Uvalde a year later

Fr. Peter Iorio attends anniversary event of school shooting

By Gabrielle Nolan

The small town of Uvalde, Texas, is still grieving one year after a tragic school shooting shocked its community.

The shooting that took place on May 24, 2022, at Robb Elementary School took the lives of 19 children and two teachers.

Priests toured the Uvalde site, visiting memorials to the children and adults slain in the mass shooting. Father Iorio is pictured front right. (Photo courtesy of Rich Kalonick/Catholic Extension)

Father Peter Iorio, pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Alcoa, was present for the first-year anniversary as part of an immersion trip with Catholic Extension.

Catholic Extension is a fundraising organization that helps ensure all American Catholics can practice their faith within vibrant faith communities. The group has supported U.S. mission dioceses for more than 100 years. With its donors, Catholic Extension connects “poor and remote Catholic communities with essential financial support, educational partnerships, and infrastructure,” according to its website.

“Catholic Extension Society is a papal institution that helps poor regions of the United States, and they operate in our diocese up in Erwin with the Glenmary parish,” Father Iorio said. “They’ve been in Uvalde for over 100 years, and so when that horrible tragedy happened, they had already established good relationships and so were able to go in and be there to help with the grief process and everything.”

Because of grants from Catholic Extension, 30 children from Robb Elementary now attend Sacred Heart School in Uvalde. Catholic Extension helped build that Catholic church and school.

“Catholic Extension is a part of the Uvalde family and the Sacred Heart Catholic community, and so that was very much something that took away those other hesitations about going,” Father Iorio shared.

Father Iorio felt inspired to go on the trip because he has “a lot of compassion for what happened there, and I just felt like it was an opportunity I would never have ever dreamed of being a part of because it’s such a small community.”

“I was shocked to hear that many priests choose not to accept the invitation to go on their immersion trips,” he continued. “I think it’s important that we do learn this work of a wonderful organization.”

The quick weekday trip packed in many experiences for Father Iorio and the other clergy and lay leaders attending the immersion journey.

The Catholic Extension group stayed in San Antonio and drove over an hour by bus to Uvalde for the one-year anniversary memorial Mass, celebrated by Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of the Archdiocese of San Antonio.

“He was wonderful because he has been there two and three times a week, they said, since that incident happened, being a great shepherd to the people,” Father Iorio explained.

Archbishop García-Siller had commissioned artwork for the occasion, which sat on the steps in front of the altar.

“This beautiful blown glass that was there in the church in front of the altar, that really struck me,” Father Iorio said. “The artist chose three hearts, and it was all symbolic. The first was a damaged and sick heart, and then the middle one was a healing heart, and it was being watched over, attended to by a blown glass image of the Blessed Mother bringing healing. And then the final one was a glorified heart, a renewed heart; it was kind of golden in color. So that was described and presented during the Mass.”

Father Iorio said that the archbishop’s homily brought “hope to the people.”

A memorial to the victims of the Uvalde mass shooting stands just outside the now-shuttered Robb Elementary School. (Photo courtesy of Rich Kalonick/Catholic Extension)

“One of the things that I recall is he said some people have said they want to go back before that shooting happened, but as people of faith you can never go back, you just go forward in hope. It was a good message of our faith and that we are all in this together, that unity is so important, accompanying one another,” Father Iorio shared.

Following the homily, lit candles were brought forward to the steps before the altar, and the names of each victim were read aloud.

After the Mass ended, the congregation went to the Catholic school grounds adjacent to the church for a butterfly release ceremony.

“I think there were the number of victims, that same number of butterflies were released from a box. And there was a counselor who had been working with the community for a while, and that’s another thing that impressed me was that they must have been working with the symbol of butterfly. Of course, a transformation takes place in the cocoon and new life and beauty can come forth from a tragedy, and so the students and teachers all had little pins, butterfly pins, the students had on their Catholic school uniforms, and the teachers had them on as well on what they were wearing. So, the butterfly release was very sweet, very powerful as well,” Father Iorio said.

The next stop for the Catholic Extension immersion trip was a visit to Robb Elementary School, which is permanently closed and boarded up.

“There’s still a lot of tension and controversy because they haven’t told the true story or full story of what actually happened and why there was 70 minutes of delay before they went in, so part of the controversy is what will be put on that site after the school is destroyed,” Father Iorio explained. “Some people don’t want to go there at all, so they were talking about some sort of memorial, some sort of center, but that’s still in the discussion process.”

“There’s kind of a shrine where there are crosses for each of the victims, and people come and pray there for them; we did that,” he continued.

The recognition for the victims continued into the town center, where the group saw crosses all around a fountain with mariachi bands singing.

“Another thing that impressed me was they had murals of each of the victims in the downtown area, big, beautiful murals of the person and the things that they liked,” Father Iorio said.

Art therapists have regularly been working with families and survivors on a mosaic, and the Catholic Extension group was invited to participate in that activity.

“So, we did some art therapy,” Father Iorio shared. “They had these tiles that we could imprint messages on and also paint.”

One of the last activities the group was able to witness was a speaking event of the parents of Noah, a boy who survived being shot at Robb Elementary.

“His dad did all the speaking, but he was shot through the shoulder and lay on the floor for all that time and didn’t move because he knew he would be killed if he did, but he survived that and had surgeries,” Father Iorio explained. “He’s one of the students from Robb who is now a student at Sacred Heart School. And one of our Catholic Extension guides who has been part of the visits to the community and works with the community says he’s come a long way in the course of this year because he was very fragile, and so she saw a positive change in him. So, it just takes a long time for healing to take place. And his parents were very grateful to Catholic Extension knowing that they helped raise funds for scholarships so that their son could go to the school.”

Father Iorio said the experience in Uvalde made him “feel deeply sad that violence has such a wide swath of damage,” but that he also felt compassion and hope.

“It was truly, as somebody said, it’s walking the Stations of the Cross but in real life. It includes the violence and the suffering and the pain, and also little parts of loving humanity, accompanying people on the way of the cross,” Father Iorio pointed out.

“So, all of that was present, but to me it made the praying of the Stations of the Cross that we do, especially during Lent, alive and present to me in a real way, and with the faith that the future will bring about a resurrection, that there will be new life however God decides to bring that about for these people and really for all of us,” he noted.

Father Iorio said that Catholics can support Catholic Extension “definitely by prayer” and learning more about what they do through its website and Facebook page. Donations are also an option online.

Since Catholic Extension is active in the Diocese of Knoxville, Father Iorio encouraged local Catholics to “learn firsthand from our own benefit from Catholic Extension.”

For more information on Catholic Extension and its various programs, visit the organization’s website at catholicextension.org.

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