Paul Weisenburger saw his friend sitting in the chair and thought he was napping.
“I thought he was asleep,” Weisenburger said of Father Joseph F. Moreno Jr. “I pushed the door open and saw him sitting in the chair. I didn’t realize it at first, and then I took his pulse.”
Weisenburger, a pastoral administrator at St. Lawrence Catholic Church, spoke candidly Sunday of the scene he encountered when he found Moreno dead of an apparent suicide inside the rectory.
Without revealing too much of what he saw, he mentioned a gun found by Moreno’s side.
“He took his own life,” Weisenburger told reporters. “The investigation is still going on. But from what I know, it’s quite clear.”
Throughout Sunday night, both during a vigil inside the church and later outside addressing a crowd carrying candles and balloons, Weisenburger spoke of the stress Moreno had been under.
He mentioned specifically Moreno’s time as a first responder during 9/11 and how the experience left him forever changed.
Several other members of the parish mentioned the pressure Moreno was feeling about his unwelcome impending transfer from his beloved church, although Weisenburger said that was but one of many things that weighed heavily on the priest’s mind.
“Just a lot of pressure on him.” Weisenburger said when asked what might have led Moreno to take his life.
Several of the speakers at the vigil described Moreno as a man who cared for others while struggling with his own emotional problems.
“It shakes our faith. It shakes our being,” Sister Jean Klimczak said of Moreno’s death. “All his life, he administered to people. He saved lives, but he couldn’t save himself.”
In the midst of the vigil – there was a crowd of at least 350 people on hand - one of the speakers suggested everyone try to recall how they met Moreno.
The crowd was then instructed to share their stories with someone near them and, for the next 10 minutes, a loud buzz filled the church as people exchanged tales about a man they grew to love and admire.
“Just as we enter this mystery of Father Joe’s life,” one of the speakers said, “we continue to remember his love.”
Moreno, 54, was well-known among first responders and in the neighborhood around the East Side church, and those who knew him tried Sunday to understand why a beloved priest could meet such an ending.
Several members of St. Lawrence sent letters to the Diocese of Buffalo last week pleading for Moreno to remain at the church, on East Delavan Avenue near Eggert Road, and people who knew him said he was upset at having to leave.
Mary Pachla sought out Moreno on Wednesday to show him the letter she sent.
“He said, ‘I feel like I was kicked in the stomach,’ ” Pachla recalled.
Moreno, who was the sacramental minister at St. Lawrence, was to move temporarily to the rectory at St. Bernadette Parish in Orchard Park, and the Rev. Francis “Butch” Mazur is to become the temporary administrator of St. Lawrence on Oct. 17.
Knowing that staying at St. Lawrence was not an option open to him, he was in discussions with the diocese to become a hospital chaplain.
Bishop Richard J. Malone, who arrived in Buffalo in August, said earlier Sunday, before the evening vigil, that he had one meeting with Moreno during which the priest suggested that he become a hospital chaplain.
“He said, ‘I have a recommendation for you, Bishop.’ I said, ‘Let’s hear it,’ ” Malone said Sunday, adding that Moreno did not appear despondent during the meeting.
The diocese was still working out where Moreno would end up.
Malone acknowledged Moreno’s death during a Mass at Our Lady of Victory Basilica that kicked off the church’s “Year of Faith.” Speaking to reporters after the Mass, Malone would not discuss why Moreno was being moved out of St. Lawrence, saying the diocese does not discuss personnel matters.
“He was very sad,” said Judy Bauer, president of the Pastoral Council at St. Lawrence. “You could tell by talking to him that it was stressing him out.”
Moreno’s death came as a complete shock to Bauer.
“I didn’t see that coming at all,” she said.
Moreno was a chaplain at the World Trade Center site after Sept. 11, 2001, and he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, Bauer said.
To encourage him, church members told him that he would succeed at his next assignment.
Moreno, who was ordained in April 1986, had lived at the church for more than a decade, Bauer said. Though he was never officially the administrator there, he handled some administrative responsibilities and helped stabilize the church’s finances, Pachla said.
Moreno was effective in getting donations for the church’s food pantry when it ran low, and his connections with comedian Jay Leno and Yankees star Derek Jeter brought in donations sometimes used in fundraising, Bauer said. He was also generous with people in need who showed up at the church and organized holiday dinners for people who had nowhere to go, she said.
“They wanted Father Joe at the helm,” Bauer said of the parish. “They wanted him to remain there as pastor and it just wasn’t meant to be.”
The outpouring of support for a beloved priest who is departing is not unusual, Malone said.
Moreno was known for being one of the first to respond to the crash of Flight 3407, for bringing pizzas to drivers stranded in a winter storm and for ministering at St. Francis Home in Williamsville and at St. Mary Parish in Cattaraugus.
“I think we’ll hear more and more of the legend that Father Joe is as the days go by,” Malone said.
He inspired people around him to reach out to the poor and hurting, Pachla said.
“He has always been someone who I consider a very Christ-like man and priest,” she said. “We loved him because he loved others.”
Malone described Moreno’s death “like a punch in the stomach” and called it a “Good Friday” experience for people who knew and loved him.
“Christ in his resurrection conquers death ultimately, so there’s hope here, but it doesn’t take away the sadness, the pain, the confusion,” the bishop said.
Funeral arrangements are expected to be announced this week.
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