The people of Humboldt County are grieving the loss of Father Eric Freed, a “wonderful” pastor, who was murdered early on New Years’ Day.

“Amid sadness, anger, and disbelief, we would like to give thanks to God for tremendously blessing the parishioners of St. Bernard Church with Father Eric Freed,” Laura Martinez, a parishioner of the Eureka parish, wrote on St. Bernard’s website. “Though his life on Earth was unfairly taken away, we remember that the greatest gift of all cannot be taken, which is eternal life with God.

“May the Lord rest his soul. This tragedy reminds us how fragile life is, and how we really do not know how much time we have left on Earth. In honor of Father Eric, may we make a greater effort to live each day as if it were our last; to do our duty well, whatever it may be; and to love God and others to the fullest.”

St. Bernard parishioners became concerned when Father Freed failed to show up for 9 a.m. Mass on Jan. 1, and his corpse was found in his rectory by the parish's deacon who reportedly told parishioners that “something is terribly wrong with Father Freed.” The congregation then stayed to pray a rosary until police and medical personnel arrived.

Father Freed had been St. Bernard’s pastor since 2011. Eureka is on the Pacific Coast, nearly 200 miles north of Santa Rosa and part of the Santa Rosa Diocese.

According to the Eureka Police Department, Father Freed was observed to be dead by a doctor who is a parishioner at St. Bernard once police arrived at the scene. On Jan. 7, authorities said the priest was clubbed to death with a wooden stake and metal gutter pipe.

Eureka police chief Andrew Mills said Gary Lee Bullock had been arrested for Father Freed’s murder. Hours before the attack, Bullock been held in the county jail and then hospital due to public intoxication and “erratic” actions, but was released shortly after midnight on Jan. 1, the police department stated.

Bullock was later seen near the church grounds in early hours of Jan. 1, reportedly “acting oddly,” but was referred to a nearby shelter. After Father Freed’s body was discovered, an arrest warrant for Bullock was issued by authorities, and he was arrested that day. A surveillance video camera also placed Bullock at the crime scene.

Bullock pleaded not guilty and was jailed, with bail was set at $1.2 million.

In addition to serving as pastor at St. Bernard, Father Freed was director of the Newman Center at Humboldt State University, located in nearby Arcata. There he gave weekly lectures, taught Christianity, Japanese calligraphy and catechism, and celebrated Mass.

A funeral Mass was celebrated Jan. 6 with a memorial service set Jan. 7. According to the university's Newman Center Facebook page, the college students will hold a memorial once students return to campus from Christmas break.

Father Freed was active in the local Japanese community, having lived abroad there for over 20 years, and had helped a poet and Hiroshima survivor translate her works on the bombing of her home.

As well as living in Japan, Father Freed had also lived in Italy for a time.

Colleague and chairman of Humboldt State University's religious studies department Stephen Cunha described Father Freed as “a really, genuinely warm individual," in a Jan. 2 interview with CNN. “Kind is the word that comes to mind, sensitive. He connected with everybody."

Eureka mayor Frank Jager described Father Freed at a Jan. 1 press conference as a friend and a “tremendous person in this community.”

Jager described Father Freed as “involved with the Japanese community, multi-lingual,” and called his death “an absolutely tremendous loss, not only for St. Bernard’s parish, but for our community in general.”

"Every once in a while, you meet one of those people who is truly wonderful — someone you’d like to clone and fill the world with. He was one of those people."

“(For) those of us who believe in prayer, this is the time for that.”

---Catholic News Agency