Eureka's Catholics — and the Humboldt County community at large — was shocked last week when the popular pastor of St. Bernard Church, Father Eric Freed, was found killed on New Year's Day in the church's rectory where he lived.
Now the church and its parishioners are figuring out how to move on, and, following a week of grieving and reflection, many who knew Freed are remarkably positive about a life without the Father — a man they remember as wry, erudite and giving.
That doesn't mean Freed's loss won't be felt throughout this community and beyond.
"He was a fantastic priest in a time when there's so much negativity publicized about the Catholic church," said Jamie Bellermann, a massage therapist and St. Bernard parishioner. "He was an intellectual and at the same time always had the ability to communicate with people."
After two decades studying and ministering in Japan and Italy, Freed spent a year with Arcata's St. Mary's Church before taking on various roles at churches around the Bay Area. He became the pastor of the St. Bernard Parish in Eureka in 2011.
Bellermann said Freed applied his international experience to small town pastoring. "He was able to see [the gospel] from the viewpoint of having lived it in so many cultures," he said. "Bringing that fresh perspective to the gospel and his ministry meant that he wasn't constrained by the limits of a strictly American interpretation."
Amanda Rutledge, the director of religious education for the St. Bernard Parish, recalled a mentor and friend who was both scholarly and jovial.
Rutledge was hired a year ago by Freed for a new position that the two were excited to create together, she said. Rutledge had in Freed a spiritual advisor through her college years, connecting with him while he headed HSU's Newman Center, the university's Christian and Catholic society. Freed continued to teach classes for the university's religious studies department up until his death. "No matter how much time goes by, there will always be that little space that misses him," Rutledge said.
Monsignor Daniel Whelton, of the Archdiocese of Santa Rosa, described Freed as compassionate, intelligent and giving, as well as a good and efficient pastor. They watched sports together, Whelton said — and in fact had planned to watch this past weekend's 49ers game together. "He was an easy person to be with," Whelton said. "Friendly and accepting — he's a great loss."
The dramatic killing was discovered the morning of the first day of the year, when Freed didn't show up for mass. Church staff discovered him badly injured amid the remnants of a violent struggle. He was pronounced dead shortly after police arrived. Tension mounted around town as mourning churchgoers and community members gathered in front of the church. Eureka's chief of police and mayor held a tearful press conference in which it was revealed that Freed had been the victim of an apparent assault and murder.
The next day, several hours after identifying a suspect, police caught him: 44-year-old Gary Lee Bullock, a Redway resident who had been arrested for intoxication on New Year's Eve, sobered up in jail, and was released onto the streets of Eureka shortly after midnight the morning that Freed was killed. Police were called at least once to the church's neighborhood, where they asked Bullock to move along, according to a press release. At one point a security guard also asked Bullock to leave the grounds.
At some point, Bullock apparently returned to his family's Briceland home. On Jan. 2, after discovering Bullock was a suspect, his family turned him over to police. Freed's car was found nearby, police said. During Bullock's arraignment Monday, the DA's office charged him with auto theft, attempted arson and murder with special allegations of torture. Bullock pleaded not guilty to the charges.
While a motive for the attack is unclear, police have assured the public that there doesn't appear to be further threat to the community. Still, the killing has left some parishioners shaken.
"Our priest was murdered. It brings into our awareness the violence and the sickness in our community," Bellermann said. "Father Eric knew about that. He was an advocate for people who lived on the fringes. If he could give us a message — and I think he does give us a message — it would be to pray for not just the perpetrator of this crime but for people who may be in a similar position in dealing with mental health issues and addiction issues. Because my guess is that those played a role."
Rutledge said the Church and parishioners have brought up concerns about St. Bernard's downtown location and proximity to the jail before. "When something like this happens it confirms their fears," she said. Still, Rutledge said the church is taking steps to make sure that parishioners are safe. "Unfortunately that sense has been taken away from us — at least for now," she said. "We'll pray that it comes back. And that it prevents something like this from happening again."
Support for Freed and the parish he left behind has been inspiring, Rutledge said. Local businesses, college students, police and the community at large have attended masses and services in honor of Freed and offered to help the Church recover.
Father Loren Allen, who led the St. Bernard Parish before Freed was hired, will act as the Church's pastor for the next five months until administrators can find a permanent replacement. Parishioners and administrators agreed that, despite the sudden loss, Freed left the Church in good shape.
"It's all in God's hands," Bellerman said. "One of the other things Father Eric did very consciously — he tried to step out of the spotlight of being what St. Bernard's was. He gave a lot of responsibility to other people in the Church. The church is not him — he's part of the church. ... So the church will go on."