After Highland Park shooting, a new priest tries to comfort his flock

Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman.
Father Hernan Cuevas at the St. James Catholic Church in Highwood on Thursday, July 7, 2022.

HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — Every pew was filled, and chairs had been pulled out to accommodate the overflow crowd, when the priest took to the lectern and cleared his throat.

Father Hernan Cuevas told the 1,500 people — Catholics and non-Catholics alike, all gathered Tuesday for what Immaculate Conception Church had billed as a Mass of Peace and Healing — a story he had repeated again and again over the past 24 hours. He told of the excitement over his congregation’s homespun float, the frantic run from the parade grounds as gunfire erupted, the anxious hours of praying the rosary while sheltered inside the church.

Cuevas pause briefly. He said two parishioners had been killed in the Monday mass shooting. Others were injured. Then he looked around.

“Now, the good work of peace and healing begins for all of us, our community,” Cuevas said. “And I would say I’m blessed that I’m here for you as your new parish pastor. And thank you. Thank you so much for your support.”

The church filled with thunderous applause.

It had been only four days since Cuevas, a 40-year-old raised in a large family in small-town 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 hadn’t yet unpacked, processed his own feelings or even talked to his mom about the horror that unfolded at the parade.

Yet the priest had been thrust into leading his community through the worst act of violence it had ever seen. Cuevas, who is trim, with dark hair and a beard, had tried to calm his congregants and others who sought solace inside the church while the gunman was still on the loose. He had gotten prayer requests for wounded church members he had not yet met. And now, on this night, he was at the first of a week’s worth of events meant to help them cope 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 tremble in Cuevas’s voice.

“I told him, ‘I think you felt the pain,'” Delos Santos, 74, recalled. “I told him, ‘I think you felt the pain of the people.'”

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 calling motivated by the idea of “bringing that spiritual power to people,” he said. He thought he could help them, he said, through talking about God.

A seminary program brought Cuevas to Chicago, where he spent a year mastering English before his ordainment in 2011. After 11 years as the priest of a congregation in nearby Evanston, Ill., he was assigned this year to lead the United Parish of Immaculate Conception and St. James, created when two long-standing churches merged. His first day was July 1.

“I just came with this excitement to be with my new community, ready to get to know each other,” Cuevas said.

One of the first activities he participated in was the creation of a DIY float for the annual parade. Parishioners put together their offering after the Monday mass. They draped red, white and blue tablecloths over the railings of a trailer and stood a wooden cross up in the back. There were bunches of flowers in patriotic colors tacked in place and banners on each 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 route.

The church was No. 38 in the procession. As they waited their turn, Cuevas surveyed the float with pride. He pulled out his iPhone and began filming, narrating in Spanish. Then there was a strange sound, difficult to make out over the high school marching band. Cuevas abruptly stopped recording.

“This couldn’t be,” thought Angie Nutter, 71. Nine years earlier, her 20-year-old son, Colin, had been shot to death in one of the very few killings reported in quiet, Mayberry-esque Highland Park. She had turned to faith to make sense of her loss, sometimes attending church twice a day. This, she thought as she heard the gunfire, “is what happened to him.”

A wave of people crashed toward the priest and his people, among them two children with bloodied shirts. Catechists gathered them, and they all started to run until they reached the church. About two dozen people poured inside Immaculate Conception as sirens blared and a frantic manhunt for the shooter began.

Looking out 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 mic, turned on the light and said, ‘Let’s pray,'” he recalled.

Comforted, Nutter texted her husband and daughter, who were worried and unable to get to her: “I am safe at church.” Cuevas and church staff handed out water, along with the granola bars he’d planned to give to spectators.

Later, when it was safe, the priest walked some of the parishioners home.

In a message to his family in Mexico, he said he was okay and would talk to them soon. He watched his cellphone video from the parade twice and debated deleting it. He said he had “vivid memories, still in my mind, of everything that I saw.”

Delos Santos had planned to be at the parade with his church but stayed home because of sciatic nerve pain that makes walking difficult. He cried when he heard what happened, knowing that “I wouldn’t [have been] able to run.” He stopped to collect himself while talking about it: “It’s just that, if I recall it, I become emotional.”

He kept thinking about the 21-year-old who killed seven people and wounded dozens of others. He couldn’t understand it. Was the devil working in the “kid,” who was a classmate of his nephews and someone he had seen around town? Does he have a conscience? A heart? He talked to the priest about it.

“I asked him, ‘What do you think is in the mind of that guy? That kid?’ And he just smiled at me. He says, ‘I cannot judge him,'” Delos Santos said. “And that’s all. And then he changed the topic.” That, he said, showed a strength of faith that would get Cuevas through a first week like no other.

Cuevas said he was relying on a level of grace. And there was still so much for him to do.

During a first week unlike any other in Highland Park, he led daily mass, joined a rabbi in speaking at a candlelit vigil and held special services for the victims. He prayed for a parishioner who was grievously injured in the shooting and later died in the 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 it, 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.”