CICERO, Illinois – The middle-class Chicago suburbs that send their sons and daughters to Northern Illinois University struggled Sunday with the closeness of the country's latest massacre — this time the gunman grew up among them.
Thousands mourned in church services across the region, including some in DeKalb, Illinois, the university town where residents have taken to wearing the red and black of the NIU Huskies since five people were murdered in the middle of a science lecture Thursday.
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Parishioners at Our Lady of the Mount Catholic Church in blue-collar Cicero, on Chicago's southern fringe, prepared for the funeral of shooting victim Catalina Garcia, the youngest of four children of parents originally from Guadalajara, Mexico. They are longtime parishioners at Our Lady of the Mount, a tight-knit group of low and middle-income families, many of them young, with some older Czech and other immigrants.
"Their parents are making all sorts of sacrifices to make sure the kids get into colleges. They're selling things, they're taking out second mortgages on their homes," the Rev. Lawrence Collins said at the church.
Garcia, 20, followed a brother, Jaime, to NIU, choice of many working-class Chicago-area families. She was studying to be a teacher, and had talked about returning to Cicero to teach first grade.
"It hits really close to home," Collins said.
The Garcias were the "typical Mexican-American family," working low-wage jobs to help put their children through school, Jaime Garcia said Sunday on the porch of the family's two-story red brick home.
"My parents came here to better their lives," he said. They worried more about their children getting caught in gang crossfire at home than away at college "in the cornfields" of DeKalb.
"It's like the all-American dream cut short," he said.
Investigators still have not determined what set off 27-year-old shooter Steven Kazmierczak, who killed five students and injured more than a dozen other people with a shotgun and pistols before taking his own life.
Kazmierczak grew up to the west, in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, and played saxophone in the school band. He spent time in a mental health facility in his late teens, and police have said without elaboration that he had stopped taking some kind of medication in the days or weeks before the shooting.
His family has left, but the shooting still echoed in Elk Grove Village, near O'Hare International Airport. Resident Pat Egan, a heating and cooling repair man whose son goes to NIU, described the suburb as "Mayberry," a reference to a folksy community once portrayed in a television show.
People there seemed to feel a sense of disbelief and confusion over the attack that thrust their community into the news, said the Rev. Hwa Young Chong at the Prince of Peace United Methodist Church.
"I couldn't believe coming from a place like Elk Grove he could do that," said Judy Glomski, who has lived in Elk Grove Village for 39 years. "It's just a friendly town. I guess there are sick people everywhere."
Kazmierczak attended NIU, studying sociology. Three semesters back, he transferred across state to the more prestigious University of Illinois in Champaign. Most students and professors on both campuses remembered him as a promising student.
Yet he had begun assembling an arsenal in August, buying a shotgun and three menacing handguns from a small Champaign gun shop. He added oversized ammunition clips in an Internet purchase from the same dealer that sold the Virginia Tech gunman a weapon.
Kazmierczak had also begun the long process of having his arms blanketed with disturbing tattoos, including a skull pierced by a knife, a pentagram and the macabre clown from the "Saw" horror movies, superimposed on images of bleeding slashes across his forearm.
Some NIU parents took the shootings as a call to action, speaking out for stricter gun control in hopes the tragedy would propel the issue into the presidential campaign. Connie Catellani, a Skokie, Illinois, physician whose 22-year-old son is an NIU senior, helped organize a weekend news conference with other NIU parents.
"It's sickening. What are we supposed to do, surround college campuses with barbed wire and metal detectors?" Catellani said Sunday.
"If somebody had walked into that classroom with a hand grenade, there would be outrage, yet when someone walked in with a handgun that's capable of firing off 30 or 50 rounds in a minute, there's not the same sense of urgency," she said.
Her son, Tony Skelton, was in art class when the shootings occurred. Catellani heard about the shootings from a friend, but was unable to reach her son for more than an hour.
"It felt eternal," she said. "And at the end of it, I was overjoyed to hear from him and all I could think was a lot of parents are not going to get this kind of phone call."
At least six people remained hospitalized Sunday, with three in serious condition. The other three were in fair condition. A seventh patient, whose condition was upgraded from serious to fair condition Saturday, was transferred from a local hospital. No further infomation was available.
In addition to Garcia, the dead were Daniel Parmenter, age 20, Ryanne Mace, 19, Julianna Gehant, 32, and Gayle Dubowski, 20. All were from Illinois.
Parmenter was over 6-feet tall and played rugby and football. He also was quiet, studious and introspective, recalled Joe Morgan, who served as his confirmation mentor at Christ Church in Oak Brook, Illinois, for nine months when Parmenter was a high school freshman.
"He was a big kid who was gentle," Morgan said.
The shooting recalled another senseless modern tragedy that struck the congregation, who arrived for services in the soaring, modern sanctuary Sunday under steady rain and a driving wind. One of the church's pastors, Jeff Mladenik, was a passenger on one of the planes flown into the World Trade Center by terrorists on Sept. 11, said the Rev. Daniel Meyer, senior pastor.
"You're not meant to offer platitudes, you simply offer love," Meyer said.
At First Baptist Church in DeKalb, members passed pinned-on red ribbons for a morning service.
The Rev. Joe Sanders prayed for the NIU community and the victims' families and asked God to help Kazmierczak's family cope with the attack and their own grief of losing a son: "We want God to be merciful and gracious to them."