Police: Priests attacked at Phoenix church, 1 dies
PHOENIX — A badly injured priest managed to administer last rites to his dying fellow clergyman who was fatally shot in a nighttime attack at their Roman Catholic church in downtown Phoenix as police rushed to the scene after the man also called 911.
Authorities had no suspects or solid leads as of Thursday afternoon. They searched the neighborhood, interviewed the injured priest and examined physical evidence from the scene. Investigators said they are unsure how many attackers were involved or if robbery was the motive.
A 2003 Mazda belonging to the Rev. Kenneth Walker, who died late Wednesday at a hospital, was found abandoned a few blocks from the church. Police were investigating whether the suspect or suspects took the vehicle and left it behind after the crime. Authorities were examining the vehicle for clues.
Police Chief Daniel Garcia called the attack a “tragic and appalling criminal violation.”
As police investigated the crime scene at the church, about a dozen parishioners gathered across the street, kneeling on the sidewalk and reciting the rosary in response to the loss of their beloved clergyman. A bouquet of flowers and a photograph of Walker, 28, lay on the sidewalk.
The Rev. Joseph Terra, 56, was hospitalized in critical condition with unspecified injuries. The two priests lived at the church.
Terra called 911 to report a burglary at the Mother of Mercy Mission near the state Capitol around 9:30 p.m. Wednesday and administered last rites to the wounded Walker while waiting for police to arrive.
The Rev. Fred Adamson, vicar general of the Phoenix Diocese, said the act brought a “great deal of comfort and consolation to us as Catholics that he was able to extend that in his own suffering.”
Deacon Jim Trant, of the Diocese of Phoenix, speculated that the suspect or suspects may have just knocked on the church door, and the priests let them in.
“It’s normal for people to knock on the door here,” even late at night, Trant said.
Parishioner Bill Haley visited Terra in the hospital Wednesday night and said the priest was in critical condition but able to talk.
“He said nothing evil about the person who did this, expressed no ill will,” Haley recalled. “He expressed great concern about Father Walker, and I’m concerned about the cross he’s going to have to carry now as a survivor of this … He asked everyone to pray for him.”
Haley, who knew both priests well, joined others in prayer Thursday outside the church.
“He truly is a father, and he loves his parishioners deeply,” Haley said of Terra. “He would care for both our spiritual as well as our physical good.”
Terra is a man with many talents, including woodworking and being a tailor, he said.
“He makes the vestments for every parish he’s been at and then he gives them to the parish using his own resources,” Haley said. “He’s just a Renaissance man.”
Walker, he said, was a “young priest full of energy” who loved baseball and the outdoors.
He would learn the names of each new parishioner and would even visit some for dinners at their homes, Haley said.
“He’ll just be sorely missed,” he said, his voice wavering as he choked back tears.
Parishioner Diane Harmon sobbed as she spoke of Walker and Terra and the “senseless acts of cruelty” that were carried out.
“They will be truly missed in this parish. Very peaceful people, very peaceful men, loving, kind and charitable,” Harmon said.
“They are truly concerned about the sanctity of souls and saving souls,” she added. “It’s hard to imagine, but that’s unfortunately the society we’re living in, a godless society. It’s lawless.”
Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said the city was shocked and saddened as police pleaded for the public’s help in identifying the suspects.
“The tragedy that occurred last night at the Mother of Mercy Mission church strikes at our core because every American should feel safe in a house of worship — and that basic value was violated last night in an unspeakable way,” Stanton said.
Terra and Walker served as pastor and assistant pastor, respectively, at the church, which is located along a gritty stretch of downtown Phoenix. Adamson said both men believed the church “was a safe place to live.”
“Father Terra is a pretty strong man. He’s not afraid of anybody,” Adamson said.
They both belonged to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, and one of its hallmarks is leading Mass in Latin for worshippers.
Rorate Caeli, an online blog widely read in Vatican circles, said Walker was born in upstate New York near Poughkeepsie. He was the middle child among a family of 11 children. He was ordained in May 2012.
Associated Press writer Terry Tang contributed to this report.