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Kirsten Duarte prays for the two priests who were attacked Wednesday at Mater Misericordiae (Mother of Mercy) Mission. / Nick Oza/The Republic

PHOENIX - On the third Hail Mary of the fifth set of prayers in the rosary vigil for two of his brother priests, Father John Lankeit's voice started to quaver.

As he started to say the line "blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus," Lankeit could no longer go on. The congregation at SS. Simon and Jude Cathedral in northwest Phoenix finished the priest's portion of the prayer, then continued the rosary in unison.

Seventeen priests, deacons and altar boys participated in the prayer vigil for Father Kenneth Walker, 28, who was shot and killed Wednesday night in the small church he served near downtown Phoenix.

Father Joseph Terra, 56, the senior pastor of Mater Misericordiae (Mother of Mercy) Mission, was badly beaten but administered the Last Rites sacrament to Walker.

Police said officers answered a burglary call at the church, near 16th Avenue and Monroe Street, at about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday and found Walker with at least one gunshot wound and Terra in serious condition.

"How can a person break into a church? How can a person assault a man of the cloth? How can a person take a person's life - especially a priest?" Phoenix City Councilman Michael Nowakowski said Thursday.

At a morning news conference, Nowakowski and other city officials, including Phoenix Police Chief Daniel V. Garcia and Mayor Greg Stanton, pleaded for witnesses to come forward.

Stanton said the attack strikes at core values because everyone should feel safe in a house of worship.

"That basic value was violated last night in an unspeakable way," he said.

Daniel Mejia, an 18-year-old man who grew up in Phoenix's Central City neighborhood, acknowledged the area is a dangerous place to live.

Still, there are lines that even the most hardened criminals don't cross, he said. That's why he expressed shock and disbelief when he learned that two priests were attacked near downtown Phoenix.

"It's one of the most unforgivable sins which you can commit because you're harming a person of God," Mejia said. "It's almost just like a spit in the face to a lot of Catholic people."

At Thursday night's vigil for Walker and Terra, Lankeit said both men dedicated themselves "to reverence and beauty, noble simplicity."

The service featured Latin hymns, which reflected the mission of Mother of Mercy. The church holds Masses only in Latin and is beloved for its traditional worship.

"We wanted to reflect the way they cared for their mission, bringing Jesus to people through beauty, so important for us in a world that's so dark and difficult sometimes," Lankeit said.

He spoke about the pain, grief and confusion that came with Wednesday's tragedy, but he also offered hope.

At the service, Barbara Gensel, a Phoenix native who attended Mother of Mercy for 2½ years, described Terra as "a wonderful man. ... He is exactly what you want in your priest."

Clarissa Quiring had attended Walker and Terra's church only since December, but she already felt close to them both.

"They are just such holy men," Quiring said. "They have lived a profound life of prayer. They understood so much."

Throughout the day at Mother of Mercy, parishoners filed in to pray in the small church, which is in the shadow of state government high rises and parking garages. A deacon from the Phoenix Diocese stood by to make sure only the prayerful entered as television crews camped outside.

By all accounts, Terra, Walker and the church thrived in the area.

David Stender, who served as grand knight in the Knights of Columbus chapter in the area, said he and the community will remember Walker by his acts of charity, especially for the homeless.

"He really helped out the community," Stender said. "He would open up the church to the homeless so they could come in when the weather was bad."

Stender stressed that, for parishioners at Mother of Mercy, life revolved around the church and that many members attended the services every day.

"We really feel like one large family, and they are the leaders of that family," Stender said.

Parishoner Ron Cunningham struggled for words to describe his grief when he came to pay his respects at a makeshift memorial that had been created in front of the church doors. He said he knew both priests well.

As grief-stricken as he and his fellow parishioners are over the attacks, he said it was important for him to forgive and pray for the assailants who attacked the priests.

"It doesn't mean that we don't suffer and feel loss. Hey, we're human beings, right? Part of me, I'm always fighting that temptation (giving into anger), but that would be kind of a denial of my faith."

On Thursday morning shortly after hearing of the news about what had happened in their church, parishioners from Mother of Mercy attended Mass at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church.

They said the news of his death and Terra's injuries shocked the close-knit community, many of whom go to Mass daily at the mission.

Parishioners said that they wanted to be at Terra's side for his recovery and that he had always been there for them in times of need.

Many said that both priests had visited their homes for dinner and other occasions and that they both dedicated their lives to serving the community.

During the Mass, Father Alonso Saenz struggled to find words to describe the loss and broke down in tears for his fellow priests.

Saenz said the night was difficult, mostly spent at the hospital. He said that he had given the Apostolic Blessing to Walker when he died and asked the community for prayers for Walker's soul and for Terra's recovery.

Salgado said Terra was built like a boxer and had a tough demeanor. "I wouldn't want to take him on," said Salgado, who says the Latin Mass at St. Cecilia Church in Clarkdale.

Shannon, who worked in the Phoenix church with Terra until 2011, said the area had its share of homeless people, but he said there were never any incidents of violence or disturbances.

"We were careful of course," he said. "We locked up the church at night. But I didn't get the impression that it was unsafe."

Even though the neighborhood has had crime issues, Walker's murder was the first homicide in the area in more than a year, according to Phoenix police statistics. Aggravated assaults, thefts and robberies have all dropped by more than 50 percent in the last year.

Police remained focused Thursday on developing more information in a case with some clues- including physical evidence that was left at the scene of the crime and in a stolen car recovered a few blocks away- and asking for the public's help in solving the crimes.

Garcia who called the attacks "tragic and appalling" crimes, pledged to "exhaust our resources" to find and arrest any suspects in the crime and officials said they would boost patrols around the city's churches if requested.

Garcia said investigators found "strong physical evidence" but lacked witness accounts of the attacks.

Police continued to canvass the neighborhood Thursday, looking for security camera footage and witnesses who may have spotted anything suspicious, Garcia said.

He asked witnesses who may have spotted anything to come forward with information "no matter how small."

Contributing: Arizona Republic reporters Megan Finnerty, Richard Ruelas, Matthew Casey, Corina Vanek, Henry Molski and Connor Wince



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Grief, disbelief after Phoenix attack on 2 priests

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