By John Andrews
The strong presence of the Catholic faith in Inland Southern California became sadly evident in the fact that half of the 14 victims in the Dec. 2 attack at the Inland Regional Center were connected to the Church.
Damian Meins, Yvette Velasco, Harry Bowman, Bennetta Betbadal, Daniel Kaufman, Juan Espinosa and Tin Nguyen all practiced the faith or were raised in it. For parishes and schools in San Bernardino, Rialto, Riverside, Redlands, Alta Loma and Rancho Cucamonga, where the victims either lived or worked, this became a call to pray with and support the grieving families and stunned community members in the wake of the tragedy.
Father Rogelio Gonzalez, Parochial Vicar at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Rialto, where Velasco and her family attended, has been a consoling presence.
“I was able to meet with them,” Fr. Gonzalez said of the Velasco family. “They welcomed me. They said [of St. Catherine], ‘that is my community, my church.’
“It gave me hope,” he added.
Meins, a longtime parishioner at St. Catherine of Alexandria Church in Riverside, had a strong connection to Catholic schools in the Diocese, having graduated, himself, from Notre Dame High School and recently teaching art and PE at St. Catherine of Alexandria School. Meins’ wife, Trenna, is the Principal of Sacred Heart School in Rancho Cucamonga; his daughter, Tawnya, is the sixth grade teacher at St. Catherine School.
“The kids in all three schools are deeply affected by this,” says Patricia Vesely, Superintendent of Catholic Schools and a longtime friend of the Meins family. “For all of us there is a deep sadness.”
Notre Dame High School held a prayer service for Damian Meins on Dec. 3. The school football team wore a large ‘D’ on the back of their helmets in his honor during their CIF Championship Game victory on Dec. 5. Next door, at St. Catherine School, a Rosary was held on Dec. 3 for Meins, who had been part of the school faculty just a year earlier. Flowers and tributes were placed at the foot of a mural painted by Meins on the exterior of a classroom building there.
At his Funeral Mass on Dec. 11 held at St. Catherine, Trenna, Tawnya and eldest daughter Tina and eulogized Meins, saying that he was a modest and private man who would have been overwhelmed by all the public attention his death had drawn but “our hearts are warmed to see how respected and loved he was,” Trenna said. (See message from the Meins family on page A4)
Harry Bowman was also connected to Catholic schools in the Diocese. He taught eighth grade at Sacred Heart Academy in Redlands during the 2011-2012 year. On Dec. 11, students at the school participated in a “Jeans for Jesus” fundraiser that generated $1,000 for Bowman’s two daughters. Some students also wore bow ties as a tribute to Bowman’s trademark attire when he taught there.
Catholic education wasn’t Bowman’s only connection to the Diocese. He taught confirmation at St. Peter and St. Paul Parish in Alta Loma and was a key volunteer for the Diocesan Ministry With Youth Office when they put on Virtual World Youth Day events in 2011 and 2013.
“He just appeared out of nowhere,” recalls Anna Hamilton, then a consultant with the Youth Office. “With his great gifts in formation I could plug him in anywhere. He was like my angel.”
For the family and friends of both Bennetta Betbadal and Tin Nguyen, their death in a violent attack held a tragic irony. Both had fled their respective native countries, Iran and Vietnam, decades earlier to escape religious persecution and the threat of violence.
“It is the ultimate irony that her life would be stolen from her that day by what appears to be the same type of extremism that she fled so many years ago,” Betbadal’s family said in a statement following her death.
Betbadal lived in Rialto and belonged to the Assyrian Chaldean Catholic Church, a rite of the Catholic Church that is in full communion with the Holy See. She and her family worshipped at St. Paul Assyrian Chaldean Catholic Church in North Hollywood, but a memorial service was held for her at Sacred Heart Church in Rancho Cucamonga on Dec. 14 to accommodate the hundreds who wanted to mourn her death.
At the Dec. 14 memorial Betbadal’s cousin, Domarina Awdow, eulogized her as selfless and “always ready to bring joy to those around her.”
“I’ll never forget her generosity and hospitality,” said Awdow, whose children loved to visit Betbadal. “She was the cool aunt who let you roam around the house with little restriction.”
At the conclusion of the memorial, Betbadal’s teenage daughter, Jolene, sang an emotional rendition of “Silver Bells,” her mother’s favorite Christmas song.
While she worked in San Bernardino, Nguyen was a member of St. Barbara Parish in Santa Ana, where she resided. Sister Jennifer Nguyen (no relation) said the Vietnamese community in the Diocese and in Orange County where Tin Nguyen lived and worshipped greeted her murder with “shock and surprise.”
As with Betbadal, Nguyen came to the United States at the age of eight to escape violence. For herself and others who also emigrated from Vietnam, Tin Nguyen’s death has been a painful reminder of the violence they experienced in their home country, Sr. Nguyen said.
“For us it brings back a lot of bad memories,” said Sr. Nguyen, Director of the Office of Asian Pacific Ministry for the Diocese. “For her to escape Vietnam and the violence there when she was eight years old and then to die here in that way, it is a shock.”