BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) - Father Joseph Moreno, the longtime steward of St. Lawrence Roman Catholic Church on Buffalo's East Side, is dead.
Buffalo Police responded to a 911 call from St. Lawrence around 4:00 Saturday afternoon. Police spokesman Mike DeGeorge confirms, "[Father Joe's] body was found -- deceased -- inside of his residence here at the church."
When Father Joe didn't come to afternoon Mass, a deacon went to check on him. It was the deacon who discovered Father Joe dead in the rectory.
Sources tell News 4, he apparently took his own life.
His body was not moved, until Monsignor David LiPuma could bless and anoint him.
"Right now we're just storming heaven with prayer for the peaceful repose of his soul, and we're just asking the Lord to give great comfort to all those who are mourning his loss," Monsignor LiPuma, clergy secretary to Bishop Richard Malone, told reporters Saturday night.
Bishop Malone was in Portland Saturday, and unable to get a flight back to Buffalo, but he said in a statement: "Father Joe was dedicated to the priesthood, especially when it came to serving others... Those who knew Father Joe would tell you that he never said 'No' to anyone, that he took care of everyone, regardless of their lot in life.
As a former chaplain, Father Joe cared for Buffalo Police and firefighters. He was a spiritual leader and counselor to many of them. Many officers responding to the 911 call at the church Saturday could be seen walking around with tears in their eyes.
"Officers are stunned right now," DeGeorge said. "Father Joe did everything for everybody."
That was especially true at the St. Lawrence food pantry. Father Joe was known to never turn anyone away, no matter how close to bare the shelves were. He hosted free Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for anyone who needed a hot meal on the holidays. Needy people knew they could come to the rectory door for whatever they needed.
Father Joe took a truckful of food to Gowanda, when the village was ravaged by summer flooding in 2009. He personally led the charge to raise money for a woman who almost lost her Lovejoy home to back taxes in 2007.
"...Feeding them, fixing things, counseling people, intervening in crises... He always seemed to be on the front line," Monsignor LiPuma -- a friend of Moreno's since they were in the Seminary together -- recalled.
Father Joe was on the front lines with Precinct 19 in New York City, on 9/11. A close friend of Moreno's says the things he saw at Ground Zero never left him, and that he confided to her, he has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder ever since.
But that never affected his ability to care for his community.
Moreno revealed to parishioners at Mass last weekend that he was being removed from St. Lawrence, and transferred elsewhere. Some were so upset, they wrote letters to Bishop Malone, expressing their "anger, frustration and resentment."
In a way, they had lost Father Joe once already. His death was like losing him twice.
Distraught parishioners came in droves to the church Saturday, after seeing all the police cars. Word of Moreno's death quickly spread among them.
"He's done so much for everybody in this neighborhood, and the whole city, as a matter of fact.," James Barrett remembered. "Just the other day, he went up and blessed a buddy of mine that was dying at Roswell."
"Father Joe was a saint. He took care of the kids. We had our block club meetings down here. He just opened the Catholic school back up again. Whatever he needed to do, he would do. It wasn't no concern... nothing that he wouldn't do for anybody around here," another parishioner said.
"He was the best man in my life. He treated everybody with love, kindness and respect," said Megan Bisantz.
Her father, Peter Bisantz, added, "He exemplified what the Roman Catholic Church should have been, and should be. He exemplified everything good about it."
Monsignor LiPuma, too, held Father Joe up as an example to his fellow priests.
"I think Joe is a powerful reminder of what we really need to look at, when we're living our priestly lives. It's really about whatever we can do for, as the Gospel says, the least of our brothers and sisters. And certainly Joe did that. [He] inspires me and, I know, a lot of other people."
Mass will be celebrated at St. Lawrence at 10:00 Sunday morning.
Funeral arrangements for Father Joe have not yet been made. He was 53 years old.
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