When Tess Himes, a parishioner at St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church in Newry, learned Saturday her pastor, Monsignor Anthony B. Little, had been placed on inactive status because of child abuse allegations, she cried "so hard."
For years, she didn't attend church, but, Himes said, it was Monsignor Little who "brought me back," and now she attends church every day.
Himes spoke about the repercussions of Bishop Mark L. Bartchak's decision this weekend to suspend Little from the active priesthood on Sunday as she was tucking a granddaughter into a car seat outside St. Patrick's.
She, her mother, Miriam, and more than 150 others had just attended an impromptu rosary service in an effort to show support for the banned priest and to ask for God's guidance.
St. Patrick parishioners were joined by parishioners from other parishes in the Altoona area, and they spent mlore than an hour reciting the rosary.
Tess Himes defended Little, stating, "I don't believe he did it."
And, she attended the rosary because "he needs to know we love him and we are behind him."
"We don't know where he is. We can't tell him he's loved so much," she said.
Her mother, Miriam, shed tears just talking about what has happened, saying "it has torn all of our hearts out."
Miriam Himes made the point that she has 30 grandchildren and will soon have a 26th great-grandchild and she said, "We do pray for all those children who are molested."
But she can't believe Little is a priest who would commit such an act.
She told the story of when he first came to St. Patrick and Little was invited to a banquet. He told her then he was not interested in making money but in saving souls.
She referred to her daughter as a person who was saved by Little.
"I know he'll be strong enough to overcome this," Miriam Himes said.
Some who came to the prayer service were young, like Anna Dunning, a 17-year-old Bishop Guilfoyle senior who said the rosary was a prayer to try to guide the parishioners in view of what has happened.
"I think he is a wonderful, a good man, humble and helping," Dunning said.
The crowd filled the relatively small church in Blair County's smallest borough. Dunning said she was there to send out a prayer for Little and "to let him know we appreciate him."
There were senior citizens there like Charlotte Grieco, a St. Patrick parishioner. She would not comment on the allegations, but she said Sunday's rosary for her was "a prayer to help people to be forgiven for their sins."
She reflected that St. Patrick has had so many things happen. Little's predecessor was also accused for child sexual abuse.
"I'm not giving up my religion for anything," she said.
The prayer service included Kathleen Sweeney, a faithful supporter of Little's.
Mrs. Sweeney and her husband, Dr. Gregory C. Sweeney, just two years ago lost their 11-year-old daughter, Regina, at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh.
The youngster was a pupil at St. Patrick Elementary School, and Little prayed at Regina's bedside as she was dying. She called Little "a true man of God ... He quietly helps people."
Sweeney said she spoke to someone who had talked to the Monsignor about the allegations and she said he asked that people pray for him and for his accuser.
"But as we enter Holy week as Christ was falsely accused, so also has Msgr. Little. It is time that maybe we don't assume guilt right away," Sweeney stated.
Bartchak in his Friday night announcement of Little's suspension called the accusations against the 58-year-old priest and native of Altoona "very painful."
He stated he would continue to take whatever action was necessary "to protect all of God's children in our church."
But he also asked "that you remember the good people of St. Patrick Parish as they learn about this sad news. May God grant them comfort."