LAFAYETTE, Louisiana – A downtown Lafayette church Sunday evening honored the victims of the movie theater shootings in this city, as church officials called for the city to “do better” caring for people with mental illness.
Parishioners, locals, and visitors from out of town filed into the sprawling St. John’s Cathedral at dusk, making their way to a memorial at the church altar, where people laid candles beneath posters memorializing the two women killed in Thursday’s shootings.
Mayci Breaux, 21, and Jillian Johnson, 33, were killed when John Russell Houser opened fire during an evening showing of the film “Trainwreck.” Houser wounded nine others before turning his .45 caliber gun on himself.
More than 100 people gathered inside the cathedral Sunday, packing the pews and leaving few available seats as Rev. Chester Arceneaux urged the crowd to “dispel the darkness of fear” and show sympathy for other people affected with mental illness.
“We must pray as individuals and as a community that we can do better responding to those with mental illness,” Arceneaux said, “that we can have compassion and forgiveness — and yes, toleration — for those among us on our streets.”
Court documents show that Houser had a history of mental illness, and that his family had him committed for treatment in 2008.
Sunday’s vigil was among a handful of community events held since the shootings Thursday.
Lafayette Mayor Joey Durel told NBC News after the vigil concluded that city officials are meeting Monday to plan a large public event at an area stadium. “There’ s no doubt the community is fully engaged in coming together,” Durel said.
Asked about the possibility that funerals for Breaux and Johnson could draw protesters, Durel said state and local police would be on hand. The Westboro Baptist Church group has said over its Twitter feed that it intends to picket the funerals. State officials have said that members of the church would face arrest.
“We’re prepared,” Durel said.
U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, who was also in the audience Sunday, said in an interview that he has been visiting his district since Friday.
“This is my home, and you never expect that to happen in your home town,” Boustany said, before adding that his own cousin had been shot in the theater Thursday.
Boustany said he expected his cousin and her husband, who was also wounded, to recover.
“I came down as soon as I got word that this happened,” Boustany said.
Earlier, as the church doors opened for the ceremony, a group of high school students arrived and took their places in line by the church altar.
Adam Ortego, 17, said he plays in Lafayette High School’s band alongside the stepdaughter of Johnson, one of the two women killed in the shootings.
“We are a very close knit group,” Ortego said of the high school band. “Now more than ever, the idea of family in our program is so important.”
Ortego and other members of the band said Johnson’s stepdaughter plays clarinet, and that despite her family’s ordeal she has been keeping in contact over text message, and has shown up for band meetings since Thursday.
“When one of our members is in pain,” Ortego said, “we all feel it together.”