Texas church reopens as solemn memorial to shooting victims

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas, Nov 12 (Reuters) - The modest Texas church where a gunman massacred more than two dozen worshipers last week reopened as a memorial on Sunday, giving the public its first glimpse of the site where one of the most shocking mass shootings in U.S. history unfolded.

Signs of the rampage that officials said took 26 lives and wounded 20 others were muted at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs after a weeklong effort to transform its devastated sanctuary into a shrine honoring the deceased.

All the pews, carpets and church equipment had been removed, and the floors were still sticky from fresh coats of paint. The windows were painted over in swirling watercolors.

Tributes to the Texas shooting victims:

12 PHOTOS
Tributes to the victims of the Texas church shooting
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Tributes to the victims of the Texas church shooting
Mourners attend a candle light vigil after a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Sergio Flores
Texas Governor Greg Abbott attends a candle light vigil after a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Mitchell
Brayleigh and her brother Branson attend a candle light vigil after a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Sergio Flores
Community leader Mike Gonzales attends a candle light vigil after a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Sergio Flores
Ramiro and Sofia Martinez attend a candle light vigil after a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Sergio Flores
Sofia Martinez, 9, attends a candle light vigil after a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Sergio Flores
A woman attends a candle light vigil after a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Mitchell
Local residents take part in a candle light vigil for victims of a mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, US., November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Khursheed
A woman and her children take part in a vigil for victims of a mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, US., November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Khursheed TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Michaun Johnson attends a candle light vigil after a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Sergio Flores
Jordan Moy holds his 5 year old daughter Bryleigh Moy as he is interviewed across the street from a mass shooting site of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Sergio Flores
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White, wooden folding chairs were placed in no regular pattern throughout the church, with each marking the precise spot where a victim's body was found. A single rose, decorated with white ribbon, graced every seat, with the victim's name written in gold cursive script on its back along with a cross painted in red.

As members of the media were escorted four at a time through the chapel, a recorded voice could be heard reading verses of scripture. Outside, as a steady rain fell, about 100 family members and others waited to pay their respects.

Construction crews worked around the clock for 72 hours to make the church “presentable to those families,” Associate Pastor Mark Collins said.

Earlier, Pastor Frank Pomeroy led a gathering of about 500 in Sunday services held in a tent erected in a muddy athletic field, a short walk from the church.

"We have the freedom to take that building that was attacked, transform it through the love of God and into a memorial to remind everyone so that we will never forget - love never fails," the pastor said.

Pomeroy was out of town at the time of the attack, but his 14-year-old daughter was among those killed by Devin Kelley, a former U.S. Air Force officer thrown out of the service after his conviction in 2012 for assaulting his wife and stepson. After the massacre, Kelley killed himself.

Victims of the Texas church shooting:

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Some of the victims of the Texas church shooting
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Some of the victims of the Texas church shooting
Haley Krueger was described as a beautiful and vibrant girl who had dreams of becoming a NICU nurse, according to a GoFundMe set up in her memory. She was 16. 

(Photo via GoFundMe)
Annabelle Pomeroy was the daughter of the pastor of the First Baptist Church. Both of her parents were out of town at the time of shooting. She was 14 years old. 

(Photo via Facebook)

Eight members of the same family were killed in the shooting, including Crystal Holcombe, who was pregnant. Three of her kids and her unborn child were also killed.

(Social media/Handout via REUTERS)

Megan Hill, 9

(Social media/Handout via REUTERS)

Gregory Hill, 13

(Social media/Handout via REUTERS)

Emily Hill, 11

(Social media/Handout via REUTERS)

Dennis Johnson Sr. and his wife Sara had celebrated their 44th wedding anniversary in July and were members of the church for more than a decade, according to a fundraising page created in their memory.

(Photo via GoFundMe)

Bryan Holcombe and his wife Karla Plain Holcombe, were both victims of the mass shooting. Bryan was an associate pastor at the church and was reported'y preparing to lead the congregation in mass when the shooting began.

(Social media/Handout via REUTERS)

Tara Elyse McNulty was remembered as a 'sweet, kind and loving woman, mother and daughter' on a GoFundMe page created in her memory. Her kids were reportedly injured in the shooting, but survived. 

(Photo via GoFundMe)

Lula Woicinski White was the gunman's grandmother-in-law. Her sister told the New York Daily News that 'she loved the people in her church. They were all her best friends.' She was 71.

(Photo via Facebook)

Joann Ward reportedly died while trying to use herself as a shield to protect her four young children.

(Social media/Handout via REUTERS)

Brooke was killed along with her mother, Joann Ward, and her older sister. She was 5 years old.

(Photo via GoFundMe)

Emily Garza, 7

(Social media/Handout via REUTERS)

Shani Corrigan and her husband Robert Corrigan

(Social media/Handout via REUTERS)

Richard Rodriguez attended church every Sunday, according to his daughter. He was 51 years old.

(Social media/Handout via REUTERS)

Therese Sagan Rodriguez was killed along with her husband, Richard. She was 66. 
Robert and Karen Marshall were new to Texas and trying out churches when they were killed in Sutherland Springs… https://t.co/vDn9EeYHJA
Peggy Lynn Warden https://t.co/qkj3Vqg0SO #KSATnews https://t.co/XRLt20hg8M
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"The media is amazed that we are not angry, that we are not calling for this or that," Pomeroy told congregants with an air of defiance mixed with visible grief. "Folks, we have the freedom to choose, and rather than choose darkness, as one young man did that day, I say we choose light."

The congregation gave thunderous applause. Some waved Bibles in the air. Near the back stood a dozen bikers from a nearby chapter of Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders.

The members of the church will make a decision “in the far future” about whether to demolish the structure, Collins said. Some families have said they never want to step foot in the building again, he said.

In the meantime, it will serve as a memorial open to the public on Monday through Friday. Regular Sunday services will resume in a temporary structure set up somewhere on church property. (Reporting by Lisa Maria Garza; Writing by Jonathan Allen and Frank McGurty; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Peter Cooney)

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