Msgr. Tom Wells, murdered 10 years ago, remembered as 'a priest's priest'
Tuesday, June 01, 2010 9:01 AM
Msgr. Thomas Wells, a popular archdiocesan priest who was murdered 10 years ago next week, will be remembered as a man devoted to the priesthood and the Eucharist, said family and friends of the late priest.
"Tommy loved the priesthood every single day of his life. He was at his best when he was celebrating the Eucharist," Dan Wells, brother of the late priest, said. "He always said, 'Every day that I am a priest is my happiest day.'"
Msgr. Wells, according to his brother, "had a wonderful sense of humor. He was a very joyful person. He loved life to the fullest."
The body of 56-year-old Msgr. Wells was discovered just after 8 a.m. on June 8, 2000 in the rectory of Mother Seton Parish in Gaithersburg, where he was serving as pastor. When the priest did not show up for the 8 a.m. daily Mass, concerned parishioners went to the rectory. There, they found rectory's basement windows were broken and Msgr. Wells was lying on the floor of his ransacked bedroom. He had been stabbed to death.
Msgr. Wells, a native of Washington, D.C., was ordained in 1971. Prior to serving at Mother Seton, he served as pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Bethesda and St. Mark Parish in Hyattsville. He was an associate pastor at both those parishes and also at Sacred Heart Parish in Bowie and at St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Silver Spring. He also led the archdiocesan permanent diaconate program and helped lead its vocations efforts.He was a mentor to numerous priests and seminarians in the archdiocese. His funeral Mass at Sacred Heart Church a week after his murder was attended by more than 3,000 people, including 200 priests and 50 deacons.
The late Cardinal James A. Hickey, then the archbishop of Washington, said at the time of the murder that Msgr. Wells was "a man of deep faith, great fidelity and loving dedication."
"I had great affection and respect for Msgr. Wells and for his willingness to serve the Church wherever needed," the cardinal said then. "I am at a loss to express how saddened I am by the devastating news."
Just 10 days after the murder, Montgomery County Police arrested 25-year-old Robert Paul Lucas of Clarksburg. Subsequently, a jury convicted Lucas of second degree murder, robbery and burglary. He was sentenced to 42 years in jail. Earlier that morning, family and friends of Msgr. Wells will gather for an outdoor Mass at the historic cemetery at Sacred Heart Parish in Bowie, where the priest is buried.
While Msgr. Wells' death made international news, those who knew him say his life was more important than the manner in which he died.
"It's sad that attention came to him through his death," he brother lamented. "We would never have talked about his life if it weren't for his death."
That sentiment was echoed by Bishop William Curlin, a former auxiliary bishop of Washington who is now the retired bishop of Charlotte, N.C.
"Tom was not the kind to look for public acclaim. He just wanted to serve the Lord day by day. He would pour his heart out in loving service," Bishop Curlin said.
Bishop Curlin and Dan Wells both said the late priest would be remembered for his efforts to promote vocations to the priesthood.
"Tommy was instrumental in fostering many vocations, he brought in many vocations," Dan Wells noted.
Among the many vocations inspired by Msgr. Wells is his own nephew - Dan's son, David Wells. Deacon Wells is one of eight men who will be ordained by Archbishop Donald Wuerl on June 19 as new priests for the Archdiocese of Washington.
Bishop Curlin was serving as vocations director when Msgr. Wells entered the seminary. Because of the late priest's love of the priesthood, Bishop Curlin said, "I asked him to help me with (promoting) vocations. He loved to preach to young people about vocations."
"He was a kind-hearted, joyful priest, the kind that attracts vocations," the bishop said. "Vocations are fostered by seeing and observing happy, joyful priests, and Tom was that kind of a man."
Father Gregory Shaffer, chaplain of the George Washington University Newman Center, was one of the vocations inspired by Msgr. Wells.
"He was a man who right down the line showed humor, holiness, a love for truth and compassion," Father Shaffer said. "His love of the Eucharist made a big impact on me, and it is something that I continue to this day."
Although it has been 10 years since the priest's death, Father Shaffer said, "it is still so fresh. I think of him regularly and call on him often."
The chaplain said that when his own father died in 1988, "Msgr. Wells became a spiritual father to me. He turned my life around, and here I am today a very happy priest."
Father David Russell, a priest for nearly 30 years who currently serves as pastor of St. Anthony Parish in North Beach, also said his vocation came about because of Msgr. Wells. Father Russell, who preached the homily at the Vigil Mass on the night before Msgr. Wells' funeral, was a parishioner at Sacred Heart Parish when Msgr. Wells served there.
"He had suggested that I become and priest, and I told him I would think about it. He had been pushing all that summer, and finally in August - when I thought it was too late in the year to enter the seminary - I told him I would I enter, but I would wait a year," Father Russell recalled. "He got on the phone, made some calls, and two weeks later I was in the seminary."
Father Russell joked that Msgr. Wells "wouldn't take no for an answer. I wouldn't necessarily call it nagging, more like ceaselessly encouraging."
The pastor said he understood Msgr. Wells' zeal in promoting vocations.
"He had a great love for his priesthood, and when he saw men whom he felt would be good priests, he did his best to get them in," Father Russell said. "Also, I know he was very well loved by the parishioners."
Noting that the 10th year since Msgr. Wells' death coincides with the Year for Priests, Bishop Curlin called the late priest a good role model for his brother priests.
"He was a priestly priest. His whole life was involved in being a priest. His whole life was centered on the priesthood and centered on the Lord," Bishop Curlin said. "Tom centered his life on Jesus Christ and that is what all priests must do. Also, he loved people and proved that by the way he served faithfully and joyfully."
The bishop added that he sometimes thinks of the way Msgr. Wells was killed.
"I remember how horrified I was to hear of his death. It was like a martyrdom in a way," Bishop Curlin said. "I think of how many priests have died a violent death over the centuries. I've thought many times about how he died. It was certainly horrible, but he was certainly prepared to meet the Lord."
Dan Wells said that that his family - including Msgr. Wells' two sisters and their families - often think of Msgr. Wells.
"He kept everyone in the family together, and we miss him every day," Wells said.
He added that he has attempted several times to visit Lucas in jail, but Lucas has rebuffed each overture.
"We wanted to tell him that my family forgives him," Wells said. "We never gave it any thought not to forgive him."