A Palm Sunday morning Mass suddenly became violent at a small Catholic church in northwest Nebraska.
As the pastor was reading the long Gospel narrative of Christ’s suffering, a Sheridan County sheriff’s deputy fatally shot a man just inside the doors of the Rushville church.
The man — later identified as Clarence Leading Fighter, 32 — was a suspect in an assault that had occurred at a separate location less than an hour earlier, the Nebraska State Patrol said.
Leading Fighter died later Sunday from his injuries, the State Patrol said in a press release.
An initial investigation indicated that the deputy used deadly force to protect himself and the parishioners from potential serious harm, the patrol said.
For the 100 to 150 people at the 10:30 a.m. MDT Mass, the event was traumatic, said the Rev. Joseph K. Joseph, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church.
The Mass was never finished, ending abruptly as deputies cleared out the church after the shooting. Joseph said he tried to offer peace and consolation to parishioners who were clearly shaken. And they tried to console him as well, he said.
Joseph said that as he read the Gospel, he heard the sound of someone falling and at first thought that someone had passed out. But then his mind raced to the thought of a terrorist attack as he looked back to a commotion near the glass doors that separate the entryway of the church from its sanctuary. Joseph said he saw several people rush into the entryway and didn’t immediately recognize them as law enforcement officers.
The pastor ducked under the altar, while many in the pews took cover or darted out a side door.
“It was a traumatic situation,” Joseph said.
The pastor said that he didn’t know Leading Fighter and that he was not a member of the church.
The victim in the earlier assault, at a Rushville home about 10:20 a.m. MDT, suffered a broken arm, the State Patrol said. The shooting at the church occurred shortly after 11 a.m.
The Sheriff’s Office asked the patrol to investigate the shooting.
Nebraska law requires a grand jury to convene as well.
Joseph said confessions that were scheduled for Sunday also had to be canceled. He said he hopes that the building will be available for Holy Thursday, as Catholics enter into the holiest days of the year.
The priest said he contacted Bishop Joseph Hanefeldt, head of the Grand Island Diocese, on Sunday. The bishop was looking into whether the church would have to be reconsecrated after the violence.