by Mark Pattison
WASHINGTON (OSV News) — In one sense, priests are no different from other people. They feel the need to step away from the typical routine for a few days to refresh and recharge. There’s always the beach, the woods, the big city.
But Father Dan Carson, the pastor of St. Peter’s Parish on Capitol Hill? He went to Uvalde, Texas.
Father Carson was one of 14 Catholic clergy and lay leaders to spend three days in the town where feelings are still raw and wounds of all kinds are slowly healing from a mass shooting at a grade school one year ago that claimed the lives of 19 students and two of their teachers.
The visit was arranged by Catholic Extension, which has been providing aid and support for Catholic institutions in “mission territory” — where the number of Catholics is few, the percentage of Catholics in the total population is small, or where the diocese covers a vast expanse of territory.
Founded in 1905, what was then known as the Catholic Church Extension Society built Sacred Heart Church in Uvalde the very next year, and the parish grade school not long afterward.
“I’m still processing, honestly,” Father Carson said of the intense May 24-26 trip. He added that he’d considered preaching on what he had seen while in Uvalde the weekend after his return, but realized that he was not yet ready to do that.
Father Carson spoke briefly about standing outside Robb Elementary, the massacre site. “I was standing in front of the crosses of the people” who had been slain, he told the Catholic Standard, Washington’s archdiocesan newspaper. “I imagined standing in front of my school — and I couldn’t imagine one child having that done here, let alone 21” victims.
The priest and pastor tweaked his no-homilies-yet rule for a Mass for graduating eighth-graders at his own parish school. “We had our eighth grade graduation the day after I came back,” Father Carson said. While he celebrated the Mass, he let his departing parochial vicar, Father Brendan Glasgow, preach the homily.
“I felt compelled to say a few words about the trip” before the end of the Mass, Father Carson said. This he did. And then he thought of St. Teresa of Kolkata’s words: “I alone cannot change the world. But I can cast a stone that can create many ripples.”
“I would not have done that,” Father Carson said, “were it not for the trip.”
Catholic Extension, based in Chicago, had plans to rebuild a spiritually shaken town within a week and a half of the massacre, according to Joe Boland, the organization’s chief mission officer. Just one of those plans was to offer 30 full scholarships to children who wanted to transfer from Robb Elementary to Sacred Heart School. “Not just the first year, but all the years they were there,” Boland said.
Scholarships were offered to “the kids who survived, some of their siblings, and the siblings of the family members who were deceased.”
Father Carson marveled at the work of the Sisters of Teresa of Jesus, more commonly known as the Teresian Sisters. The order continues to staff Sacred Heart School, and one of the Teresians hails from Uvalde.
“The efforts of the sisters — they really are trying to heal, (and see) how they can help the healing,” Father Carson remarked. The Teresians established Camp I-Can in the town last summer for Uvalde’s children. “One sister corralled all these nuns, and they all enjoyed the experience,” he said. Camp I-Can is coming back this summer, too.
One camp activity is art therapy, which helps children express their feelings when words seem so tough to use. The adults on the Catholic Extension visit also participated in an art therapy session to learn what it was like, and their creations were saved for future use in one of the many memorials that now dot Uvalde, population 15,000 and roughly equidistant from San Antonio and the U.S.-Mexico border.
“There are memorials for each person” who was killed in the massacre visible throughout the town, Father Carson said. “You see a lot of people hugging and crying. . . There are lots of raw feelings 13 months afterward.”
Father Carson gave the townspeople credit. “They’re trying to find many ways to heal,” he said, although he remembered one adult’s case. “She had to cover her ears” when the news helicopters swirled overhead, he said, “because it makes her think back to that day.”
Much attention has been paid as of late to a Robb Elementary student named Noah, thanks in part to a New York Times article that chronicled his experience and recovery.
Noah’s classmates did not survive the attack. Although Noah was shot, he survived because “his teacher sheltered him,” Father Carson said. The teacher also perished. It’s been estimated that Noah and the shooter were in the same classroom for 70 minutes as police vacillated on how to respond.
Noah’s father has famously said since the attack, “God is a compass, but you can move forward.”
During his visit there, Father Carson met Noah, who is now one of the students at Sacred Heart School.
The Extension delegation also had an opportunity to celebrate Mass with Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio. When the archbishop talked about gun violence, Father Carson noted, “you could feel his anger.”
One nun with the traveling party also voiced her frustration: “This has got to stop, but I don’t know how,” Father Carson remembered her saying about gun violence.
While in the San Antonio vicinity, the Extension group visited a nearby refugee center. Father Carson described the situation of one family there. “One family has two sons, they’re 15 and 13. They had to leave home. They did not want their sons dealing drugs,” and drug gangs were circling around the two teens. “Every family that we met there was similar,” he said, adding, “Our ancestors were just like that 100, 200 years ago.”
They also visited a memorial to the 53 migrant workers who had been smuggled into the United States in a truck trailer but died of asphyxiation or heat exposure. This incident happened barely one month after the May 22, 2022, school shooting.
Father Carson was asked where God was in the midst of horrific evil and unspeakable tragedy.
“Certainly in the volunteers and the nuns,” he said. The Extension group was in Uvalde at Sacred Heart Church for a first anniversary commemoration of the massacre. Despite some families not wanting to go because it would dredge up unwanted memories, and others being lured to Disney World as a way to distract them from the tragedy, “the church was packed,” he added.
“For me, it’s seeing families hold onto their faith. I think people sometimes go away from their faith or turn away from their faith,” Father Carson said. In Uvalde, though, “they are building on their faith to help people get strengthened.”