Legacy of wit and wisdom

Funeral: About 2,000 mourners pay their respects to slain Monsignor Thomas W. Wells, remembering him as a dedicated, concerned cleric.

June 14, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

BOWIE - In a final outpouring of sadness, laughter and prayer, Monsignor Thomas W. Wells' parishioners, family and fellow priests bade farewell yesterday to the popular Germantown pastor, who was stabbed to death in his rectory last week.

Nearly 2,000 mourners crowded into Sacred Heart Church under misty gray skies for the 56-year-old priest's funeral Mass, celebrated by Cardinal James A. Hickey, archbishop of Washington. Three other bishops and about 200 priests, nuns and other Roman Catholic leaders also attended, along with local and state elected officials.

"Truly, we gather in sadness," said Cardinal Hickey, who recalled "Father Tom" as a caring, dedicated cleric. "But above all, we gather in faith, hope and love."

Monsignor Wells, who had been pastor of Mother Seton Church in Germantown for 17 months, was found dead in his second-floor bedroom early Thursday after he failed to appear for morning Mass. His death stunned the Catholic community in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, where he had served five parishes during the past 29 years. Montgomery police are searching for clues to his killer.

Friends and family members who spoke at the funeral focused on his legacy of wit and wisdom, rather than on the circumstances of his death.

"Tom, you always said the goal of life is heaven," said the Rev. James M. Stack, whose voice quavered at times as he recalled golfing, traveling and worshipping with his close friend and mentor.

Monsignor Wells loved to joke, but he took the church seriously, Father Stack said, adding, "This is where we will continue to meet our friend."

Monsignor Wells was last seen Wednesday night entering the rectory after returning from a wake for the father of Father Stack, who died last week.

Dan Wells, the slain priest's brother, said he had a "larger-than-life personality" that inspired others. "He seemed to be everywhere," his brother said, spending 14- and 16-hour days counseling troubled teen-agers, visiting the sick, helping fellow priests and marrying couples. Monsignor Wells was scheduled to perform three weddings in coming weeks at Sacred Heart, his first parish, though he had not served there for 25 years.

Kevin Wells, one of the monsignor's 21 nephews and nieces, said the killing has robbed the large family of its "ringleader," who officiated at family weddings and said Mass during holidays and vacations.

"Now, in the aftermath of his senseless death, we're put to the ultimate test of forgiveness," Kevin Wells said. He expressed the hope that his uncle's example would inspire others to enter the priesthood.

After the service, mourners streamed through woods to the cemetery where Monsignor Wells was buried beside the 18th-century Chapel on the Hill. A bagpiper played "Amazing Grace" to conclude the funeral, then mourners pressed forward to lay flowers on the casket.

Many in attendance told how the departed priest had touched their lives.

Air Force Col. George Coyle of Crofton said he plans to help at a summer religious retreat in Southern Maryland, where he had spent time with the priest.

Colonel Coyle's daughter, 12-year-old Claire, recalled how Monsignor Wells taught children hymns at the gathering, leavened by a spirited singing of the theme song for the McDonald's restaurant chain.

The funeral had special poignancy for the Rev. Brian Kane, 26, whose ordination Monsignor Wells attended in Lincoln, Neb., two weeks ago.

The Silver Spring native said Monsignor Wells had taught him in school and encouraged him to enter the seminary years ago.

"It's a very sad but an inspiring way for me to begin my priesthood," Father Kane said.

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