Cuevas paused briefly. He said two parishioners were killed in Monday’s mass shooting. Others were injured. Then he looked around him.
“Now the good work of peace and healing begins for all of us, our community,” Cuevas said. “And I would say that I am blessed to be here for you as the new pastor of your parish. And thank you. Thank you very much for your support.”
The church was filled with thunderous applause.
How the Highland Park parade shootout unfolds: A marching band, then gunfire
It had only been four days since Cuevas, a 40-year-old man raised in a large family from a small town in Mexico, had arrived in Highland Park. In one of the two churches he now led, “Bienvenidos Padre Hernan Cuevas” banners hung in the hallways. He had yet to unpack, analyze his own feelings, or even tell his mother about the horror that had unfolded at the parade.
Yet the priest had been driven to lead his community through the worst act of violence it had ever seen. Cuevas, who is thin, with dark hair and a beard, had been trying to calm his worshipers and others who sought solace inside the church while the shooter was still at large. He had received prayer requests for injured church members whom he had not yet met. And now, that night, he was at the first of a week of events meant to help them deal with the trauma of it all.
Watching from the crowd, Carmelo “Mel” Delos Santos, who volunteers at the church and had himself studied to become a priest before falling in love and getting married, thought he heard a tremor in Cuevas’ voice.
“I said to him, ‘I think you felt the pain,'” Delos Santos, 74, recalled. “I said to him, ‘I think you felt people’s pain.’ ”
Cuevas was the eighth of nine children born to a devout Catholic couple in Jalisco and the second to pursue the priesthood. He was in high school when he first felt a call motivated by the idea of “bringing this spiritual power to people,” he said. He thought he could help them, he said, speaking of God.
A seminary program brought Cuevas to Chicago, where he spent a year mastering English before his ordination in 2011. After 11 years as a congregational priest in Evanston, Illinois, he was assigned this year to the direction of the united parish of the Immaculate Conception. and St. James, created when two long-standing churches merged. His first day was July 1.
“I just came with this excitement of being with my new community, ready to get to know each other,” Cuevas said.
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One of the first activities he was involved in was creating a float for the annual parade. The parishioners gathered their offering after Monday mass. They draped red, white and blue tablecloths over the railings of a trailer and erected a wooden cross in the back. There were bouquets of flowers in patriotic colors nailed in place and banners on either side: “We wish everyone a happy 4th of July!!! Please welcome our new pastor!
Cuevas had a basket of granola bars to hand out on the course.
The church was No. 38 in the procession. As they waited their turn, Cuevas proudly surveyed the tank. He took out his iPhone and started filming, narrating in Spanish. Then there was a strange noise, hard to make out above the high school marching band. Cuevas abruptly stopped recording.
“It’s impossible,” thought Angie Nutter, 71. Nine years earlier, her 20-year-old son Colin had been shot in one of the very few reported murders in Mayberry’s peaceful Highland Park. She had turned to faith to make sense of her loss, sometimes going to church twice a day. That, she thought as she heard the gunshots, “that’s what happened to her.”
A wave of people crashed towards the priest and his people, among them two children with bloody shirts. Catechists gathered them together and they all started running to the church. About two dozen people flocked inside the Immaculate Conception as sirens sounded and a frantic manhunt for the shooter began.
Looking at the group in front of him, most of them scanning their phones for updates, Cuevas saw fear, anxiety and panic. He centered his thoughts on God.
“I took the microphone, I turned on the light and I said: ‘Let’s pray’”, he recalls.
Comforted, Nutter texted her husband and daughter, who were worried and unable to reach her: “I’m safe at church.” Cuevas and church staff handed out water, along with the granola bars he had planned to give to spectators.
Later, when he was safe, the priest escorted some parishioners home.
In a message to his family in Mexico, he said he was fine and would speak to them soon. He double-watched his cellphone video of the parade and debated deleting it. He said he had “vivid memories, still in my mind, of everything I saw”.
Delos Santos had planned to be in the parade with his church but stayed home due to sciatic nerve pain that makes walking difficult. He cried when he heard what happened, knowing that “I wouldn’t [have been] to be able to run. He paused to pull himself together while talking about it: “It’s just that if I remember it, I get emotional.”
He kept thinking about the 21-year-old who had killed seven people and injured dozens more. He couldn’t understand it. Was the devil working in the “kid”, who was a classmate of his nephews and someone he had seen in town? Does he have a conscience? A heart? He spoke to the priest about it.
“I asked him, ‘What do you think is on this guy’s head? This kid?’ And he just smiled at me. He said, ‘I can’t judge him,’ Delos Santos said. “And that’s it. And then he changed the subject.
It, he said, showed a strength of faith that would see Cuevas through a first week like no other.
He still had so much to do. He led daily Mass, joined a rabbi to speak at a candlelight vigil, and organized special services for victims. He prayed for a parishioner who was seriously injured in the shooting and later died in hospital.
He was at work planning a Saturday morning procession from the church to the memorial that had sprung up near the scene of the shooting.
Through her, he said he was relying on faith to get through a week of pain, confusion and fear. It was at the center of the readings he chose, and at the center of his message.
“You cannot rely on our own peace, because we can easily break that peace,” he said. “You need something stronger.”