WNYC File - In 1987, Father A. Joseph Bissonette and Msgr. David P. Herlihy were murdered by people they were trying to help.
When they opened their doors to two young strangers in the winter of 1987, Father A. Joseph Bissonette and Msgr. David P. Herlihy could never have known that their lives were about to end. They were simply doing what they had done for the entirety of their ministries as they carried out the teaching and love of Jesus.
In the span of just 11 days, both priests would be brutally murdered by the same two men who came to their rectories requesting food and shelter for the night. The crimes were shocking in themselves, but even more so because they were carried out against two men who had dedicated themselves to gentleness and compassion. The killers, Theodore Simmons and Milton Jones, remain in prison, serving minimum sentences of 50 years.
This February marks the 25th anniversary of the priests’ deaths. A Mass of Commemoration of the lives of both priests will be celebrated at St. Joseph University Church on Feb. 19 at 11:30 a.m.
Before his death, Father Bissonette was so committed to nonviolence that, in 1982, he was inspired to somewhat radical action. Instead of paying the entirety of his income taxes, he donated the money to peace causes in protest of the defense budget that would have paid for weapons and violent action.
“I found his checkbook after he died and the amount of money he withheld was not significant,” said Father Bissonette’s brother Ray. “It was probably $100 or $200 at most. But he had a list and every penny of that money that he withheld from his taxes he donated to various causes promoting peace and nuclear disarmament. Every penny of it and he had a record of that. He didn’t keep any of it.”
Father Bissonette continually spoke out against racism, classism and inequality, was staunchly opposed to the Vietnam War and hosted refugees from Central America in St. Bartholomew’s rectory. He was equally concerned about his parishioners and refused to go on annual trips to Florida because he knew that they could not afford similar vacations.
On Feb. 22, 1987, Father Bissonette quoted the following lines from a poem by Helen Steiner Rice in St. Bartholomew’s weekend bulletin, “And someday man may realize that all the earth, the sea and skies belong to God, who made us all, the rich, the poor, the great, the small and in the Father’s Holy Sight no man is yellow, black or white, and peace on earth cannot be found until we meet on common ground and every man becomes a brother who worships God and loves each other.”
Just two days later he was beaten and stabbed to death for the $200 in grocery money in the rectory safe. Less than two weeks later, the same two men murdered Msgr. Herlihy. Although he was in his early 70s, Msgr. Herlihy was no less devoted to his faith. He was so generous with those in need that two years before his death, he was audited by the IRS for giving away more money than he made in a year.
“He was a very gentle person,” said his nephew, Msgr. David Gallivan, pastor of Holy Cross Church in Buffalo. “He was a really intellectual person, not that he was ever a professor or anything, but he read. He was a voracious reader and full of inquisitiveness regarding pastoral life, theology and developments in the Church. He was always considered to be a very faithful person to the Church’s traditions of doctrine.”
It was this dedication to Church teaching that inspired his classmates in the seminary to nickname him “Holy Mother Church.” In the later years of his life, he served as chaplain at two area hospitals, Deaconess and Our Lady of Victory, where he produced and paid for a newsletter filled with inspiring stories of faith for patients and their families.
The families of both priests found ways to continue their legacy after their deaths. Ray Bissonette said that he came up with the idea for a foundation in his brother’s name almost immediately after his death.
“I suppose one would call it a form of elaborate and extended denial,” he said. “But I was not going to let his life end because of a couple of street kids who had very poor judgment and a knife. I decided, we need to do something to carry on his message and his memory and his work.”
The Rev. A. Joseph Bissonette Memorial Foundation was born and, since then, has supported numerous social justice causes. The Bissonette Foundation has established a scholarship at Canisius High School, provided grant money to support a book memorializing the late Sister Karen Klimczak, SSJ, given stipends to student tutors traveling to areas of need, and funded medical mission trips to Mexico, in addition to many other projects.
Msgr. Herlihy’s family also decided to continue contributing to a cause that was very close to his heart.
“One of his favorite things that he did was to contribute to the diocesan seminary to the education of seminarians,” Msgr. Gallivan said. “He was always supporting their programs. So whatever gifts or donations came in (after he died) we put together a fund. We totaled everything up and it was a large sum of money in to the foundation in his name at the seminary.”
Evelyn Brady, a long-time member of the A. Joseph Bissonette Memorial Foundation board of trustees, helped organize the Mass of Commemoration.
“I always said, when we have the 25th anniversary, let’s have this great thing for Joe,” Brady said.
The Mass will feature a contemporary choir and Father John Zeitler, a childhood friend of Father Bissonette, will offer the homily. After the Mass, people will be invited to share their memories of the two priests at a reception.
Brady said that she believes Father Bissonette would look upon the event with his characteristic humility.
“He would smile and he would say, ‘What are you doing something like that for?”
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