St. John Vianney fire: An arrest, but what about forgiveness?
On October 2, 2006, and the days and weeks following, the Amish set a modern-day gold standard for forgiveness.
It was on that fall morning one of their “English” neighbors broke into their one-room schoolhouse in the Old Order Amish community of Nickel Mines in southern Lancaster County, Pa. Charles Carl Roberts IV took hostages and then shot, execution-style, 10 female students. Five would die, while the others were critically injured.
As state police stormed into the school, the 32-year-old milk delivery man killed himself. According to a suicide note, he was angry at God for taking his own baby girl after she was born prematurely nine years before.
At first it was the unimaginable violence against the innocent children of the peace-loving, pastoral Amish, who still drive horse-and-buggies and shun almost all aspects of modern culture, that made the news. But soon another story, seemingly even more startling, took over the media’s 24/7 attention — forgiveness.
Six hours after the shooting, an Amish neighbor visited Roberts’ widow, Marie, offering condolences and extending forgiveness to her late husband. Later that day, elders went to his parents’ home also with words of comfort.
Two days later, the local Amish formed a committee to disperse the unasked-for financial donations pouring into the community’s suffering families with medical bills. (Word had quickly gotten out that the Amish don’t have health insurance.) The committee, in turn, decided to give part of the money to the widow and three children of the killer. Eventually, the funds added up to over $4.2 million.
But perhaps the most amazing, and visible, act of forgiveness happened at the burial of Charles Roberts. Some 30, more than half of the people there, were Amish. Some, in fact, had just buried their own daughters the day before. The funeral director reportedly said, “I realized that I was witnessing a miracle.”
Praying for arsonist
The fire set by an arsonist in the early morning hours of April 16, 2011, at St. John Vianney Church didn’t take any lives. But it did destroy the sacred house of worship, dedicated by Cardinal James Francis McIntyre in 1969, for thousands of families and individuals. Parishioners grieved deeply for the contemporary California mission-style church where many were baptized, made their First Communions, confirmed and married as well as held funerals for relatives and friends.
And before the acrid smell of water-soaked ashes had even died down, the suburban parish’s priests were urging their flock to pray for the arsonist.
“We’re really as clergy making sure that we’re praying about that,” Father Ricky Viveros, the associate pastor who awoke to discover the blaze, told The Tidings a year ago. “So, especially during the weekday Masses, we’re making sure that one of our petitions is for the person or persons who did this — to really reinforce that we can’t tackle evil with evil.
“Especially during this Easter season, we’re reminded that Christ forgave the people who killed him. So if we claim to be followers of Christ, we have to do as he did. You know, he was our perfect example. And that’s not easy, and we know it’s not easy. It is hard and very, very painful.”
Last month — after a yearlong investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Arson-Explosives Detail, FBI and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives — a Hacienda Heights parolee was arrested on suspicion of setting the fire that destroyed St. John Vianney Church and damaged the nearby rectory.
Gregory Yusuke Shiga, 34, was charged with aggravated arson, arson of a structure or forest, possession of flammable material and second-degree commercial burglary.
Whether or not he’s tried and convicted of these crimes, the arrest now puts a human face on the arson-set fire. But how has it affected the mindset of St. John Vianney’s clergy and parishioners, who were called to pray for and forgive whoever burnt down their church?
Pope John Paul’s example
Msgr. Tim Nichols, who has been pastor of the Hacienda Heights church for 10 years, doesn’t believe anything’s changed.
“I mentioned last Sunday, at least in one of the Masses, that the only picture that comes to me is the great example of Pope John Paul II, sitting there in the prison forgiving the man who shot him,” he recently told The Tidings. “I said, ‘If the pope can forgive a guy who literally shot him, well, the bar is pretty high.
“So we had an arson fire. We’re fairly sure this is the person; however, you can’t go that far. But what we would say is whoever it is, forgive them. And we’re not going to bear resentment and anger towards them. I’m not. My hope is that whoever it is, they’re in a place where they can’t do this any more. They’re troubled and disturbed. So that’s what jail time means for me, that whoever it is cannot go out and damage something or hurt somebody.”
Msgr. Nichols reported that the suspect in custody isn’t a member of the parish and, as far as he knows, has never been a Catholic. He said, someone from a Japanese newspaper called, confirming that Gregory Yusuke Shiga is a Japanese-American, and expressing how the Japanese community is mortified if he really is the arsonist. The pastor also noted how there is “no known motive” so far.
“The scariest part was that the church and rectory are right next to each other, and that the rectory also caught fire,” he lamented. “When the fire department got here, they really gave up on the church because it was already full of flames and focused on saving the rectory. But heat from the fire completely destroyed our roof, so us priests had to be out of there for over four months while they restored it.”
His voice became more upbeat when talking about what is being called the “midterm” church, which should be finished by later this month. The concrete floor is down and the steel structure is going up. The weather-proof structure will seat 750 churchgoers and is expected to last three to four years until a new permanent church is built.
“We’re moving forward,” Msgr. Nichols stressed. “It hasn’t been an easy process, but we are rebuilding. We’re rising up, so to speak.”
‘Child of God’
Chris Sanchez remembers reading about the brutal shooting and killing of the Amish girls in their schoolhouse back in 2006. And the St. John Vianney parishioner since 1972, like so many others, was amazed that Amish elders went to the murderer’s wife’s and parent’s homes that very day to comfort and forgive Charles Roberts for his senseless act of violence.
Still, from the “very beginning” after her beloved church was torched and destroyed by an arsonist in April of 2011, she has followed the advice of Msgr. Nichols and Father Viveros to pray for the person, or persons, who did it. But she also admits that she’s hasn’t really thought about forgiving the arsonist.
“Our responsibility towards the perpetrator — whether it’s the guy they arrested or his partner or anybody else — is to forgive,” Sanchez acknowledged. “That’s our responsibility, but that is so difficult. I can pray for him, and we have. But I don’t know that ‘forgive’ is in my vocabulary yet.”
Instead, the mother whose children received the sacraments at St. John Vianney Church has chosen to “don’t look back and go forward,” just like she did when she was diagnosed with cancer 19 years ago. The memories of baptisms and First Communions are forever in her heart. But for the last year, her concentration has been on not only rebuilding the church building but also rebuilding her church community.
“I can pray for the guy,” she said. “Does that mean in that prayer there’s forgiveness? No, I don’t think so. I think they’re two different things.”
Betty Herle was a founding parishioner at St. John Vianney in the late 1960s, and still sings in the choir at age 80. She, too, has had five children receive sacraments there. And her husband, Steve, was buried from the Hacienda Heights church after the couple were married for 46 years.
“At the time of the fire, I just felt so sad that someone would have a reason to burn the church down,” she said. “And I think all of us are still wondering what this person had in mind. Did he hate us for some reason? And we have prayed for him, but it’s going to be very difficult to say ‘I forgive.’”
After a moment, however, Herle added, “He is a child of God, as we are. God had a plan for this person and I have to be able to accept God’s plan. I have no problem in accepting what God does.”