BLACKSBURG, Va. — In the days following the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, Virginia Tech students and staff, local residents, and a shocked nation are responding the way they can — with prayer.
Just one example of that was the regular stream of visitors to the campus’ War Memorial Chapel. Members of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets, who lost of one their own in the tragedy, held an around-the-clock prayer vigil for those who died. Others have gathered just off-campus at the Newman Community chapel, at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, and other area churches that have remained open for members of the community to pray.
“We’ve had Mass every night this week at the Newman chapel. Several people at the Newman community knew people who were killed, and are taking it very hard,” said Eric Brink, ecumenical counselor with the campus’ Newman Center located just off-campus. “We need prayer.”
More than 150 students attended a memorial Mass and prayer vigil at the Newman Center the evening after the April 16 shootings. In addition to prayer, the Newman Center has also provided professional counselors and priests to those who need someone to talk with.
Newman campus ministry centers elsewhere around the country have been offering Masses and prayer services and compiling books of prayers for those at Virginia Tech. At The Catholic University of America, for example, the university arranged an eight-hour Eucharistic vigil at the campus chapel and has created a tribute wall on campus.
St. Mary’s Church in Blacksburg exposed the Blessed Sacrament so that members of the community could come to the church for prayer and adoration.
Diocese of Richmond Bishop Francis DiLorenzo asked all parishes within the diocese to offer special Masses during the week for the victims.
“At this time one cannot help but think of the endless years of commitment, of love and care, these parents have invested in their children, and then to have it all cut down by a bullet is tremendously sad,” said Bishop DiLorenzo.
President Bush and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, himself a Catholic, attended a memorial service at the university April 17. Bush urged students to persevere in hope and comfort one another in prayer.
“As the Scripture tells us, don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” said the president.
As the only priest in town, Father James Arsenault was asked by campus police to help notify families of the death of loved ones. The morning of the shootings, Father Arsenault spent more than three hours at Montgomery Regional Hospital ministering to victims. From there he went to campus, staying until 1 a.m. Tuesday, ministering to students and the families of the dead and wounded. Among those he met were the family of professor Kevin Granata, an active member of his parish.
Visiting priests from nearby towns have been celebrating Mass and offering assistance to families as they were able.
In addition to Granata, at least two students among the 27 students and five faculty members killed were Catholic. They were Dumont, N.J., native Matt LaPorte, 20, and Jeremy Herbstritt of Bellefonte, Pa., 27.
LaPorte attended Catholic schools before attending Carson Long Military Institute in New Bloomfield, Pa., and was in the Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. According to Michael Ellerbrock, a university professor who is a deacon at St. Mary’s, law enforcement officers told him that LaPorte was killed while trying to subdue the gunman.
Herbstritt grew up on a farm outside of Bellefonte, attended Catholic school, and held undergraduate degrees in biochemistry/molecular biology and civil engineering from Penn State. Both he and his father were members of the Knights of Columbus.
In a statement from Penn State on behalf of the family, he was remembered as “fun-loving and personable … with a great sense of humor.”
“Salt of the earth,” is how Ed Burke, head of the Bellefonte council of the Knights, described Herbstritt. “Strong faith, not boastful. Good, down-to-earth people.”
Granata, 45, was a married father of three and an engineering science and mechanics professor at the university. Department chief Ishwar Puri said that Granata was one of the top five biomechanics researchers in the country.
“With so many research projects and graduate students, he still found time to spend with his family, and he coached his children in many sports and extracurricular activities,” fellow engineering professor Demetri Telionis told the Associated Press. “He was a wonderful family man.”
Virginia Tech’s Catholic campus minister, Teresa Volante, estimated that about 5,000 of the university’s 26,000 students are Catholic. She said that between 800 and 1,000 regularly attend Sunday Mass at the Newman Center or are involved in activities at the center.
As details have emerged about the gunman, who committed suicide after killing 32 others, they have revealed a disturbing portrait of a young man with a history of mental health issues, including tremendous loneliness, depression and anger.
Campus security had been notified twice in 2005 by women who felt that he had been stalking them. His violent writing and strange behavior had so upset fellow students that many refused to attend class. At least two faculty members were so disturbed by his writing that they notified university officials, and one asked that he be removed from her poetry class.
After he was expelled from poetry class, professor Lucinda Roy worked with him one-on-one. Near the end of the semester, she felt as if she had made progress with him.
“He said, ‘I am so lonely,’ and I knew that that was true, and I felt terrible for him,” Roy told the Boston Herald. “I was always so worried that he was suicidal.”
Because there were no direct threats, university officials felt there was little that they could do.
The young man seemed motivated, in part, by a hatred of religion. In his play “Richard McBeef,” which was posted to AOL, he lashed out against Catholic priests.
In a note discovered after taking his own life, and in a multimedia manifesto he mailed to NBC headquarters on the morning of the attack, the student made comments critical of the wealthy, of Christianity and religion.
While it isn’t clear what faith background, if any, he had, his parents attended the Korean Presbyterian Church.
According to Young-Hwan Kim, president of the evangelical Korean Campus Crusade for Christ, the young man resisted invitations from the group.
The popular college Internet site Facebook.com has become an online meeting place for students to share their feelings about the tragedy. One group, called “Eternal Rest Grant Unto Him, O Lord,” is extending forgiveness to the gunman for his crime. The group was created by 16-year-old Kansas high school sophomore MacKenzie Swigart in response to the hateful and vulgar criticism that she said has been directed toward him. At press time, the group had more than 60 members.
“When I saw all of those groups damning him to hell and wishing him ill, without considering that … he is a person too, I thought he deserved to be respected and remembered like the other victims,” Swigart told CBS. “I’ve gotten a lot of negative feedback.”
Meanwhile, on campus, people are responding in the only way they know how.
“People are just really shocked,” said freshman Emily Flach. “I think the best thing we can do is come together … and pray for everyone.”
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.
CNS contributed to this report.