While some folks in the upstate California town of Eureka slept off the excesses of New Year’s Eve, the more devout parishioners of St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church waited in the pews to start 2014 with the 9 a.m. Mass.

The waiting turned to wondering when the pastor, Father Eric Freed, did not appear. The deacon, Frank Weber, finally went in search of him.

Weber returned and said that something had happened to the pastor. The parishioners began saying the Rosary as a call went in to 911. An operator dispatched a radio car to the church.

“For a 50-year-old male, assault, unconscious,” the dispatcher said. “At the rectory.”

Moments later, police arrived. They followed Weber into the rectory to find Freed sprawled and unresponsive, amid signs of a forced entry and a violent struggle. A parishioner who is a doctor then informed the police that Freed was beyond medical help.

“This a confirmed 1144, cancel city ambulance,” the officer radioed the dispatcher.

An 1144 is somebody who is dead at the scene. 

“Confirmed 1144,” the dispatcher replied. “Canceling city ambulance service.” 

The officer asked that the investigation team be notified.

“We’ll be in the church directing the congregation to move toward the exits,” the officer said. 

“I received ‘the congregation,’ repeat the rest,” the dispatcher asked. 

“We’ll be having them exit,” the officer said.

The faithful were still saying the Rosary when the officers informed them that they had to leave. They filed out beneath the stained-glass windows depicting the patron saint of beekeepers and candle makers. Yellow crime-scene tape went up around the 125-year-old redwood structure.

But of course the praying continued. Mayor Frank Jager of Eureka made that clear when he spoke at a press conference outside the church.

Eureka’s police chief, Andy Mills, spoke first and said it was too early in the investigation to identify the victim. Mills then turned it over to Jager, who tried to respect the chief’s reticence, but then felt compelled to say more.

“Everybody knows it’s Father Eric,” Jager said. “Father Eric is a friend of mine, a tremendous person in this community.”

Jager went on to say that Freed had come to them about three years ago and was multilingual and had been very active in the Japanese community. But Jager’s larger message was in the way he began to choke up with grief over this loss. There has been so much in the news in recent years of bad priests that we are liable to forget the remarkable power of a good one such a Freed.

“Just a tremendous person,” Jager said. “This is absolutely a tremendous loss, not only for the St. Bernard Parish, but for our community in general.”

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