Confronting City Violence

Flowers and candles are taped to a post on the corner of Flower City Park and Primose Street, just outside Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester. Keegan Whitley, 42, was shot and killed at that location on Aug. 28, 2021. (Courier photo by Jeff Witherow)

Courier story by Mike Latona
Courier videos by Jeff Witherow
Courier project design by Gina Capellazzi

Published Oct. 6, 2021

ROCHESTER — More than half a year later, Father Anthony Mugavero remains perplexed about the way Steven Amenhauser’s life ended.

“Right on our own streets, somebody did that to another human being? … Wow,” Father Mugavero said as he stood near the entrance to 500 Lyell Ave. on the city’s northwest side. That’s the spot where Amenhauser, 53, burst out of his apartment in flames this past March 12 after, according to Rochester police, two teenagers deliberately set the disabled man on fire. Four days later, Amenhauser died from the attack, which occurred just a few doors down from Holy Apostles Church, where Father Mugavero is pastor.

The apartment building at 500 Lyell Avenue

500 Lyell Ave., where police say Steven Amenhauser was set on fire by two teenagers. (Courier photo by Mike Latona)

Photo of Steven Amenhauser

Steven Amenhauser (submitted photo)

A similarly disturbing incident sticks in the mind of Rudy Rivera, who serves as CEO of the Father Laurence Tracy Advocacy Center adjacent to St. Michael Church on Rochester’s northeast side. Rivera ventured outside March 29, after being told that a shooting had just occurred on North Clinton Avenue, and discovered a man bleeding on the ground.

“I see this guy lay down next to him taking a selfie picture,” Rivera recalled, adding that among the many witnesses, not one had called for help. “And I said, ‘This place has been consumed by the devil.’”

The shooting victim, Markese Estimable, 33, died later that day.

 

Apartment at 24 Garden Street with photo of Genuine Ridgeway

Genuine Ridgeway was shot and killed in her parked car outside 24 Garden St. (Courier photo by Mike Latona; submitted photo) 

Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter also alluded to demonic forces at work in the death of Genuine Ridgeway, 31, who was gunned down June 18 in her parked car in the city’s Corn Hill/southwest section while her two small children sat in the back seat.

“That’s evil. That’s the devil hard at work,” Baxter said during a violence-awareness presentation July 26 at Holy Cross Church in Charlotte.

The Diocese of Rochester observes Respect Life Month this October in a period when respect for life is seemingly evaporating from city streets. Not only are Rochester homicides becoming increasingly brutal in nature, the killings here — and across the country — are occurring much more often.

“It’s absolutely a Respect Life issue,” Father Mugavero said, noting that Amenhauser’s death is one reason his parish has begun praying each Thursday for all pro-life concerns.

But what else can Catholics do to help reverse this disturbing trend?

A good start can be for folks to practice nonviolence in their own lives and work for peace elsewhere, Bishop Salvatore R. Matano suggested.

“How do we, ourselves, behave? How do we call ourselves accountable for seeing that peace is restored in our neighborhoods, that we show concern for the poor and help those so in need of assistance?” Bishop Matano asked during a Mass for Peace he celebrated at Sacred Heart Cathedral July 26 in response to the surge in local violence.

Lack of Compassion

According to statistics provided by the Rochester Police Department, the city’s 61st homicide death of 2021 occured Sept. 29. With three months still to go in 2021, Rochester has already well surpassed the tally of 52 homicides in 2020 and more than doubled the previous three-year average of 29.3.

About 70 percent of this year’s homicides have involved guns. Through Oct. 1 of this year, the city had 322 total shooting victims and was on pace to exceed 400 for 2021, which would exceed the 335 gun-violence victims in 2020 and more than double the average of 168 victims for the years 2017 to 2019.

And Rochester is not alone in its struggle with rising violence. According to Baxter, 80 percent of U.S. cities saw an increase in their murder rates in 2020. A Sept. 27 New York Times article noted that 2020 saw the largest single-year rise in murders nationwide since national record-keeping began in 1960; the total of 21,500 murders marked a leap of 4,901 over the previous year — a nearly 30-percent increase, the Times reported.

Number of Homicides in 2021

Number of Shootings in 2021

Source: Rochester Police Department Open Data Portal as of Oct. 1, 2021

Source: Rochester Police Department Open Data Portal as of Oct. 1, 2021

 Source: Rochester Police Department Open Data Portal.
Click on the to see a list of addresses, or click on any of the blue or yellow markers. Blue represents a location of a homicide, and yellow represents a location of a non-fatal shooting. (Courier photos by Mike Latona)

Observers interviewed for this story cited several factors as contributing to the spike: racial tensions; poverty; lack of education and employment; increased access to guns; drug trafficking and addiction; mental and emotional health issues; deterioration of the family structure; gang activity; and strained relations between the public and police.

Father Mugavero said the coronavirus pandemic also contributed, with increasing social isolation that began in March 2020 undermining people’s abilities to peacefully interact. He also noted an unwillingness in society to tolerate and respect differences, pointing, for example, to ongoing political arguments in which “people are cut down at the knees for just saying one thing that crosses a particular line.”

Father Mugavero also lamented a general decrease in church involvement, saying that “it seems like our society is becoming much more secular,” which in turn has weakened moral foundations and values. All these trends, he said, serve to diminish people’s impulse control for committing violent crimes. 

In this video, Father Anthony Mugavero, pastor of Holy Apostles Church, talks about the violence.

“There seems to be so much more anger and impatience, just in general,” added Father Robert Werth, parochial vicar of Rochester’s St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Parish, which comprises Annunciation, Our Lady of the Americas and St. Michael churches. “And, I would assume that that anger gets acted out violently in many instances.”

Fathers Werth and Mugavero serve in parts of Rochester where violent crime runs high. Yet Father Mugavero noted that the trend also encompasses the suburbs and rural areas: “This is not just a problem that ends at a city line,” he said.

In general, Father Werth said, he is encountering “a real breakdown in community, where people really care about each other and watch out for each other and help each other.”

“We have this lack of compassion for each other,” Rivera agreed.

Fathers Werth and Mugavero noted that urban Catholic parishes are invaluable in extending compassion while promoting faith, hope, peace, social justice and inclusion — vital messages, they said, in reducing violence. Holy Apostles, for example, celebrated a funeral service for Amenhauser 15 days after he died; the parish collaborated with other community organizations and individuals to provide the service, since Amenhauser had no known family.

Despite the often tragic circumstances they encounter, Fathers Werth and Mugavero have dedicated most of their lengthy priesthoods — which extend 42 and 40 years, respectively — to serving Rochester’s inner city. They said they minister to many good people who possess rich ethnic diversity, abundant energy, a desire for a better life and an often strong spirituality.

“In all truth, there’s no place I would rather be,” Father Mugavero said.

“It is where the church needs to be. It’s the social Gospel,” Father Werth remarked, adding, “My role is to always give people hope — that’s critical — and to learn how to have that hope in the middle of the struggle.”

Critical mass needed

A number of urban ministries with Catholic ties likewise strive to provide hope for city residents. The Father Laurence Tracy Advocacy Center, for instance, offers support for at-risk folks in its neighborhood, especially those affected by drug addiction. Having opened in 2018, it is named for the late Father Larry Tracy, who dedicated his priesthood to ministering in Rochester’s North Clinton Avenue area.

(Top left) Participants enter to take a tour of the new Father Laurence Tracy Advocacy Center during the ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2018. (Top right) Father Robert Werth leads a prayer during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. (Above) Rudy Rivera with the late Father Tracy at the opening of the center. (Courier photos by Jeff Witherow)

“The reason this center succeeds is we’re in (the residents’) midst. We’re a part of them,” Rivera said.

In the late 1990s, Deacon William Coffey began a ministry to conduct prayer vigils at the scene of each homicide in Monroe County. Deacon John Crego, an organizer of the vigils, said that this custom — which has been on hold during the pandemic — served to remind the community “that life is sacred and that peace and compassion for human beings must replace the violence and hatred.”

Fathers Werth and Mugavero encouraged more Catholics to support these and other city-related initiatives, whether through volunteering, donations or joining advocacy groups. Although “there is no quick solution to stopping the violence in our city,” Father Mugavero emphasized the need for Catholics to supplement antiviolence efforts of government and law enforcement.

Deacon Bill Coffey (left center) and his wife, MaryLu Coffey (right center), pray outside a homicide scene July 9, 1999. (Courier file photo)

In this video, Father Robert Werth, parochial vicar of Rochester’s St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Parish, speaks on Rochester city violence.

Rather than view folks in poor city neighborhoods as “the other,” Father Werth invited more Catholics to open their hearts and minds to the struggle of those residents. “You can do that no matter where you live,” he said.

Whether through hands-on involvement or from afar, Father Mugavero said all efforts for peace will help deter city violence.

“Eventually, it’ll come back here (to Holy Apostles),” he said. “If we want peace, we have to have a critical mass of people that are speaking about it, developing it, trying to do it in their jobs, in their schools, with their families. If you go on the internet and there was a critical mass of people that were spreading peace, that would have an impact.”

Meanwhile, Bishop Matano emphasized in his Mass for Peace homily that all peace initiatives must have God as their guide.

“If we want the violence plaguing our streets to end, the voice of God must be heard, loud and clear, not only in churches, but in our streets, in our families, in our schools, and even in our legislatures,” the bishop said.

Bishop Salvatore R. Matano’s homily from the Mass for Peace July 28, 2021.

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