Karen Adams, Special to The Catholic Virginian
When Father Jim Arsenault was pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church, Blacksburg, in 2007, he lived through some of the darkest days of his life. Recalling the Virginia Tech shooting of April 16 that year, after which he consoled the families of the Catholic victims, often brings tears to his eyes. But it also fills his heart with love for the many people who turned to him for strength and who strengthened him in return.
St. Mary, where he had begun serving in 2000, was in the process of building a church for its growing parish when the tragedy happened. Afterward, parishioners channeled their grief into the construction project; the newly finished church was dedicated 15 months later. Father Arsenault credits the Holy Spirit and the strong community of faith.
“It’s the people’s story — how to love and to heal and to believe in that light, in that faith that we share,” he said. “These people, the faithful in the pews, held me up during that time and truly are the living stones that we are called to be.”
Father Arsenault now lives in Richmond, where he serves as pastor of St. Elizabeth Parish; he also serves as parochial vicar at St. Michael the Archangel Parish, Glen Allen. On Monday, April 30, he and 55 members of those parishes visited and celebrated Mass at St. Mary, which will mark the 10th anniversary of its church on July 29.
The priest had been back only once — in 2009 — since moving to Richmond.
“I just thought it was time to remember and celebrate,” he said of the April visit. “The new church is a powerful reminder of the endurance of faith during a dark time.”
God present in darkness
On April 16, 2007, the Monday after Easter, the university’s priest was away. That afternoon, Father Arsenault was at the St. Mary rectory when he was called to campus to join the notification team – local law enforcement and the Red Cross – to speak with families.
“I was the only Catholic priest immediately available,” he said. “Of the 32 people killed that day, 10 were Catholic.”
He described a chaotic scene, with frantic crowds gathered and still arriving at The Inn at Virginia Tech. Amid that turmoil, Father Arsenault, who was eventually joined by priests and seminarians from across the diocese (“There were Roman collars everywhere,” he said), sought to console and simply be present with the grieving families.
“We escorted them into the smaller rooms and simply said, ‘I am so sorry. There are no words that can express this loss. Whatever we can do, we are here with you,’” he recalled about that time.
The days that followed, with their urgent needs, were harrowing as well: comforting the bereaved, burying the dead, hearing “grueling” confessions. Father Arsenault said he was especially distressed by the confessions of the first responders, many of whom were in training, and Virginia Tech students themselves.
They described shocking sights, of being haunted by memories of the ringing, unanswered cell phones in Norris Hall, of attending the wounded and dying and the heartbreaking cleanup afterward. Always, his reply was: “God is with you.”
Father Arsenault noted many instances when God was present in the darkness. On Divine Mercy Sunday, the week after the shooting, Barbara LaPorte, mother of slain student Matthew LaPorte from New Jersey, was so moved by the image of Divine Mercy hanging in the old St. Mary church that she told Father Arsenault she wanted her son’s funeral celebrated there.
Matthew LaPorte, a member of Virginia Tech’s Corps of Cadets, died while trying to save others during the shooting. After his funeral, the corps members lined up outside to honor their friend.
“What a tribute to that young man. It was one of the most touching and heartwarming things I’ve ever seen,” the priest said. That Divine Mercy image hangs in the sanctuary of the new church.
Although building the church was a welcome distraction, Father Arsenault continued to feel the weight of grief — his own and others’.
“My dad said that within that year my hair turned white,” he noted.
In June 2009, Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo granted him a year’s sabbatical. After rest, prayer, counseling, contemplation and reading — especially Henri Nouwen’s “The Wounded Healer” — he felt restored enough to serve again. In June 2010, as part of the diocese’s regular rotation, he was assigned to the two Richmond-area parishes he serves today.
Those new parishioners had heard his stories and were eager to visit the church that arose amid so much grief.
“I wanted to see it; he’d put his whole heart and soul into it,” said Sarah McMahon, who attends both St. Elizabeth and St. Mary in Richmond.
Strong community evident in Church
The day of the visit, Father Arsenault led a tour, pointing out the meaningful details symbolic of the strong community of Catholic faith — locally and worldwide.
Twelve of the stained-glass windows came from the now-closed church Our Lady of Pompeii in Philadelphia. Three restored statues — the Blessed Mother, St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Anthony — came from the Church of St. Teresa of Avila in the Little Italy neighborhood of New York, where new immigrants often stopped to light candles and pray after arriving from Ellis Island.
Father Arsenault explained that, at one time, the immigrant church was so busy that it held services in both its main sanctuary upstairs and in its basement sanctuary, in different languages.
Other windows were commissioned and paid for by church benefactors. Shamrock images, in stone and glass, honor the Irish heritage of some members – including longtime parishioner Peg Driscoll, Virginia Tech’s first full-time female professor, who helped design the round stained-glass window behind the altar and who came along on the visit.
The wooden altar was built by parishioner Tom Butterfield and painted with a faux-marble finish by parishioner Lisa Pope.
Many of the chairs in the library and social rooms came from thrift shops and yard sales and were refinished and reupholstered by parishioners, especially Lois Baumgartner, who also served as hostess on the April 30 tour.
“We re-used everything we could,” she said. “That’s what you do on a budget.”
“It really was a labor of love,” Father Arsenault said. “And God provided everything.”
‘Never lose hope’
His homily that day referred to “The Holy Spirit will send you everything” (Jn 14:26) and “Not to us, O Lord, but to Your name give glory. He is the way, the truth, and the light” (Ps 115).
The priest blinked back tears and said, “May we never lose hope, because Christ gives life eternal.”
Following Mass, the bus traveled to the Virginia Tech campus to visit the memorial to those who died in 2007.
“It was very healing for me; I felt a sense of peace,” Father Arsenault said. “If you have an experience of loss, it changes you.”
The priest said he appreciates every day as a gift, and that the return to Blacksburg was an “especially good gift.” His return to the memorial site was particularly meaningful for him.
“It felt like being home,” he said. “It’s a place of heartbreak and love. That wonderful community, those people gave so much of themselves, not only to save lives but to comfort those who had lost someone. I kept thinking about how everyone came together to rebuild lives.”
As for the day of the visit, Father Arsenault termed it “a prayerful experience.”
“We celebrate the life that is greater than death or darkness — the light of Christ within every one of us,” he said. “That’s our faith.”