Synagogue shooting victim and wife were faithful pilgrims, volunteers

Saturday, November 03, 2018 - Updated: 11:59 pm



Peg Durachko was in church last Sunday morning. That was not unusual, except that the previous night she received news she had dreaded for hours — her husband, Richard Gottfried, was among 11 victims killed in the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

Relying on her strong Catholic faith, family and friends, Peg steadied herself and went to Mass. St. Athanasius parishioners embraced her, asking what they could do. She didn’t hesitate.

“Tell everyone that evil took Rich’s life, and that we all need to repent and turn away from evil and hatred,” she said.

Less than 24 hours earlier, a gunman shouting anti-Semitic slurs had burst into the Tree of Life synagogue, home to three Jewish congregations, killing worshippers, including Dr. Gottfried, 65, a West View dentist and member of New Light Congregation. Six other people, including four police officers, were wounded.

Authorities called it the deadliest attack on Jewish people in U.S. history. The suspect, Robert Bowers of Baldwin, had no criminal record but his social media posts revealed a violent hatred of Jews. Bowers faces 29 federal counts, including hate crimes and weapons offenses. Police say he used an AR-15-style assault rifle and three handguns in the rampage.

Thousands of mourners have gathered for prayer vigils, including an overflow crowd Sunday at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. Federal, state and local lawmakers joined with religious and civic leaders in condemning the violence, as did the State of Israel.

“Anti-Semitism, Jew hating, is not a distant memory … it is a very real threat,” said Naftali Bennett, an Israeli cabinet official. “We will not stay silent, we will overcome. Unity will defeat division. Love will defeat hatred.”

Clergy invited up to the stage at the service represented the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths. Among them was Father Terry O’Connor, whose mother practices the Jewish faith.

Like Father O’Connor’s parents, Peg and Rich were a mixed-faith couple. Returning to the Catholic and Jewish religions they had grown up in, they supported one another spiritually. She helped him get ready for his Saturday morning meetings at the synagogue, and he often visited St. Athanasius Parish for special celebrations. Together they prepared couples at the parish for marriage.

Married in 1980 and later starting a dentistry practice together, they volunteered at Catholic Charities Free Health Care Center in Pittsburgh, providing dental care for those who could not afford it.

In 2017, they went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with Bishop David Zubik and Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom congregation. They had their marriage blessed at Cana and Rich supported Peg as she renewed her baptismal promises in the Jordan River.

Last Saturday morning, Peg was attending the Catholic Women’s Fellowship Conference when Bishop Zubik announced that there was an active shooter at the Tree of Life synagogue and asked for silent prayer. She knew immediately that her husband was in danger, and Bishop Zubik spent time with her privately in prayer before he left the conference.

Soon afterward he issued a public statement on the tragedy.

“As we pray for peace in our communities and comfort for the grieving, we must put prayer into action by loving our neighbors and to make ‘Never again!’ a reality,” Bishop Zubik said.

After Mass on Sunday, Peg lingered for a few moments. “My faith will help me get through this,” she said.

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