Families of Uvalde victims and their allies hold signs showing the faces and names of the dead, along with demands for an end to gun violence. In Sacred Heart of Uvalde, Michael Ortiz argues the massacre divides people along political lines including in the church.
Gus Bova

The Sacred Heart of Uvalde

The town remains divided in the aftermath of the Robb Elementary School tragedy, and the division runs through the church.

by

On August 27, I stood before the state capitol in Austin surrounded by fellow Uvaldeans and people from all over the state to protest our gun laws in the wake of the Robb Elementary massacre. One after another, victims’ families came down the steps, demanding accountability and change.

During a transition, someone shouted: “No justice!”

The people responded: “No peace!”

“No justice!”

“No peace!”

Pick two people in Uvalde and they’re probably within two degrees of separation from each other. It’s no Mayberry: There are unspoken rules and impenetrable tiers and enclaves and much hidden poverty and suffering and abuse. But, of course, I saw many I know in Austin.

Throughout the protest, I stood near a friend of my wife from our parish, Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Afterward, we talked about Sacred Heart and about Uvalde. Like many, we were both feeling disaffected, alienated by our community’s power structure. As we parted, I said: “But it’s not just their town, and it’s not just their church. It’s ours, too. I’m done just taking it. From now on, I’m going to give it, too.”

I little knew how soon my words would be tested.

This wasn’t the first time I’d made such a resolution, but before now most people did not care what happened in our forgotten corner of Texas. In 2018, events at the university that employs me first made me conscious of its historic neglect of my community, and for better or for worse, I decided to speak out. The neglect of our students, who are overwhelmingly Hispanic, female, low-income, and first-generation, is consistent with the region’s history.

I sought advice from my friend, Aide Escamilla, who has a strong sense of social justice. We are both parishioners at Sacred Heart. She recommended that I seek counsel from our priest, Eduardo Morales, or, as we know him, Father Eddy.

A few years earlier, Aide had agreed to advocate for a high school senior, a Latina who had been named valedictorian but who was being pressured by school administrators to step down. A complaint from the salutatorian’s prominent Anglo family had prompted them to find a technicality in the rules and adjust the numbers, flipping the top two students’ ranking. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund got involved. Public awareness grew.

Since the Robb Elementary massacre, the tension in our parish has become almost intolerable.

Father Eddy, a Uvalde native, was not living here then, but his mother, Genoveva Morales, attended the school board meeting. Her presence sent a message: It was her 1970 civil rights lawsuit that had ended de facto school segregation in Uvalde. The board decided in favor of Aide’s mentee.

Not long after, Father Eddy returned to Uvalde, assuming pastoral leadership of Sacred Heart. We’d spent several years under a troubled priest who had abruptly quit one Saturday afternoon. Father Eddy brought much-needed stability. But no prophet is accepted at home. “If you have a problem with me,” Eddy told us, “don’t go to my mother. Come to me.”

Following Aide’s advice, I met with Father Eddy. He listened patiently and shared some of his experiences, but warned me to count the cost. “If you speak out about injustice,” he said, “they will all come for you.”

The history of the Uvalde Catholic community is fraught. In 1883, after years of celebrating mass in homes, Father Austin Heyburn of Eagle Pass had a church built “for the Mexicans, but not by the Mexicans,” as Florence Anthon’s Early History of Uvalde and Surrounding Territory put it. They called it Sacred Heart and it stood on North High Street. Later, they moved it to the corner of the property to make room for the “American” church, St. Mary’s. In 1913, Sacred Heart was relocated to a back street and attached to a school for Spanish-speaking children staffed by Teresian sisters who were refugees from the Mexican Revolution.

Father Agapito Santos integrated the parishes in 1964. Sacred Heart absorbed St. Mary’s and moved into the building it still uses today. This forced mixing sets it apart from many other churches in Uvalde, though you can sometimes see old fault lines. It’s a fair sample of the town’s four-fifths Hispanic population. Two Spanish and three English masses are celebrated every Sunday by one priest with the assistance of several deacons.

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Priests come and go. Deacons remain. The most prominent is Ken Dirksen, a surveying engineer. His column in the Uvalde Leader-News makes him the parish’s public face. There, his anodyne Christian exhortations are offset by his letters to the editor, angry rightwing diatribes and warnings of things to come. For example, in 2020, after a petition began circulating to move Uvalde’s Confederate monument from the courthouse lawn to the library museum, Dirksen’s letter decried the erasure of history, warning that the Black Lives Matter movement aimed to destroy the nuclear family, rip out white Jesus statues, and usher in a mass-murdering Marxist revolution. He sometimes also turns up at protests to observe, to intimidate, or perhaps simply to see who’s there. 

In the aftermath of the Robb tragedy, in which nineteen children and two adults were murdered by a young man who had legally acquired his weapons at a popular Uvalde outfitter, agencies at local and state levels seem intent chiefly on protecting themselves. Many hearts have been changed in Uvalde, many eyes opened, many consciences awakened. But some seem simply to have become more entrenched in their distrust of activism.

On July 11, Dirksen came to a gathering at Jardin de los Heroes Park. He stood to one side, arms folded, silently watching activists make signs for the Unheard Voices Rally that afternoon. I saw him take a copy of La Voz de Uvalde County, the monthly bilingual newsletter I’m trying to help my friend Alfredo Santos revive, from a bundle someone had set on the ground. He leafed through it, saw my name, and approached, plainly agitated.

He offered to advertise with us, but only if we promised to tell the truth. When I replied that I generally try to do that, he scoffed, saying that he’d seen my own writings in the Uvalde Leaders-News and that I only tell the half-truths that support my views.

“Deacon Ken basically just called you a liar,” my 12-year-old daughter later observed.

“You caught that, did you?” I asked.

“I’m not stupid, Dad,” she replied.

Since the Robb Elementary massacre, the tension in our parish has become almost intolerable. Many victims had their funerals there, but many political leaders—including those criticized for their response to the shooting or the way they’ve kept its details from the public—are parishioners, too. Father Eddy has preached restraint and forgiveness; the church has maintained a neutrality that is uneasy but much-needed.

That’s why I found it jarring when Father Eddy criticized the “no justice, no peace” slogan in his August 14 homily. Peace must precede justice, he said, and different people have different ideas of justice. The latter is certainly true in Uvalde, as all the world now knows, but it’s not something I can resign myself to. Ironically, the August 14 scripture readings were about Jeremiah being cast into the cistern for demoralizing the city and Jesus preaching that he had come to bring not peace but division.

The system that allowed the Robb tragedy to unfold as it did now seeks to protect itself, perhaps even at the expense of justice.

Then, on August 28, the day after the Austin protest, another deacon, Dan Ibarra, gave a homily on humility. After citing  the views of Canadian author and pontificator Jordan Peterson on the subject, Ibarra said we need to “temper our tongues,” especially on social media. He said that we needed to stop pointing out the sins of others and focus on our own. In case the point wasn’t clear, he argued that his admonitions are something the town of Uvalde is especially in need of right now. It’s our part to humbly pray for our leaders who are having a hard time. Actually, he said, we should be glad that we even have leaders.

There were scattered claps and amens. That’s demonstrative for a Catholic church. Sitting in the pew behind me were Sheriff Ruben Nolasco and Mayor Don McLaughlin.

Let me be clear. I welcome their attendance. They belong as much as any member of our community. I would prefer for us all to be able to attend with as much privacy and peace as we desire. But our congregation also includes victims’ families, and I can’t imagine what it would be like to receive such counsel or see others dissuaded from supporting their struggle. I don’t know to what extent our elected leaders are to blame for all that has happened, which, of course, is part of the problem. But in throwing its authority behind them and against families crying out for justice, the parish itself crossed a line.

Division is of the devil, they say. Am I causing division by writing this? Perhaps. But I also hear of people who have quietly left our parish for others in nearby towns. It’s been happening for a while, since before the shooting. Maybe it’s not much. But it’s not nothing, either. Who caused that division? Well, in Uvalde, it’s always little people speaking up who disrupt unity. The big people talking down are just telling the truth.

I respect Father Eddy. I have no wish to add to his burden, something I feel certain of doing. I also understand the desire for a return to normalcy. But the system that allowed the Robb tragedy to unfold as it did now seeks to protect itself, perhaps even at the expense of justice. It must be torn down bit by bit and replaced with something better.

I keep thinking of another passage from Jeremiah: “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”  I’ll always remember my conversation with Father Eddy in 2018. It grieves me now to put his counsel to the test, this time in my own faith community.