Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philadelphians embrace faith after synagogue shooting: ‘When you’re in your own church you don’t feel unsafe’

As the names of the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting were announced, parishioners at SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia prayed and said their faith makes them unafraid.

The congregation at the morning mass at St. Peter and Paul on October 28, 2018, shake hands as they offer each other the sign of peace the day after the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.
The congregation at the morning mass at St. Peter and Paul on October 28, 2018, shake hands as they offer each other the sign of peace the day after the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

While on the opposite end of the state the names of the 11 people killed in the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue were announced Sunday morning, Catholics attending Mass at the Cathedral Basilica SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia prayed for them and their families.

After the 9:30 a.m. service ended, several of the nearly 200 in attendance said they had been horrified to learn Saturday that a gunman shouting anti-Semitic slurs had fired upon congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue, but they also said their faith made them unafraid in their own house of worship.

"This is a house of worship, but it's where we turn to for strength," said Charlotte Thomson, 65, who lives a few blocks from the cathedral in Center City.

Thomson said that after a serious car crash in 1993, a doctor told her he "lost me for just under 15 minutes" when she was unconscious and suffering from broken bones and blood loss. "I feel God wasn't ready for me to die and I'm not afraid. … We all have our own paths to travel."

Rachel Sigman, 26, of West Philadelphia, shared the sentiment. "It's in God's hands. … I feel safe with God's people," she said.

The Rev. Msgr. Louis A. D'Addezio did not discuss the massacre during his sermon, but afterward, during the universal prayer part of the service, the tragedy was mentioned and the victims were remembered.  The Rev. Dennis Gill, the rector, said in an interview that he planned to include some remarks about the shooting in his sermon Sunday evening.  His message would be that "the shooting in the synagogue is an evil that's everywhere today, and God does his part and we have to do our part. … We have to do everything we can to eliminate hatred, bigotry and racism."

Robert G. Bowers, 46, was arrested at the synagogue and charged with 29 counts associated with hate crimes, the murder of 11 congregants at the synagogue, and the wounding of four police officers and two others. He brought an AR-15-style assault rifle and at least three handguns to the synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh and opened fire Saturday morning, police said.

Among the deceased victims were eight men and three women, ages 54 to 97. Their names were read aloud by law enforcement authorities Sunday morning during a news conference in Pittsburgh.

At least a dozen vigils were planned throughout the region Sunday to honor the lives that were lost. A moment of silence also was held before an afternoon concert in Verizon Hall of the Curtis Institute of Music Orchestra.

After the Mass at SS. Peter and Paul, Paul Nedeau, 32, of Philadelphia, said that it had not occurred to him during the service that he might be vulnerable to a shooting, even though at least two other places of worship in the U.S. were attacked in the last three years.  "Obviously, these things are happening in the faith communities and it's incredibly disturbing when it does. But when you're in your own church you don't feel unsafe, and maybe you should," he said.

Guy D'Angelo, a church greeter from Cinnaminson, said he, too, had trouble comprehending the idea of a church or synagogue being unsafe.  "I don't know what to make of it. … It's the state of affairs of the society we live in now," he said.

But the parishioners did not want to see armed guards at the church's entrance. "Making it Fortress Cathedral would be a bad idea," said Susan Hunt, 68, of Philadelphia. "It should be welcoming."  She said that St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City now has security screening equipment at the door, but "there is a lot more going on there."

Philadelphia Police spokesman Troy T. Brown said in an email Sunday that "we've increased patrols at Jewish facilities, synagogues, as well as other places of worship.  We won't give any numbers, or specific locations.  We don't want to cause any place to be targeted as a result of our reporting."

Lydia Cruz, 58, of Honolulu, who was in Philadelphia this weekend visiting her daughter, said that with the Pittsburgh shootings on her mind, she had a few moments of fear Saturday night while at the Academy of Music to see Fiddler on the Roof, wondering whether the play that celebrates Jewish traditions might make the theater a target for another anti-Semitic attack.

She was more comfortable heading into SS. Peter and Paul on Sunday morning for Mass, she said.

"I haven't heard that being in a Catholic Church is a target yet," Cruz said.