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Priest, Two Others Slain after Man Objects to Girls at Mass

February 7, 1985

ONALASKA, Wis. (AP) _ A priest who was kneeling to pray was shot to death in a church along with two other men Thursday, and police arrested a man who called himself ″Elijah″ and said he objected to girls reading scripture during Mass.

Police Chief John Dloughy said a man wearing a yellow stocking cap and carrying a shotgun was captured by police as he ran from St. Patrick’s Church after the shootings. He identified himself only as Elijah and said he was 29, police told reporters at the scene. He was taken to La Crosse County jail for questioning by District Attorney Scott Horne.

The bodies of the Rev. John Rossiter, 64, and lay minister Ferdinand Roth Sr. were found in the church sanctuary shortly after a morning Mass attended by children from a parish school next door.

Rossiter was shot just after he had hugged some of the children and they had returned to the school.

The school principal, Sister Rose Frances Phalin, said that after Rossiter and Roth were shot, the gunman went to the church basement where custodian William Hammes was slain.

Sister Phalin said that earlier, while the children were seated for Mass, the man had knocked at the sacristy door and asked Rossiter about plans to let two sixth-grade girls give the first and second readings.

She said he was quoted as demanding: ″On what authority do you do this?″

The nun said Rossiter replied: ″The pope told me I can do that, and that is good enough for me.″

The man apparently left the church, but returned after the Mass.

″The children were out of the church, thank goodness,″ when shots were fired as Rossiter made a thanksgiving prayer in the sanctuary, Sister Phalen said.

After the shooting, a kitchen worker ran to the school to call police and another kitchen employee hid in a closet, she said.

Ruth Wurtz, branch manager of a savings and loan association office across the street from the church, said she found parishioners grief-stricken when she arrived for work.

″A woman came flying out of the church area, screaming, and her arms in the air, just screaming and sobbing,″ Ms. Wurtz said. ″Two other people . . . were hugging and standing in the parking lot.″

Authorities said Rossiter and Roth were shot from behind.

″They are all dead. They blasted their heads off,″ assistant La Crosse County medical examiner Michael Watunya said.

In her announcement to students over the school’s loudspeaker system, Sister Phalin said: ″Father Rossiter is not with us any more. A maniac came in the church this morning and did some shooting. Say a prayer for these good people. It’s terrible; it’s a tragedy.″

Claude Deck, superintendent of public schools in this Mississippi River community, said Rossiter was an especially well-liked man.

Rossiter was former head of Regis High School in Eau Claire and was described by Bishop John Paul of the La Cross Diocese as a long-time personal friend.

″This is a day I’ll never forget, to have somebody walk into a church like that and shoot randomly at innocent people,″ Sister Rose Frances said.

She dismissed class for the day for her school’s approximately 230 students, grades one through eight.

Paul said he had recently received a letter from a man who called himself the prophet Elijah.

The writer said he was ″called by God to go to Israel to bomb one of the holy temples,″ the bishop said. He said he was not sure whether the writer was the man arrested after the shooting.

Paul said shootings: had ″desecrated″ St. Patrick’s church and a special rite would be conducted ″before any further function″ was performed there.

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