As many of you know, I live in Chardon, Ohio. What you may not know is that I live at St. Mary convent which, together with our church and elementary school, is right across the street from Chardon Middle School and High School. I was close to the tragic events on Monday, February 27 when a student opened fire in the high school cafeteria, shooting five students. Three of them died. As I write this, one student is still hospitalized in serious condition. A fifth student was released from the hospital last week.
I was at Mass that morning. Phyllis, the mother of one of the victims, was also there as usual. At the kiss of peace we turned, smiled and waved to each other across the aisle as we usually did. Shortly afterwards we began to hear sirens outside. After communion, Father announced that there had been a shooting at the high school. Right after Mass Phyills’ cellphone rang informing her that her son, Demetrius, had just been shot. Within minutes an FBI agent was rushing her to the trauma unit in Cleveland where her son would be flown.
Our street began to fill with police cars, ambulances, fire engines, swat team vans, a bomb squad vehicle and, a little later, many news media trucks. Helicopters flew overhead. Three of them landed at our nearby Walmart parking lot ready to evacuate the three most seriously wounded.
It was surreal–watching the live coverage on TV and seeing the actual scene outside my front window. After the shooter was apprehended, the students were evacuated to nearby Maple School. Parents were then permitted to come for their children. Once again our streets began to fill–this time with cars as anxious parents tried to get their kids. Some parents parked their cars in town and were frantically running down the streets to reach their children. I will never forget the look on their faces.
By afternoon, all the students and most emergency vehicles were gone from our street and an eerie silence settled over the neighborhood. At the usual dismissal time, there were no loud school buses, no steady stream of cars, no groups of kids sauntering or laughing down our street like normal. I ached for normal.
The tragic event placed a pall over our small community of 5,100. Tears came easily to all of us. But gradually we began to see goodness emerging from all the ugliness. We heard of the heroic behavior of several teachers, the professionalism of law enforcement agents, and the devoted care of emergency medical personnel. Area churches reached out. Our parish, for example, held a candlelight vigil the day after the shooting. I’d estimate about 3,000 people came–1,000 packed in the church and the rest of us standing in the cold outside. The service which was broadcast on a large screen in front of the church, consisted of well-chosen scripture readings, short reflections by individuals involved, and many songs led by our Life Teen group. I was most moved when we as a group recited the “Our Father” and sang “Let there Be Peace on Earth.”
Area businesses reached out. The local florist donated red and black ribbon (Chardon’s school colors) so the high school students could tie ribbons around all the trees in town. Our parish school offered our building for grief counselors. On the day the faculty of the high school returned (the day before the students did) our parish served them a hot breakfast. Businesses and houses posted signs offering their prayerful support. On Thursday the students were permitted to enter the school with their parents for the first time since the tragedy. They met as a group at our town square and walked in solidarity to the school less than a mile away. As they marched, many people lined their route holding signs and applauding them. When the students returned to school for regular classes, students from other area high schools were gathered at the doors to show their solidarity with the Chardon students.
Governor John Kasich, one of the speakers at the prayer vigil, reminded us that Chardon’s square burned to the ground in 1868. But the Chardon community was resourceful. Within a year they had rebuilt the square–including the lovely old courthouse that still dominates the square. Kasich said he believes the current Chardon community will be as resourceful as previous generations were. We will heal from this terrible tragedy, he said, if we have three things: family, friends, and faith in God.
When I see the outpouring of concern and prayers for Chardon from all over the country, I am filled with gratitude. And when I see how the Chardon community has pulled together, I am very proud. In fact, I have never been more proud to say, “I live in Chardon, Ohio.”