The Murder of Two Priests
Twenty-nine years ago on February 24, 1987, Father Joseph Bissonette, 55 years old, was murdered in the rectory of St. Bartholomew Church in Buffalo, New York, where he was the Pastor. Two teen-aged boys had come to the rectory, stating that they were hungry. Father Bissonette proceeded to make them some sandwiches. The boys were 17-year-old Milton Jones and 18-year-old Theodore Simmons.
Thirteen days later on March 8, 1987, Monsignor David Herlihy, 74 years old, came to the same fate. Monsignor Herlihy, a priest for 50 years, had recently retired and was living in the rectory of St. Matthew’s Church. His body was discovered by the pastor, Father Leo F. McCarthy.
The police said the priests had been killed in similar fashion. There was no sign of forced entry into either of the rectories, indicating that the priests knew their assailants. There was no reason to suspect robbery as a motive. Father Bissonette’s wallet was in his pocket when his body was discovered. The murders shocked residents of the Buffalo area, more than 50 percent of whom are Roman Catholic.
Father Bissonette had been active in helping to find homes for Canadian-bound refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala, who were stranded in Buffalo after Canada changed its immigration rules and stopped admitting people from those countries without interviews. Two Salvadorans who had been staying in the rectory were questioned after Father Bissonette’s slaying and released. Father Herlihy was not active in refugee work.
The Suspects were Discovered
Detectives learned that Simmons had been counseled by Father Bissonette and was also acquainted with Monsignor Herlihy. Both of the youths lived on Buffalo’s East Side, the same inner-city neighborhood where each of the priests was found tied to a chair, gagged, stabbed and bludgeoned to death. Jones was arrested first and confessed to killing both priests. Simmons had fled to San Diego. His location was learned through information given by his family. The teen-agers had planned on doing more of this. They had a list of some other Catholic churches in the immediate area that were going to be next.
Simmons and Jones are Sent to Prison
Simmons and Jones each had police records and had spent time in state and county detention centers. They were charged with two counts of second-degree murder, two counts of first-degree robbery, and third-degree criminal possession of a weapon. They are serving a minimum sentence of 50 years.
Bishop Head Prays for a Spirit of Forgiveness
Bishop Edward D. Head of the Buffalo Diocese, at a mass for the fallen priests, stated: ''We extend forgiveness to those who have committed this violent act, and we pray that the spirit of forgiveness will teach us all to build a new community where violence is no more and life is richly valued.”
A Tribute to Monsignor Herlihy
Msgr. Herlihy’s nephew, Msgr. David Gallivan gave tribute in 1983 to his uncle at a 25th Anniversary Mass held for the two murdered priests at St. Joseph University Church on Main Street in Buffalo, New York. He recalled his compassion, his understanding, holiness, humility and, above all, his deep love for his church.
In 1989, Father Roy Herberger and Sister Karen Klimczak opened a halfway house for former inmates and called it Bissonette House. It was actually the old St. Bartholomew’s Church on Grider Street where Father Bissonette had been murdered two years previously. The room where the priest was killed was converted into a chapel.
The residents of Bissonette House lived and prayed in community, supporting each other as they worked towards changing their lives. It is a place where parolees could receive a fresh start. For 16 years, Sister Karen lived at Bissonette House, helping the former inmates to adjust to their new lives. Nine parolees were living there in the spring of 2006.
Sister Karen Klimczak is Murdered
One of the former inmates was 36-year-old Craig Lynch, a convicted car thief who moved in to Bissonette House on April 5 after being paroled in January from the medium security Wyoming Correctional Facility in Attica, N.Y. On Good Friday, April 14, 2006, Lynch needed money to support his addiction to crack cocaine. He was in the process of stealing Sister Karen’s cellphone in her bedroom when he heard her coming and hid behind the door. When she entered the room, Lynch attacked her. An autopsy revealed that she died from strangulation and blunt-force trauma to the head.
Craig Lynch is Sent to Prison
When Sister Karen failed to show up for a luncheon date on Saturday, she was reported missing. More than 100 volunteers searched for her in the neighborhood where she lived and worked. Craig Lynch’s confession revealed that he had borrowed a car from a relative and took Sister Karen’s body to a shed near his mother’s home about four miles away. He led the police there on Monday evening. Lynch was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Sister Karen Predicted her Own Murder
It is interesting that Sister Karen had predicted her murder sixteen years previously. Sister Karen’s sister Jean, who is also a nun, discovered Sister Karen’s journal from the past. Sister Karen apparently had a premonition that her life would one day be taken violently. In her journal sixteen years ago, she had written “I forgive you for what you have done and I will always watch over you.” Sister Jean read from the journal inside the courtroom when Craig Lynch received his maximum prison term.
Can this Trio be Considered for Sainthood?
There has been no mention of an effort on the part of the Catholic Church to raise these three martyrs to Sainthood. Before a person can be considered for sainthood, he/she must have been dead for at least 5 years. (Pope John Paul II waived this requirement in Mother Teresa's case.)
Formally declared saints are chosen ultimately by the pope, but only after a thorough investigation of the life, writings, and legacy of the saint candidate. No stone is left unturned. Testimony from witnesses and experts, physical evidence, and the entire life of the person is examined with fine detail.
An investigative process must occur whereby a candidate is deemed worthy of further consideration. The candidate is then called a “Servant of God.” If it is determined that the candidate lived a life of heroic virtue, he earns the title of “Venerable.” In order to be beatified and recognized as "Blessed," one miracle must be acquired through the candidate’s intercession. A miracle is not required prior to a martyr’s beatification. Canonization requires a miracle after beatification.
I have a sense that this unusual set of circumstances may one day lead to an investigation of whether these three dedicated persons are worthy of consideration for Canonization. My instinct is that the sanctity of this trio will eventually be celebrated.