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Nashville looks to vigil for solace after school mass shooting

Pope Francis sent a telegram Wednesday to Nashville Catholic Bishop J. Mark Spalding in which he conveyed his condolences and decried the violence

Community members embrace while visiting a memorial at the school entrance after a deadly shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee
Community members embrace while visiting a memorial at the school entrance after a deadly shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, on March 29, 2023.CHENEY ORR (REUTERS)

As Nashville awaited a candlelight vigil Wednesday to mourn three children and three adults killed in a shooting at a Christian school, Pope Francis sent his condolences to a grief-stricken city and offered prayers to those affected by the violence.

In a telegram, Francis asked Bishop J. Mark Spalding, of the Catholic Diocese of Nashville, to convey his “heartfelt condolences” and the assurance of his prayers. “He joins the entire community in mourning the children and adults who died and commends them to the loving embrace of the Lord Jesus,” reads the telegram, which was sent by the Vatican’s secretary of state in the pontiff’s name.

Police have said a 28-year-old former student at The Covenant School drove up to the building Monday morning, shot out glass doors, and gunned down three 9-year-olds, a custodian, a substitute teacher and the head of the school. Authorities have not yet determined the shooter’s motive but said they did not target specific victims.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper said in a news release that the citywide vigil was being planned for Wednesday evening “to mourn and honor the lives of the victims, and lift up the survivors and families” of the school. Metropolitan Nashville Police Chief John Drake and other city leaders were also expected to speak during the vigil.

Authorities have identified the dead children as Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney. The adults killed were Katherine Koonce, 60, the head of the school; substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, 61; and custodian Mike Hill, also 61.

The deadly shooting has led to an outpouring of prayers and support.

“There have been innumerable prayer meetings and crying out for comfort and solace,” said Pastor George Grant, a leader with the Nashville Presbytery, which is connected to the school.

“As pundits and politicians try to make sense out of the senseless, we’re not really asking why. We know why — we live in a broken, fallen world.”

In a blog post published Wednesday, Grant recounted how notifications about an active shooter at the school interrupted a presbytery planning meeting that included Chad Scruggs, Covenant Presbyterian Church pastor and father of one of the shooting victims.

“We emptied into the hallway, stricken, eyes clouded with unbelief, horror, and grief. ... Our worst fears were realized,” Grant wrote.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said late Tuesday that Peak was a close friend of his wife, Maria, and that the two had been planning to meet for dinner after Peak’s work that day.

“Maria woke up this morning without one of her best friends,” Lee said in a video statement Tuesday, adding that his wife once taught with Peak and Koonce. The women, he said, “have been family friends for decades.”

Police said the shooter, whom they identified as Audrey Hale, was under a doctor’s care for an undisclosed emotional disorder and was not on the radar of police before the attack.

Police have given unclear information on Hale’s gender. For hours Monday, police identified the shooter as a woman. Later in the day, the police chief said Hale was transgender. In an email Tuesday, a police spokesperson said Hale “was assigned female at birth” but used masculine pronouns on a social media profile. Then the chief later used feminine pronouns to refer to Hale.

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