BANGOR, Maine — The shock and fear felt when Dylann Roof opened fire as members of a Bible study group bowed their heads in prayer at a South Carolina church 19 months ago rippled through religious communities around the nation and in Maine.
The mass shooting at the landmark Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that killed nine people, including the pastor, left the mostly elderly members of the Sixth Street Congregational Church in Auburn wondering about the vulnerability of their house of worship.
“We want to be as prepared as we can be,” the Rev. Joe Dressler, pastor for the United Church of Christ congregation, said Thursday. “We want to provide as much safety as possible.”
Dressler was one of about 150 people who attended two seminars this week at St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Scarborough and St. John Catholic Church in Bangor led by the National Protection and Programs Directorate Office of Infrastructure Protection, a division within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on how to handle an active shooter situation.
The sessions were sponsored by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland but open to other denominations and secular groups.
Consultants with Homeland Security gave participants information on developing emergency action plans, identifying strengths and weaknesses in their churches, schools and buildings, and learning how to prevent potential disruptive incidents by recognizing behavioral indicators. Participants also were urged to train staff, lay leaders and regular attendees how to respond in an active shooter situation, including determining who should call police, who should help older worshippers and those with disabilities to safety, the best places to hide in the church, and when and if to confront the attacker.
Maine has not been immune to deadly assaults at houses of worship. Most Catholics in Maine remember the horrific attack 21 years ago on Jan. 27, 1996, at the yellow-brick chapel next to the white-clapboard convent of the Servants of the Blessed Sacrament in Waterville. Four nuns were beaten, stabbed and stomped on by a man who had attended Mass at the chapel.
Mark A. Bechard, now 55, of Waterville was found not criminally responsible by reason of mental illness for killing two of the nuns and severely injuring the two others when he was acutely psychotic, according to a previously published report. He was committed to what is now Riverview Psychiatric Center, formerly the Augusta Mental Health Institute. He remains in the custody of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services but lives in a group home in Augusta.
The discussion at St. John’s on Thursday morning did not include a discussion about what steps, if any, could have been taken to prevent that attack.
The discussion about church safety on a national level is not new. Then Lt. Andrew G. Mill of the San Diego Police Department wrote an article for the magazine Christianity Today in August 2007 about how churches should plan for a potential shooting. That was two years before Dr. George Tiller, one of the only doctors in the country performing late-term abortions, was gunned down while attending his church in Wichita, Kansas.
The workshop designed for houses of worship is one of many offered for organizations in the public and private sector by Homeland Security. Clergy, lay leaders, school principals and retired law enforcement officers who regularly attend church took part in Thursday’s program.
Some of those who participated were looking to update plans already in place. Joe Gallant, principal of All Saints Catholic School, said the fact that the school has two campuses, one on State Street, the other on Ohio Street creates some unique safety problems.
“We have two buildings in two very different neighborhoods,” he said. “Each building has its own logistical problems we need to be aware of. We have active shooter trainings.”
The pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Parish, which includes churches in Bangor, Brewer, Hampden and Winterport, turned to an adage to explain why he felt it was important for churches to have active shooter plans.
“We live by that saying: ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,’” the Rev. Frank Murray said. “Obviously, we can’t single-handedly prevent a situation like this, but we can be wise and know all the possible steps we can take to reduce a chaotic situation.”