One priest was killed and a second remains in critical condition after a deadly attack on a downtown Phoenix Catholic church June 11.
Fr. Kenneth Walker, F.S.S.P., a 28-year-old priest, was murdered during a reported burglary at Mater Misericordiae Mission and Fr. Joseph Terra, F.S.S.P. sustained serious injuries in the attack.
The Diocese of Phoenix released a statement June 12.
“We are stunned and deeply saddened to learn of the tragic assault perpetrated last night against Fr. Joseph Terra and Fr. Kenneth Walker, two religious order priests who belong to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter,” the statement read.
“The police are still gathering information and trying to sort through the details of this senseless act of violence. We ask that people offer prayers for both priests, the religious community, their families and the parish.”
Bart Tesoriero, a member of Mater Misericordiae Mission, knows both victims well. A longtime technician with Radio Family Rosary, he most recently recorded a number of programs with Fr. Walker.
“I am really saddened,” Tesoriero said. “Fr. Walker was a very pure young man who was devoted to his priesthood. He was a beautiful person.”
Over the last few weeks, Tesoriero recorded several rosaries led by Fr. Walker as well as a number of his teachings on devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Those programs are set to be broadcast on 1310 AM Immaculate Heart Radio in the next few weeks, Tesoriero said.
Both priests were known for their stalwart efforts on behalf of the unborn. They regularly prayed in front of abortion clinics in the Valley and were members of the Knights of Columbus. Bryant Sayers, State Deputy of the Knights of Columbus in Arizona, offered words of consolation.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Fr. Kenneth Walker, the parishioners of Mater Misericordiae Mission in Phoenix, and with Fr. Joseph Terra, that may he recover quickly,” Sayers said. “The Arizona Knights of Columbus stand ready to support Council 15576 and the parishioners of Mater Misericordiae Mission.”
Eileen Mallaire and her family have belonged to Mater Misericordiae since the community was founded.
“Fr. Walker was such a sweet, gentle young man,” Mallaire said. “He was a wonderful young priest. It’s just devastating. I’m not sure what we’ll do.”
The faithful were quick to react to the news on social media. “Horrible!” one woman posted on Facebook. “Our place of peace so horribly violated. Lord be with us all.”
Searching for clues
At a press conference at the Phoenix Police Department the morning following the attack, Phoenix Police Chief Daniel Garcia asked the community for assistance in solving the crime. He remained tight-lipped about the attack and would not comment as to whether the murder took place in the church itself or the rectory.
“If you’ve seen anything, please contact the Phoenix police,” Garcia said.
Fr. Terra made the 911 call, Phoenix police say, shortly after 9:30 p.m. June 11. “We have an extensive investigation underway as of last night,” Garcia said. “The Phoenix Police Department will exhaust its resources to bring to justice the individuals who have committed this crime.”
Greg Stanton, mayor of Phoenix, said the community was holding Fr. Terra and his family in its prayers.
“Our city lost a young priest… Although we don’t know who did this, be assured that our very capable police department is working around the clock,” Stanton said.
Fr. Fred Adamson, vicar general and moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Phoenix, also spoke at the press conference. Fr. Terra, he said, administered the last rites to Fr. Walker in spite of his own suffering. Fr. Terra was being badly beaten in the attack, he said.
When asked if there was any security at Mater Misericordiae Church near the state capitol grounds, Fr. Adamson said he was not aware of “any security that was there other than the two priests.”
“They have been there four year years and felt it was a safe place to live,” Fr. Adamson said. Fr. Terra is “a pretty strong man — he’s not afraid of anybody — and if anyone came in there and asked him, he would give them the shirt off his back. That’s the type of priest he is — a real servant of God,” Fr. Adamson said.
Phoenix police were able to briefly interview Fr. Terra at the hospital following the attack, Chief Garcia said, and they do have “strong physical evidence” which they are processing. Fr. Terra was admitted in “extremely critical condition” Garcia said, but is now listed as stable.
Fr. Robert Rossi, OSC, presided at a noon Mass at the Diocesan Pastoral Center shortly after the press conference held at Phoenix police headquarters. A group of staff members had gathered before the Mass for a rosary on behalf of the two victims.
“We’re gathering at this table with great sadness,” Fr. Rossi said. “It’s a tragedy for our Church and for our friends.”
He told diocesan staff that the Gospel selection for the day’s Mass was particularly poignant in light of the attack.
“Today’s Gospel mentioned murder,” Fr. Rossi said. The Gospel, Matt 5: 20-26, points to the importance of being reconciled.
“Jesus calls us to ask where does anger take root,” Fr. Rossi said. “The person who pulled the trigger must have been a very angry person and that anger built up. It’s a wake up call for all of us.”
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix said that the two priests often participated in prayer vigils at abortion clinics.
“Every time that I went to pray during the “40 Days for Life”at the abortion places, [Fr. Walker] was there with Fr. Terra,” Bishop Olmsted said. “They are faithful priests, joyfully serving their people.”
Fr. Walker was born in Poughkeepsie, NY and ordained in 2012. He was parochial vicar at Mater Misericordiae. Fr. Terra, pastor of Mater Misericordiae, was ordained in 1989. Both men belonged to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, a clerical society of apostolic life of pontifical right. FSSP priests serve throughout the world and provide a full sacramental life for the faithful administered according to the liturgical books of 1962. Masses at Mater Misericordiae are in Latin.
“They loved their people. It couldn’t be something they provoked,” Bishop Olmsted said of the attack. “There has to be some other reason this violence happened.”
In spite of the tragedy, Bishop Olmsted offered words of hope.
“We need to keep in mind that we’re people of hope, because death is not the last word, ever,” Bishop Olmsted said.
John Garcia, the public relations director for the Arizona Knights of Columbus, said that both priests have ties to their organization.
“Fr. Terra helped found a Knights of Columbus council at his parish,” Garcia said.
Update 11:30 p.m. June 12:
Prayers for healing
A prayer vigil was held at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral to pray for the repose of the soul of Fr. Walker and the recovery of Fr. Terra June 12. Members of Mater Misericordiae, many of the women wearing chapel veils, crowded into the cathedral for a holy hour that included Scripture, a rosary, hymns in Latin, eucharistic adoration and a stirring homily by Fr. John Lankeit, rector of Ss. Simon and Jude.
Clarissa Quiring, who moved to the Valley in December and joined Mater Misericordiae, was at the cathedral for the prayer vigil. She said both priests were deeply spiritual men.
“They are men of profound prayer, with a deep respect for the Eucharist,” Quiring said. “They understand that the Eucharist is central to the spiritual life and to our life in general.”
Barbara Gensel said she was shocked by the news. “Fr. Terra is a wonderful man. If you have a problem, you go to Fr. Terra or Fr. Walker and they listen and help. They give it to you straight and guide you,” Gensel said.
Fr. John Lankeit described the two priests as “courageous.” Fr. Terra, he said, did what all good priests do: he put aside his own suffering to bring another soul to Jesus. Fr. Terra administered the last rites to Fr. Walker in spite of having been badly beaten during the attack.
“In that moment facing darkness, he brought a soul into the hands of Jesus. He needs our prayers,” Fr. Lankeit said. “He has our admiration.”
The two priests believed in “bringing people to Jesus through beauty, which is so important in a world that has gotten very ugly,” Fr. Lankeit said. “None of us can speak to the depth of the human heart as Jesus can. These two priests knew that.”
Solidarity with community
At a press conference held in front of Mater Misericordiae Mission June 13, Bishop Olmsted said both he and Fr. Eric Flood, F.S.S.P., the superior of the North American district for the religious society for Fr. Walker and Fr. Terra, visited Fr. Terra in the hospital that morning.
“He still has a very lively sense of humor,” Bishop Olmsted said. “He’s had a number of little surgeries, but he’s doing much better. Being with him today was deeply moving.” He lauded Fr. Terra as a courageous priest who found the strength to set aside his own suffering and administer the last rites to Fr. Walker.
“God is stronger, the love of Christ is much greater than any kind of violence and death is only falling asleep and passing into the hands of God,” Bishop Olmsted said. “We have no doubt Fr. Walker is praying for us in this world of tears.”
The murder of Fr. Walker and the attack on Fr. Terra made for a difficult time for the community as a whole, but it hit priests in the wider community hard too, Bishop Olmsted said.
“We are bound together as brother priests. When one of our brothers suffers or in this case, one is killed or is injured, it’s a very painful time,” Bishop Olmsted said.
Fr. Flood said he found out about the incident through an early morning phone call. He compared the Fraternal Society of St. Peter to a young family. “We’ve only been in existence 25 years. Most of our priests are under 40,” Fr. Flood said. The attack on the priests was “a great tragedy, one that can only be put back together by a great amount of charity.” Condolences and offers of support were rolling in from around the world, he said.
Words for the suspect
As of June 13, no arrests in the case had yet been made. Bishop Olmsted had something to say to the person responsible for the tragedy.
“He is a beloved son of God. Jesus died for him on the cross so I pray that he knows that so that he doesn’t despair. I don’t want him to take his own life,” Bishop Olmsted said. “I would hope that he would see that running away and hiding is not going to help him in any way to have any kind of life.”
Phoenix police reportedly have a suspect in custody for the murder of Fr. Walker and assault on Fr. Terra and will hold a press conference later today.