,” Mann said. “We have love in our hearts that he chopped, riveted and welded together. You all know his name: Kendrick Castillo. He died for us. Now it’s time for us to live for him.”

Kendrick’s best friend, Jordon Monk, related how the two tinkered on minibikes, a “death-trap golf cart” and, after getting licensed, their cars. He also told of the one-liners and fun antics they shared.

“No matter how silly or crazy we looked, we didn’t care because we had the time of our lives doing it,” he declared.

 

Love Is the Way

Love was his son’s dominant character trait, John Castillo told the assembly.

“Love for anybody he met,” he said. “He was compassionate. If you were walking down the street and stumbled, he’d see if you were okay.”

“It’s no secret to us that Kendrick did what he had to do,” he said, adding later, “I’ve always known he was a gift and a hero.”

His son’s favorite activities were about the connection and bond they brought about with others, he said.

“He figured that out early.”

Father Nieva also spoke to the crowd. He noted that just hours before being nailed to the cross, Jesus told his disciples, “There is no greater love than to give up your life for those you love” (John 15:13).

“This is the secret of life,” Father Nieva said. “It’s the call … all of us have in life. It’s what we learn, or try to. Kendrick learned this in an instant. He knew this. His soul knew it. His mind knew it. The life of his friends told him. His heart told him.”

Asserting what Bishop Rodriguez also affirmed, Father Nieva said, “The graduation that matters in life is the graduation for eternal life. He was a quick learner.”

Register correspondent Roxanne King writes from Denver.