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“Church was shaken to the core"

Nicole Bramila
Award of Outstanding Merit - $1,000

Nicole C. Brambila is an award-winning investigative reporter with 15 years of experience at newspapers in Texas, California and Pennsylvania. Nicole is a previous First Place Amy Writing Awards winner in 2004, for a perspective piece on abortion. A graduate of Texas State University, Nicole lives in Wyomissing, PA and reports for the Reading Eagle.

Reprinted with permission.  Reading Eagle Company;  Reading, PA.

Montgomery County church finds healing after Palm Sunday murders

LOWER PROVIDENCE TOWNSHIP - The scene was grisly.


The Rev. Melford Holland ran outside the St. James Episcopal Church and saw Leon Moser lying in a pool of blood next to the man's 14-year-old daughter, Donna. Moser's ex-wife, Linda, lay motionless in the road. And Moser's youngest daughter, 10-year-old Joanne, was in the man's car, dead.


Moments earlier, gunshots had rung out in the church parking lot, shattering the quiet in this idyllic Philadelphia suburb in Montgomery County.


Holland had been inside after services when a member burst in yelling that something awful had happened.


Moser, a former Army lieutenant, killed his family on Palm Sunday with a high-powered hunting rifle before shooting a final bullet in the air and crumpling down on the ground.


Church members in 1985 mistakenly thought they'd witnessed a murder-suicide.


"Everyone was panicking," Holland said. "It was more than horrific. The words are not adequate to describe what happened and the tragedy that unfolded."


Moser, 52, is one of three executed in Pennsylvania since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. In each of those executions, the condemned abandoned their appeals and begged to die.


Moser was put to death by lethal injection in 1995, a decade after pleading guilty to the murders.


"He actually, I believe, wanted the state to execute him," Holland said.


Nearly three decades have passed since that fateful day.


While the emotional scars mean that there has been healing, the memory is still too painful for many.


Few would talk about it.


In the wake of an unspeakable tragedy, the questions survivors ask can be as haunting: Why? And, how could God let this happen?


The questions are all too familiar to Barbara Bateman, who knew the Mosers well. Her daughters had baby-sat the Moser girls.


Before police responded, someone ran into the church asking Bateman to bring something to cover the bodies. After she returned, Bateman stood in the parish hall and wept. She was a jumble of emotions - horrified, shocked, scared, relieved her own children had already left the church grounds.


And, she felt something else.


"I knew that Christ's arms were around me," said Bateman, 73. "And, He was crying, too."


Bateman's given a lot of thought to the often crippling questions survivors ask, as well as the answers she's found.


"People will ask, 'Why did God let this happen?' " Bateman, now senior warden at St. James, said after a recent service. "God doesn't let it happen. It's a question of man's inhumanity to man.


"When bad things happen, it doesn't mean He's walked away from us.


"God was there. He didn't walk away."


Signs of trouble

According to published reports, Linda Moser, 35, had secured a protective order against Leon Moser.

Holland said Leon Moser had seen a psychiatrist before the murders. He had encouraged Leon Moser to get counseling, even driving him once to the hospital. And after learning Leon Moser had struck Linda Moser, Holland "chewed him out" in the church parking lot where he'd later kill his family.


"He was going downhill, as far as I could tell," said Holland, now interim rector at St. Peter's Church in the Great Valley. "He just went off the edge and he didn't seem to be able to get back on."


Before the shooting, church members had become wary of Moser because of his emotional outbursts, Holland said. Still, no one could have imagined what was to come.


"I don't think that anybody suspected that he would do what he did," Holland said.


'Give me the death penalty'

While in prison Moser underwent psychiatric treatment. At his sentencing, Moser pleaded with the court.


"All I want to do is just die," Moser said, according to media reports. "Just give me the death penalty, please. Carry it out as soon as possible."


It was Holland and Moser's brother who appealed his death sentence.


Moser was the second death row inmate executed in Pennsylvania since 1962, when Elmo Smith went to the electric chair for the 1959 rape and murder of a schoolgirl he beat with a carjack and dumped in a Montgomery County gully.


Moser's execution came less than a half-hour after a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision lifted a stay by a federal appeals court to give attorneys time for a competency hearing.


Holland and others at St. James have long opposed the death penalty, in part, because of what he views as an imperfect system largely used against minority communities. But he also objects to capital punishment on moral grounds.


"I think it jettisons the possibility of someone coming to terms with what they've done," Holland said.


"Leon is still a child of God," he said. "He's not the devil incarnate. But he still needs to be accountable for what he did in life, as we all do."


Offering comfort

Holland doesn't speak in platitudes nor does he espouse quick fixes.


"I tried to offer all the comfort I could," Holland said. "I tried to assure them that God was with us and loves us."


The scripture he clung to and admonished the congregation to embrace then was Romans 8:38:

"I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God's love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow - not even the powers of hell can separate us from God's love."


But healing is a process.


"The grief never goes away," said Dr. Heidi Ramsbottom, a Shillington psychologist. "Grief is always going to be there."


This tragedy is particularly traumatic, experts said, precisely because it happened at a church. Places of worship are supposed to be safe. In the wake of the murders, some church members have struggled with how Moser could sit through a service, then commit such a heinous act, said the Rev. Mike Sowards, St. James' rector.


That morning Moser had sat with his youngest daughter in the small, traditional sanctuary built in 1845. His eldest daughter served as an acolyte. Linda Moser sang in the choir.


"The community was really shaken to the core," Holland said. "Everybody, in many ways, was a victim."


Grieving differently

At least one member refused to attend Palm Sunday services until last year. Some would run across the parking lot, not wanting to linger in the place where the Mosers were gunned down. And still some, a handful, quit attending services altogether.


Even Holland, who urged the tightknit congregation to pray for Leon Moser, wrestled with his own anger over the killings.


Holland vividly remembers speaking to the bishop about it. The bishop, Holland said, turned to him and said he, too, would have wanted to kill the man who had killed his family, his loved ones.


"But, I would hope you would stop me," Holland said the bishop told him. "It's the matter of owning our feelings. It was very freeing for me."


On a recent Sunday, Sowards spoke before Thanksgiving about God's commandment to love thy neighbor and how "neighbor" has been narrowly defined through the years to exclude undesirables.


Our neighbors, Sowards told worshippers, are the sick, the friendless, the needy.


It's become a common refrain in the life of a congregation that has endured more than most.


"The church has already failed the moment someone is sitting on death row," Sowards said. "This incident made people focus more on the dignity of every human being and what it means to love our neighbor.


"I applaud them because they still want to find Christ."


Published in The Reading Eagle, December 17, 2014 (Reading, PA)


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