A Washington, D.C-area Catholic priest was placed on leave Tuesday after exploding at mourners waiting in the sanctuary for a funeral, reportedly telling them to “get the hell out of my church.” Video shows the argument going on feet away from an open casket holding the deceased woman.
The disturbing scene last Wednesday played out on social media after mourners videotaped the Rev. Michael Briese, who is in his 60s, angrily speaking with people at St. Mary’s Church in Charlotte Hall, Maryland. In a June 28 letter to the local newspaper the Maryland Independent, Briese talked about how his anger “spilled out in a torrent” after seeing a goblet used in the Mass to symbolize Jesus’ blood damaged by a funeral guest.
After the blowup between Briese and mourners standing beside the open casket of Agnes Hicks, dozens of people reportedly streamed out of the sanctuary with the casket into a parking lot, where police cars called by Briese were arriving, according to a video report by Fox5-WTTG-DC.
The details of exactly what happened during the altercation weren’t immediately clear, but church officials and Briese said in statements that nothing justified his reaction and apologized.
“What occurred at Saint Mary’s Parish this morning does not reflect the Catholic Church’s fundamental calling to respect and uplift the God-given dignity of every person,” wrote the Rev. Michael W. Fisher, who was recently installed as auxiliary bishop for Ministerial Leadership of the archdiocese, which covers Washington, D.C., and the nearby Maryland suburbs and exurbs.
“I want to reach out to you first to offer my prayers for your loved one that God will grant her a place in his kingdom of eternal light and love, and condolences to your family. On days such as today, our response should always be one of compassion and sympathy for the bereaved as well as prayers for the deceased. I reiterate and reinforce the sincere apology you and your family received” earlier.
Briese was placed on administrative leave while the archdiocese investigates what it called in Fisher’s June 27th note a “serious misunderstanding.”
Someone called 911, and reported property was being destroyed and a possible fight was unfolding, said Charles County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Diane Richardson. When officers arrived, there were 200 to 250 people outside in and around the parking lot. Some “were visibly upset … obviously something happened but it wasn’t clear what it was.”
Richardson said police escorted the group and the casket to the county line. There was no evidence of property damage, except the chalice, which she said appeared to have been knocked over accidentally.
Hicks’ children spoke angrily of their treatment at the parish where she was baptized and always wished to be buried.
Shanice Chisley, Hicks’ daughter, told Fox5 that “all hell broke loose” when the goblet, called a chalice, was knocked over.
“He literally got on the mic and said: ‘There will be no funeral, no Mass, no repast [funeral reception], everyone get the hell out of my church.’ He was disrespectful,” Chisley said of Briese. “He disrespected our family, he disrespected my mother.”
Renetta Baker, also interviewed by Fox5 and identified as a daughter of Hicks, said Briese was unholy.
“You’re not a preacher. You’re not a pastor, you’re not a father of the Lord. You’re none of that. You’re the devil.”
According to Fisher’s letter, another priest of the archdiocese, the Rev. Scott Woods, completed the service at a nearby funeral home.
Many of the funeral attendees were black, and a pallbearer reportedly said Briese – who is white – unprompted denied he was motivated by racism. Hicks was African American.
“After everyone cleared out, it was just the pallbearers, he tried to explain it that he wasn’t a racist,” Theo Johnson, a pallbearer and cousin of Hicks, told The Enterprise, a newspaper covering the rural area southeast of Washington, D.C. “He said he put plaques on graves out there [in the cemetery], black and white people, he said he feeds the homeless. Nobody said anything about race. We were just saying he was being disrespectful, that this could have been handled after the funeral, and he said, ‘Forget it, just get that thing – [indicating the casket] – out of here.’ “
Briese declined to comment Tuesday, but wrote to the local newspaper that he feared the minutes in the church would erase a lifetime of public service.
“Some might dismiss these words, given the tenor of the words I uttered before the funeral that was to take place on Wednesday. That is a just part of the consequence I will bear for my behavior. Like all human beings, I, too, am broken in nature, make mistakes and, yes, I fail,” he wrote. “My recent actions and words were not borne of kindness, but a failure of my vow to serve the Lord and those entrusted to my care as a person and as priest. I am profoundly sorry for my words and actions. I pray for all in this community every day, and I can only ask that you pray for me, but also for other priests and ministers, and all who seek to serve those who suffer and struggle as we strive to build up the kingdom of God.”
Archdiocese spokeswoman Chieko Noguchi said Briese had been working with the family in the days leading up to the funeral to defray the burial costs.
A 2009 profile of Briese from The Catholic Standard said he grew up around Silver Spring, Maryland, and before becoming a priest had taken into his home local homeless people who he also fed, and had worked trying to help elderly and disabled people find housing.
“We grew up respecting other people. That’s a big lesson, to make room for everybody,” he said in the profile. “It’s in me to reach out to those in need, I’ve been doing that all my life.”
Michelle Boorstein/The Washington Post