‘A lot of tears, sadness’ at Virginia Tech, says campus minister

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — “There’s been a lot of tears, a lot of sadness,” Catholic campus minister Teresa Volante said on the phone as she tried to describe how Virginia Tech students were reacting April 17 to the shooting deaths of 33 students and faculty members on their campus the day before.

And prayers, too. She said about 150 students showed up for a hastily arranged memorial Mass and prayer vigil at the Newman Center just off the campus the evening of April 16.

“A lot of students are going to the convocation and ecumenical prayer service,” she told Catholic News Service, referring to a 2 p.m. gathering at the university’s Cassell Coliseum April 17 and an 8 p.m. candlelight prayer vigil that evening at Drillfield, a large open field in the middle of the campus.

On April 16 and 17 some students stopped in the Newman chapel to pray, while others went to the War Memorial Chapel on campus. Still others stopped by a makeshift memorial shrine set up by some students on campus to write a message, light a candle or say a prayer.

Volante said that before the prayer vigil April 17 there would be a 6 p.m. Mass at the Newman chapel.

She said residents of Blacksburg had been stopping in to bring food and soft drinks for the students and to help out however they can, making coffee, answering phones, talking with students. “There’s been overwhelming support from people,” she said.

A number of priests from neighboring parishes had come in to help counsel and offer support to students and the grieving families of victims.

Father James Arsenault, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Blacksburg, spent more than three hours April 16 ministering to victims at Montgomery Regional Hospital in Blacksburg, where most of those wounded during the massacre were taken. Then he went to the Virginia Tech campus to help with students and families, staying with them into the early hours of the morning. He was back on campus the next day to comfort families of victims.

With Father Arsenault out at the campus April 16, Father Rob Cole from Our Lady of Nazareth Parish in Roanoke, Va., drove down to Blacksburg to celebrate a special memorial Mass that evening at St. Mary Church and to help the next day with pastoral ministry to the university community. He said many who attended the Mass at St. Mary were students from the university.

Father Victor Quagraine, a graduate student at Virginia Tech who has been providing sacramental ministry for the Newman Center, celebrated the April 16 memorial Mass there and was back the next day to counsel and support students and families.

Father Patrick Golden of St. Jude Parish in Radford, about 10 miles from Blacksburg, also went to Virginia Tech to minister to the university community.

Karen Melendez, Catholic campus minister at Radford University, also joined an ad hoc pastoral team at Virginia Tech. At Radford University classes and other activities were canceled April 17 and many students joined a 2 p.m. vigil on their campus, convened “to show support and love to our Virginia Tech friends and colleagues.”

Deacon Michael J. Ellerbrock, a Virginia Tech professor, turned from teaching to ministry, counseling and supporting the students and families.

Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo of Richmond, Va., the diocese in which Blacksburg is located, celebrated a memorial Mass in his cathedral April 17 and planned to visit Blacksburg April 21-22. He was to celebrate the Saturday vigil Mass at St. Mary Church April 21 and the regular noon Sunday Mass the next day on campus at the War Memorial Chapel, which the Newman Center uses for its weekend Masses for students.

Bishop DiLorenzo asked parishes throughout the diocese to hold special memorial Masses during the week and to get word of those Masses out to as many people as possible.

Msgr. Thomas F. Shreve, diocesan vicar general, said other priests who went on campus to help included Father John Prinelli of Holy Spirit Parish in Christianburg, Va., and Father Steven R. Rule of Epiphany Parish in Richmond. Father Rule went because there are so many Virginia Tech students from Richmond, he said.

When asked how the diocese organized the response, Msgr. Shreve said most of those who went to help just spontaneously volunteered. But as the calls came in, Anne C. Edwards, the bishop’s special assistant and adviser, helped put the pieces together to coordinate their work, he said.

Volante, who is in her first year as a campus minister, said that in trying to deal with the momentous tragedy the university was facing she was relying heavily on the support of the community and on her faith.

“Just praying with the students, being able to celebrate Mass with them, being able to pray in a moment of quiet” was giving her the support she needed, she said.

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