Mourners walk past caskets containing the bodies of members of the Holcombe and Hill families, victims of the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church shooting, during a graveside service in Sutherland Springs, Tex. on Wednesday. (Darren Abate/Reuters)
FLORESVILLE, Tex. — Thousands of mourners said goodbye and celebrated the lives of an extended family that lost 10 of its members nearly two weeks ago in a mass shooting inside their small-town Texas church.
Colorful caskets contained the bodies of three generations of the Holcombe family, from an unborn child and a 1-year-old to the church’s 60-year-old associate pastor. Mourners overfilled an event center here, full of sorrow and of hope, knowing that the members of a deeply faithful family — who had been praising God when killed — were now home in heaven.
The event was open to the public but closed to the news media as members of the community continued to heal from one of the nation’s worst mass shootings 10 days earlier. Those who attended the ceremony said the family patriarch — Joe Holcombe — also prayed for the family of Devin Patrick Kelley, the 26-year-old who took his life after killing more than two dozen congregants at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs on Nov. 5. Kelley was cremated on Friday.
Law enforcement officials have said Kelley was involved in a domestic dispute with his in-laws before the shootings; his mother-in-law has attended the church, and his wife’s grandmother was among those he killed there. Kelley had attended a fall festival at the church on Halloween just days before he returned with a semiautomatic assault-style rifle and fired hundreds of rounds inside. He was shot by a neighbor who heard the gunfire. Kelley fled in his car while being chased, and ran off the road and shot himself.
The small town has since begun burying many of its residents, while 20 people who were shot continue to recover and process what happened.
The service Wednesday afternoon was packed with hundreds of relatives, neighbors, friends and strangers paying their respects to Joe Holcombe’s son Bryan and his wife, Karla Holcombe; Bryan and Karla’s son Danny Holcombe and his 1-year-old daughter Noah Grace; Bryan and Karla’s daughter-in-law Crystal Holcombe, her unborn child Carlin Holcombe and children Greg Hill, Emily Hill and Megan Hill; and Tara McNulty, a close family friend whose children were like grandchildren to Bryan and Karla.
As attendees waited to get inside, people left their spots in line to hug and shake hands with friends and neighbors; the attack killed or injured many in the First Baptist Church membership and affected almost everyone in this tiny town outside San Antonio. Many of those who were killed were in the church’s pews for Sunday services.
“They were always happy, and they loved the Lord with all their hearts,” Jane Johnson, a close family friend, said after the memorial.
Many in the community have turned to their faith to help cope with their losses, and the church decided not to hide the scene of the crime; instead leaders had it cleaned, painted and made into a standing memorial for those killed inside. White chairs embossed with the names of those who died — along with single red roses — stand solemnly in a stark-white sanctuary.
The day of the shootings, Bryan Holcombe, the associate pastor, was filling in for the church’s pastor, Frank Pomeroy, who happened to be out of town that day; Holcombe was on his way to the pulpit when he was killed. Both he and wife Karla, 58, taught their children to live their lives for the glory of God, friends and relatives said. Pomeroy buried his 14-year-old daughter Annabelle — who was killed in the attack — this week.
Bagpipers played “Amazing Grace” while pallbearers slowly rolled the caskets out to hearses that took the victims to a private burial. While many in attendance dabbed their eyes with tissues — individually bagged with a note from schoolchildren — some hummed along.