HACIENDA HEIGHTS, Calif. — The crowd of people praying in the parking lot of St. John Vianney Church in the Los Angeles suburb of Hacienda Heights late Feb. 20 — parents with their children, parishioners getting off of work, and even some stray teenagers — seemed to expand with each joyful mystery of the rosary.
Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles was one of them. After appearing that afternoon alongside Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna at a press conference, he made an unannounced visit to the suburban parish to pray with a community still in shock over the murder of their neighbor, Auxiliary Bishop David G. O’Connell.
Some at the vigil held candles while they prayed. Others held each other.
“We believe that Bishop Dave has received his recompense for his life and his ministry,” Archbishop Gomez told the grieving crowd after leading them in a recitation of the rosary and the Divine Mercy chaplet. “We know that he is in heaven. Let us ask for his intercession, because he will continue to stay very close to us, just as he stayed close to so many people during his life.”
About 150 people showed up for the brief prayer service held in front of a small outdoor shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. It was the second night of a novena for Bishop O’Connell organized by parishioners and members of the local Knights of Columbus chapter.
But much had changed in the 24 hours since the mourners had last seen one another. That afternoon, the LA Sheriff’s Department had announced the arrest of the husband of O’Connell’s housekeeper, 61-year-old Carlos Medina, in the bishop’s shooting death following a fast-moving investigation aided by surveillance video and a pair of citizen tips.
“Although I personally did not know the bishop, I cannot tell you how many phone calls I have received over the last 48 hours of people who have worked with him in different capacities,” said Sheriff Luna at a Monday press conference at the LA County Hall of Justice in downtown LA. “And this man, this bishop, made a huge difference in our community. He was loved.”
The night before, the vigil took place in front of the home where Bishop O’Connell lived — and died — on Janlu Avenue a few houses away from St. John Vianney.
“I think I’m still in shock, I really am,” said Wayne Morales, who knew Bishop O’Connell through his involvement with the Catholic Men’s Fellowship of California. O’Connell was the group’s spiritual adviser and was scheduled to speak to them at an upcoming event.
“I’ve been a bit emotional because I just don’t know how to handle this news. The man, in my eyes, was the most peaceful and loving person. Why? I just don’t understand,” Morales told Angelus News, the archdiocese’s online news outlet.
The manner of Bishop O’Connell’s death only added to the sorrow and shock. Driven by her pain, young mother Lupe Carrere bundled up her son and drove to the Sunday night vigil site Feb. 19. She could barely talk as she was so taken with emotion.
“I felt compelled to come,” said Carrere, a parishioner of St. Bernard Church in Bellflower. “Just the way he died … no one deserves to die that way.”
High-schooler Sharon Gonzalez came with her mother that night to pay her respects to the bishop she altar-served for over the last six years.
“Bishop was someone very special to me,” said Gonzalez. “Before every Mass, we (altar servers) would be super nervous because he’s the bishop. He would say, ‘Don’t be nervous, it’s just me.! … He was super humble.”
Others in the crowd remembered his warmth. Dani Belcamacaro knelt before the photo of Bishop O’Connell at the makeshift memorial with a bouquet of flowers, then shared an embrace with her sister, Mary.
“He made you feel like family, he made you feel like he knew you,” said Belcamacaro of St. Joseph Church in La Puente. “It’s important to be here because he meant a lot to us.”
“He’s always just had the biggest smile,” said Catherine De Jesus, from St. Lorenzo Ruiz Church in Walnut, at the Monday night vigil Feb. 20. She fought back tears as she remembered how she got to know him from the times he visited the parish to celebrate Mass: “He was never afraid to just walk the streets and help the helpless.”
Knights of Columbus member Fred Pacheco remembered when the bishop came to his parish, St. Lorenzo Ruiz, and blessed its garden. He couldn’t believe that someone wanted to kill a man like Bishop O’Connell.
“There’s just madness in this world right now,” lamented Pacheco. “There are so many questions. I hate to draw conclusions. I just want to pay my respects and pray for his soul.”
Leaders of the Knights of Columbus said their faith and Bishop O’Connell’s own words are carrying them through this difficult time.
“He (Bishop O’Connell) wouldn’t want us to hate. He said you have to pray, you have to forgive,” said Larry Dietz, vice president of the Knight’s San Gabriel Valley chapter. “As a Catholic family, we’ve got to get stronger and that’s why we came out tonight. … We’re going to persevere.”