Pastor made city a safer place


By Christopher Gunty

God filled Monsignor Damien Nalepa with passion for the Word of God and passion for the poor. He responded to that by serving wholeheartedly as a priest.

Originally a Capuchin Franciscan, Father Damien eventually was incardinated into the Archdiocese of Baltimore, meaning he became an archdiocesan priest instead of a Franciscan. But he never lost the values at the core of the Franciscan charism: dedication to peace and justice, and serving with those who society neglects. “I’m simply happy to be a parish priest,” he told the Catholic Review in 2006 when he was named a monsignor, noting how much he loved his parish of St. Gregory the Great.

St. Gregory, the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the whole city of Baltimore lost a dedicated servant Aug. 4, when Monsignor Nalepa passed away in his rectory.

One of his concerns in recent years was the escalating violence in the city, especially in the West Baltimore neighborhood around his parish. He and other pastors in the area organized “peace walks” through the neighborhood to call attention to the murders, violence, drug abuse, illiteracy and other social ills that plagued the people of the area.

Shortly after my arrival in Baltimore, a letter from Father Damien was passed along to me, asking if the Catholic Review could become involved as a sponsor in a gun turn-in program at St. Gregory. Upon meeting with him, I learned some extent of the problem in the area, and what the parish had been able to do with a different sponsor. By that time, the parish had gotten more than 100 guns off the street through a simple, no-questions-asked program. Citing recent violence in the area, he convinced me that we could work together to tame the violence. Clearly, the need was urgent, and his passion was infectious.

Since that time, the program expanded to East Baltimore, with a location at St. Wenceslaus Parish. Through six gun turn-in events at the parishes since September 2009, more than 250 additional guns have been taken off the streets, many of them described – by the Baltimore Police officers who assist with logging the guns and taking them to police headquarters for eventual disposal – as the kind that can be easily hidden and used in street crime.

Late in 2011, I received a letter from Father Damien along with the accounting of the funds disbursed and guns turned in at a recent buy-back event. In his characteristic all capital letters (I don’t know if the caps lock was stuck on his computer or if, as I suspect, everything was urgent to him), he noted that 16 guns had been collected during an event a few weeks before Christmas. “As you probably heard on the news, this was another violent weekend, with four or five shootings and killings.

“I am more convinced than ever, the gun buy-back does make a difference,” he added, noting that news reports indicated a Glock had been used in the killing of two girls in West Baltimore. “Remember we had a Glock turned in at the church in July.”

The small program we had could not remove all violence from our city. There are so many guns out there that it seems like a drop in the bucket to remove 350 from the streets and from cupboards or basements in homes, where children and others might come to harm if they found them. But Father Damien was making an effort. And that effort is a powerful witness when we have people all around our country taking guns to shopping centers to shoot at a congresswoman and her constituents, to a movie theater, or to a Sikh temple. There are just too many guns, and the laws allowing people to purchase multiple weapons are too lax. The answer is not, as some people have claimed, to arm more people so they can act in self-defense, or as a deterrent to crime.

In an interview with NBC’s David Gregory, actor-comedian Bill Cosby decried gun violence as he reflected on the prevalence of guns, especially as it pertained to the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case. “When you have a gun, you may not realize it, but you put it on your person and you mean to pull this,” Cosby said, motioning with his trigger finger, “and kill somebody. That’s what you mean to do.”

One pastor hoped to end some of that killing. Monsignor Damien Nalepa inspired others with his commitment to peace. May he continue to inspire us as he rests in peace.

Copyright (c) Aug. 9, 2012

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.