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Death of a Deacon

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About a week ago, I was writing about the fallout from “Duck Dynasty”, while parishioners at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church in Chicago's south shore neighborhood were dealing with a much bigger fallout. It was their first mass without the parish's beloved Deacon, Willie Cooper.

Willie Cooper, a 74 year old retired CTA bus driver, had served the parish for over a decade. He had been assigned to St. Philip Neri after his previous South Shore church, St. Laurence, closed down. Deacon Cooper had been an instrumental part of the parish at Sunday masses: helping the pastor pour holy water on babies during baptism, clapping the loudest in church as the choir sang, reading the weekly prayer intentions, reading the Sunday gospel passages, and giving the final blessing after Fr. Thomas Belanger's dismissal. Outside of mass, he spent his days visiting and praying for sick people in hospitals, ministering to the homeless, reaching out to the home-bound, and mentoring young men from elementary through high school, especially way-ward youth without fathers or father figures in their lives.

Members of the parish remembered Deacon Cooper as a gentle soul who followed the same strict routine each morning. He awoke at 2:30 a.m., took his medicine, ate half of a banana for breakfast and sat down to do his daily Scripture readings. He often encouraged friends and family to attend more Sunday Masses, and would sometimes help shuttle people to church who did not have their own vehicles and had difficulty paying for public transportation.

Deacon Cooper was killed shortly before Christmas in a violent shooting. In the early hours of Thursday, December 19, Cooper was headed to his regular day job as a shuttle driver. Shortly before 5 a.m., he was killed at the 7000 block of South East End Avenue. Police found him dead of multiple gun shot wounds. Cooper was apparently waiting in a driveway in his car when two men approached him and shot him repeatedly in the upper torso. Also murdered early that morning was a 41-year-old musician, Eric Davis. Davis was known on the Chicago music scene as Eric “Guitar” Davis. On most nights he was seen around his Riverdale home practicing guitar, playing on stage, or recording an album. He left behind a wife, Leslie, and six children when he died. Police suspect both men are victims of armed robbery. The families of both men say they have no idea why anyone would target a church deacon, or a blues musician whose career was just taking off.

Sadly, it didn't make the news much in Chicago because gun murders are a common occurrence in the city, and especially in neighborhoods like South Shore. Despite the lack of media attention, it certainly was devastating to those who knew both men, and especially the parishioners at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church, whose lives had been touched so much by Deacon Cooper. At the memorial service, ushers handed out leaflets and bulletins with inserts honoring Cooper. In one handout, a photo showed Cooper in his white robes helping to baptize a toddler wearing a white dress. The picture was accompanied by the words "God Saw The Best In Me!" Fr. Belanger choked up toward the end of the service, at the point where Cooper would give his usual final blessing. Many parishioners said it was hard to look up at the altar and not see Cooper sitting in his usual chair, and it was especially painful to know he wouldn't be part of their Christmas Mass.

There are many different ways that people approach the issue of gun violence in Chicago, and plenty of ways to point fingers going around, but all the blame in the world won't bring back those who were unfairly murdered in cold blood. Senseless killing a real issue in Chicago, and one that is too often dismissed because it didn't happen to us.

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