At the entrance to Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, a sign reads “We welcome our new Pastor, Father Hernan Cuevas on the weekend of July 2 & 3rd, 2022.” One day later, Cuevas found himself leading dozens of parishioners through those same doors and away from the town’s Fourth of July parade after a gunman opened fire.
On Sunday, services at the church began with prayers, a reading from Deuteronomy and a recollection of what transpired just blocks away from the church’s doors.
“I was so much looking forward to this Fourth of July parade, as your new parish priest,” Cuevas said. “This was our day. This was our day for all of us as a community to let our community at large know that we were a new united parish community of Immaculate Conception and St. James and ready to be a positive presence in our neighborhoods.”
Across Highland Park on Sunday — at religious services and at memorials on the newly reopened Central Avenue — residents gathered and reflected on the senseless loss of life that took place on July 4. Robert Crimo III was charged with seven counts of murder in the mass shooting.
Those killed include Jacquelyn “Jacki” Sundheim, 63, of Highland Park; Steve Straus, 88, of Highland Park; Katherine Goldstein, 64, of Highland Park; Irina McCarthy, 35, and her husband Kevin McCarthy, 37, who also lived in Highland Park and left behind a 2-year-old son; Eduardo Uvaldo, 69, of Waukegan; and Nicolas Toledo-Zaragoza, 78, who was visiting family from Morelos, Mexico. More than 30 others were wounded in the massacre, including an 8-year-old boy who was critically injured.
On the Fourth, Immaculate Conception parishioners rode on a float decorated with symbols of spirituality and patriotism: American flags and images of Mary and St. James, with a wooden cross at the float’s helm. It was “amazing and colorful,” Cuevas said.
He recounted hearing something that sounded like fireworks as the float approached Laurel Street, and then a wave of people running toward the float and away from the gunfire, before drawing connections between the shooting and a gospel shared earlier in the morning.
“Today’s gospel of the story of the good Samaritan, for me, and for all of us, came alive on the Fourth of July … Think about this question from today’s gospel — who is my neighbor in the midst of tragedy? In the midst of this tragedy, we didn’t see color, race, religious background, rich or poor, sexual orientation, or political agenda. We didn’t see that in this tragedy, in fact, we only saw another human being, another child of God, running away from the shooting for survival.”
Clara Tortorici, a lifelong Highland Park resident who was riding on the float, recalls being one block from the shooting and the abrupt transition from “having a good time” to running to the church to shelter in place while the shooter remained loose.
Despite this experience, Tortorici said she will not be deterred from participating in community and church activities.
“I’m a strong person, I want it to remain that way. I don’t want one individual to destroy my feelings, my strength, and all that,” she said.
According to Miguel Sanchez, a Deerfield resident who attended Mass at Immaculate Conception on Sunday, religion has sustained his and others’ healing in the past week: “Faith is a community, so it’s helped us find a place to be where we’re not alone. It’s allowed us an opportunity to heal with our faith.”
Sanchez expressed relief that despite last week’s violence, the community gathered at Immaculate Conception for a full turnout.
“It actually feels comforting just knowing that just down the block something terrible happened, and we still feel safe here with our community,” he said. “It feels good that we still feel safe because our community has come together, and we know that we’re all going to take care of each other.”
Sunday services at Trinity Episcopal Church in Highland Park began with parishioners visiting each other in the pews, greeting one another with hugs and kisses. The chapel invited the Rev. Chilton Knudsen, assistant bishop of Chicago, to share a sermon with the parish. She called herself a “big sister” to the parish.
“Whatever it is that’s on your heart, just let it be. Don’t try to talk yourself into or out of any feeling that isn’t there, but also be tender with each other and with yourselves. I promise you something, and I believe I can make this promise with strength. I promise you that it will get better, that you will come through this, that sometime from now, you’ll look back on a terrible memory, but it won’t be so fresh,” she said.
While many Highland Park residents spent their Sunday mornings at religious services, others gathered in Port Clinton Square where memorials have sprung up at the site of the shooting.
There, people of all ages embraced one another, shaking their heads at the loss of life memorialized with flowers, cards, balloons, and images of the seven victims. Many could be heard sharing with one another where they were when the shooting took place. Drawings of each of the victims set against backdrops of the American flag decorated the perimeter of the memorial, along with a balloon of the number seven and a sign that read, “A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness.”
When gunfire broke out during the parade last week, several paradegoers ran into a nearby Walker Brothers restaurant to hide, including Jeff Korman, a Deerfield resident, Nicole Polarek, a Highland Park resident, and Kim Goldsmith, who was visiting her sister.
During the shooting, Goldsmith’s sister was injured after a bullet grazed her hand.
When Central Avenue reopened on Sunday, the three survivors unexpectedly found one another once again at the site of the Port Clinton Square memorial.
While walking around the memorial, Korman expressed his wish that instead of buying flowers and decorating memorials — which he called “fulfilling” and “sweet” — people would instead donate to gun control efforts.
“I kind of had my anger moment a while ago that I wished people wouldn’t … buy flowers. Every dollar could go to gun control,” he said. “[This] isn’t a world to live in, that any sane person would live in. That’s not a political statement — that’s a statement as a father and a grandfather and a human being. I can still now say I’ve never fired a gun in my life, but I now can say … I’ve been shot at.”
Polarek, who was with her husband and three children during the shooting, walked away thinking of communities who face the fear of gun violence on a daily basis.
“I think that what has hit me the most is that some people live in traumatic experiences, feeling unsafe … like this all the time,” she said. “It just made me understand in a very small way — in a very small way — what they have felt every day.”
Since the shooting, Polarek, Korman, and Goldsmith have exchanged phone numbers, met each other’s family members and found a string of commonalities between one another. They described having a connection that Polarek says she expects to last forever.
“We have a bond. It’s a club you don’t want to be a member of, but I’m honored — as sick or as weird as this may sound — I’m honored to have been able to be with them. I’m gifted to have been able to share with them and [their] family and the others that I was with,” Korman said. “There’s an unwritten fiber that’s created a thread to connect us.”