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Funeral after funeral, Uvalde’s only Catholic priest leans on faith

Father Eduardo Morales, also known as “Father Eddy” to parishioners at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Uvalde, Tex., talks to a volunteer. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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UVALDE, Tex. — Scribbled on the whiteboard affixed to a rectory wall inside Sacred Heart Catholic Church was a somber list: funeral after funeral, sometimes two in one day, that will all take place here for students and teachers killed last week at Robb Elementary School.

Inside the rectory, Father Eduardo Morales met with families of victims, took calls from ministries around the country and prepared to lead an evening Mass for a small group of parishioners — a prelude of sorts to the relentless sorrow that awaits him for the next two weeks.

“There’s a lot of pain and a lot of hurt,” he said over the weekend, before an impromptu vigil for the victims behind the church, home to the only Catholic congregation in town. “But we can’t lose our faith. Faith has to be part of this journey to find comfort.”

It is not the first such journey for Morales, a man who has both an intimate knowledge of this tightknit, largely Hispanic community and a cruel insight into what may lie ahead for many in the city of nearly 16,000 people.

Born and raised in Uvalde, Morales — known as “Father Eddy” to his parishioners — grew up with 10 siblings just two blocks away from Sacred Heart. Nearly 26 years ago, as some family members were driving back from San Antonio after watching him celebrate his very first Mass, his sister, Michelle Contreras, was killed in a car accident, several longtime parishioners said.

More recently, he presided over aching funerals as the coronavirus pandemic coursed through Uvalde.

But as one of few local faith leaders tasked with comforting a town submerged in new grief, he must now find a way to persuade stunned and mourning families that their slain loved ones are in a better place.

“I just pray that he has enough energy to be in all the Masses,” Estela Murillo, 72, said as she slipped inside the church on Monday evening, gripping an unlit white candle. “It must be overwhelming. It must be impossible.”

Morales has stuck to a few key tenets in the last week, placing them at the heart of the sermons he has delivered from the pulpit and speeches he has recited at vigils: Anger cannot turn into hate. The lives of the victims must be celebrated. The parish — and the city — must try to heal as one.

That is a particularly sensitive command in Uvalde, where some parents of victims have expressed outrage at the slow response during the shooting by law enforcement officers — some of whom are also members of the parish.

“I’m not going to explain to them what happened. I can’t,” he said of the parents, many of whom he has been meeting with to discuss homilies or provide counseling. “Just being present might be more meaningful than trying to say things that may not bring them comfort.”

By his own account, Morales has been compartmentalizing his own grief. Even as offers to help have poured in from priests and parishes near and far, he has insisted he will take part in all 11 funeral Masses scheduled to occur at the church.

While he can’t help but smile a bit in describing the opportunity he had Sunday to bless President Biden, Morales has been circumspect about how his life’s tragedies have affected him, rejecting any role as the sudden center of attention.

“The way I operate is I have things to do,” he said on Monday, his face framed by thick, rectangular black glasses. “I keep doing, doing, doing, and then once everything is finished, it’s all my emotions” that come rushing out.

In this small, rural community, some older scars had not yet healed before the new wounds were suffered. Uvalde County’s coronavirus death rate — 542 deaths for every 100,000 residents — is almost twice as high as the national average, according to data tracked by The Washington Post.

In August 2020, as the pandemic ravaged Southwest Texas and suspended Sacred Heart’s regular operations, Morales posted periodic updates on his church-affiliated Facebook page, trying to comfort parishioners.

“Unfortunately life does happen and for the past several weeks we have had a funeral Mass pretty much every day and this week was no exception,” he wrote. “We ask you keep all of those we have lost in your prayers and remember their extended family members from time to time.”

This week, Morales was repeating the same rhythm of funeral masses, their rituals meant to ease the grief of the survivors. But the sudden loss of children — all of them so young that he presided over some of their First Communions only a few years ago — meant there was a new level of tragedy to overcome.

“When someone was sick with covid, we weren’t sure if they would survive,” he said. “These kids were in school celebrating their last few days of school without knowing it would be their last day of life.”

Morales was out of town, on vacation in Boston, when he got the urgent call from San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller last week about the tragedy at home.

He arrived in Uvalde late Wednesday, and by the time he woke up Thursday morning, there was more devastating news: Joe Garcia, a loyal parishioner whose wife, Irma, was one of two teachers killed at Robb Elementary, had died of a heart attack after visiting a memorial to the victims.

The two clergymen went to speak that day with Joe and Irma’s four children inside the family’s one-story white brick house, where a crowd of 50 extended family members had assembled in a mix of grief and support.

“The main key is to connect with them, to be present with them in gestures and attitude,” García-Siller said. “We need to build trust with presence and service, because this is going to be a long journey.”

But García-Siller said Morales already had a big head start: He could address every single person in the room by their first name — all because he was serving as pastor for parishioners who were his childhood friends and neighbors. On Wednesday, Morales concelebrated the Garcias’ joint funeral, though García-Siller gave the homily.

The Morales clan is perhaps best known locally for his mother’s role in fighting school segregation in Uvalde, where Mexican Americans were confined to schools — including Robb Elementary — with fewer resources. His mother, Genoveva Morales, helped to organize a six-week student walkout in 1970 and served as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that forced the district to bus students. One junior high in town now bears the Morales family’s name in her honor.

Genoveva Morales would eventually put some of her children through Catholic school at Sacred Heart, but she never expected that one of them would end up joining the priesthood.

She did not initially take it well. As he recounted to the Austin American-Statesman in 1996, she told him: ''They’re going to lock you up, and we won’t see you for years. And you’ll only come home to tell me they’re going to send you to Africa or South America.''

Six years ago, he moved back, down the street from her. On Monday, a black car carrying his mother pulled up to the front of the church and Morales walked out to the vehicle to greet her.

“I’m good. I’m doing good,” he told her.

The sequence of funerals at Sacred Heart Church began Tuesday afternoon, with the service for Amerie Jo Garza, 10, the first little victim to be memorialized. Hundreds — some in Girl Scout uniforms, others in purple, an apparent nod to her favorite color — packed the modest white church for the funeral Mass.

After recalling Garza’s creativity and her dream of becoming an art teacher, he prepared the congregation for the coming days of funerals by previewing one of his favorite sayings at times of mourning.

“You will hear me say this at every single funeral celebration that we have,” Father Eddy told his parishioners. “We are not in the house of God to celebrate her death. We are here to celebrate her life. We are here to celebrate the life that allows her to continue to be among us.”

Annie Gowen in Uvalde and Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.

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