'What Sustains Us'

How a congregation overcame tragedy, together



Sitting in a coffee shop not far from St. Bernard Catholic parish after Friday mass, Cathy Dellabalma stared down at the kale salad sitting untouched on the table in front of her and paused to consider the question. What has the murder of beloved pastor Eric Freed done to the St. Bernard congregation?

"Made us stronger," she said. "It's brought us much closer and it's brought back some people who were away."

Dellabalma, who described herself as "created Catholic," said one must consider two things to understand how that's possible. First, she said, the Catholic Church is an institution that has survived thousands of years. "I don't think I ever appreciated the structure of the Roman Catholic Church so much as I have after the death of Father Eric," she said. Second, she said, a congregation is like a family. It may become estranged and disparate, but tragedy can bring it back together.

According to Dellabalma and others, the healing process began almost immediately. Dellabalma said she was sitting in the pews awaiting morning mass on Jan. 1, 2014 when the clock struck 9 a.m. and the congregation sat restlessly, awaiting a pastor who was never late. She said she watched as Deacon Frank Weber, the man who would find Freed's lifeless body in the rectory next door, left the church. "He disappeared and he came back in a moment later and he was just — ashen. He said, 'Something terrible has happened to Father Eric.'"

But even after it was announced that mass was canceled, nobody left the church. Instead, Dellabalma said someone began leading the congregation in reciting the rosary, then the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. The congregation didn't move from the church hall until Eureka police officers came in and, gently, according to Dellabalma, told people they had to leave.

News traveled fast, and speculation even faster. Within hours, it was known there had been a murder in the rectory and almost all believed Freed was the victim. By the time police called a press conference that afternoon, Bishop Robert Vasa of the Santa Rosa Archdiocese had already cleared his schedule and was en route to Eureka. Meanwhile, mourners kept a constant vigil at the church, forming prayer circles and reciting the rosary. Paper lanterns appeared on the church steps inscribed with messages in Freed's memory.

To understand the devastation of the moment, Dellabalma said, one must understand the dramatic impact Freed had on St. Bernard and the surrounding community. The church had been dogged in the 1990s and early 2000s by abuse allegations, with a string of lawsuits related to a number of pedophile priests that had been relocated to the area in the 1980s. Freed was an outsider with a gregarious personality who came to Eureka with a worldly view and a philosophical outlook. After graduating with a philosophy degree from Loyola Marymount University, Freed entered the Salesian Religious Congregation in Japan, where he would later be ordained into the priesthood and serve for a decade.

When Freed came to Humboldt County as the chaplain of Humboldt State University's Newman Center in 2006, he quickly developed a reputation as someone who was accessible and passionate. Father Loren Allen, who now serves as the pastor of the St. Philip Catholic Church in Occidental, came to know Freed well, first while the two worked together down in Sonoma County and later when Freed came to Humboldt, where Allen was serving as the Pastor of St. Bernard.

Allen said Freed had an innate ability to relate with everyone, whether it be the pious lady who wanted to talk saints and prayers, the professor who wanted to discuss theology, the student hungry to see the world through a different lens or someone who just wanted to talk sports. "He could meet people at their own level and engage them, without ever seeming pretentious or like he was trying to lower himself," Allen said. "He was himself always, but he had that ability to engage."

"The bottom line," Dellabalma said, "is that he was always trying to expand that base of people you're including in your love and in your prayer."

By the time of his death, Freed had also become a beloved religious studies professor at HSU, where some of his students confessed they never knew he was a Catholic priest while taking his classes. Though he was a private person, Dellabalma said Freed quickly became revered in the larger Humboldt County community.

So when the news was fully out in the open that he'd been murdered, and details of the grisly killing found media coverage around the world, the reaction was visceral, and many descended on worship services to air their grief and seek comfort.

Allen said Vasa served a crucial role in those first days. He led worship services and mass, met with parishioners and was the face of the church. At the same time, behind the scenes, he dealt with the police investigation, coordinated with the mortuary and the coroner's office and spoke with Freed's family. And, as soon as police had cleared the rectory of evidence, Vasa moved in.

"Those first 100 hours that he was there set a tone that really was an inspiration to all of us," Allen said. "His efforts were truly heroic and appreciated."

Dellabalma said the detailed planning for Freed's funeral and multiple memorial services was extraordinary. She recalled when Freed's casket was set out for viewing, with the Knights of Columbus stoically standing watch over it. "I can't tell you the comfort that comes with witnessing that kind of reverence," she said.

Long-term planning for the future of St. Bernard began almost immediately as well. Allen said he received a call from the archdiocese within days of Freed's killing asking if he'd be willing to come back to St. Bernard on an interim basis. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the congregation needed a familiar face. Allen agreed, arriving in Eureka for Freed's funeral and remaining for eight months.

Allen said he took his cues from Vasa and immediately moved into the rectory, believing it was important for members of the congregation to be able to pass by at night and see a light on, or to catch a glimpse of him bringing in a bag of groceries and tending to the needs of daily life.

It was difficult juggling shock, grief and responsibilities "but there was work to be done," Allen said. "The place needed someone to be there at that time and I had to take charge. ... I had a wonderful parish staff and people such as the parish council and the parish financial council. We all met that first week and we just put our hands to the plow and said, 'Let's get to work. Of course we're hurting and of course we're grieving, but there's work to be done.'

"I'd never done anything like this before and few of us have," Allen continued. "There was no template or guide book on how to deal with such a matter. We just did it day by day."

Weber, the deacon, and his wife Judy are experienced grief counselors, and Allen said they were leaned on heavily. "They worked tirelessly — tirelessly — to work with many of the people, not only in the parish but non-Catholics and people from the community," Allen said. "That was a most helpful thing. But, mostly, what we did is we kept moving as a parish and a parish family."

Things have calmed some. After about eight months at St. Bernard, Allen returned to Occidental, with pastor Tom Diaz taking his place. With the trial for Freed's killer having ended, many said they are returning to some level of normalcy. But Dellabalma pointed out that Freed's name still appears regularly in the intentions of mass, which allows members of the congregation to dedicate a daily mass in someone's honor.

And, while the lines of people that filled the pews have thinned since the immediate aftermath of Freed's death, Dellabalma said average attendance has increased since before the murder. In life, Freed urged his congregation to expand its reach and bring people in. In some ways, his death has helped accomplish that.

"Faith isn't about the joyful times," Dellabalma said, sitting in the coffee shop, a silver crucifix hanging from a necklace over her blue sweater. "It's what sustains us when things are beyond understanding. I've seen that."

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