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Students, fellow Catholics in Iowa pray for slain Spanish teacher

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FAIRFIELD, Iowa — When parishioner Nohema Graber, a Spanish teacher at Fairfield High School, went missing Nov. 3, "we were just beside ourselves," said Father Nick Adam, pastor of St. Mary Parish.

"I remember talking to the NCYC (National Catholic Youth Conference) group about how Mary and Joseph must have felt when Jesus was lost for a time," he said.

After her body was found later that day in Fairfield's Chautauqua Park, the pastor and other parishioners felt "stunned, shocked and hurt," he said. "And when we found out that two of her former students, two 16-year-olds had been charged, it just added to the tragedy."

The defendants, Jeremy Everett Goodale and Willard Noble Chaiden Miller, are charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit forcible felony. Both youths are being held on $1 million cash bond each in a juvenile detention facility in Iowa. A judge has denied their request for their bonds to be reduced, Jefferson County Assistant County Attorney Patrick J. McAvan said Dec. 3.

The Fairfield community has responded with an outpouring of love and prayer for Graber, 66, a devout Catholic and a native of Mexico.

Fairfield High School hosted a prayer vigil Nov. 9, at which the Rev. John Kermott, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Fairfield, made remarks ahead of the service as a representative of the Fairfield Area Ministerial Association.

He spoke to those present — and those participating via a livestream — about the need for hope in a time of darkness. Father Adam then led the attendees in a vigil for the deceased. More than 800 were present.

Father Adam said Graber was like a go-between for the parish's Anglos and Hispanics. "She lived for the Eucharist and would come as often as possible for daily Mass and attended Saturday night Mass at 5:30 and would then return for our Sunday Mass as well."

She also prayed the rosary weekly with a group of fellow Hispanics.

Two of Graber's children posted messages of forgiveness on Facebook toward the youths accused of taking their mother's life.

"I forgive them and feel sorry that they had that anger in their hearts. There's no point in being angry at them. We should hope that they can find peace in their lives. My mother was an angel of a woman and was one of the kindest souls," Christian Graber posted.

Daughter Nohema Graber posted: "We've lost an absolute angel in our family. ... To the two teenagers that so cruelly took her life, it is clear that they need more love and light in their hearts. But I agree with my oldest brother Christian, all we can do is forgive.

"I am filled with so much gratitude to have had such a strong and beautiful woman as my mother. And from the outpouring of messages, it's incredibly touching to know that her presence impacted so many."

Julia Fritz, a former student of Graber led a nine-day rosary "for the repose of her soul and the peace of her family."

In a Facebook post promoting the novena, Fritz noted Graber's devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe as the inspiration for praying the rosary. "I know Mrs. Graber loved the Queen of Heaven, and so to ask her to pray for Nohema only seems right."

Graber's death has made headlines worldwide. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered all flags in Iowa lowered to half-staff Nov. 9 in remembrance of Graber.

Reynolds said in an official statement, "My heart goes out to the family, friends, colleagues and students who are dealing with this tragic murder of Nohema Graber. Mrs. Graber touched countless children's lives through her work as an educator across our state by sharing her passion of foreign language."

"I am confident through the work of our dedicated law enforcement that justice will prevail," she said.

Born in Mexico Nov. 10, 1954, Nohema Castillo Castillo spent her young adult years working as a flight attendant for Mexicana de Aviacion, according to her obituary. She studied to be a commercial airline pilot and was one of the first women in Mexico trained to fly passenger jets.

She married Paul Graber in 1986, and together they had three children. They moved to Fairfield, Iowa, in 1992.

In her 50s, Nohema Graber earned a teaching certificate from Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant and began teaching high school Spanish, first in Ottumwa, Iowa, and later in Fairfield.

"It's safe to say heaven gained an angel," Ana de la Torre, a member of St. Mary of the Visitation Parish in Ottumwa and an Ottumwa High School graduate wrote on Facebook. "You were someone very important in my life, always with a smile encouraging me to move forward and to fight! ... Rest in peace my beautiful lady."

De la Torre told The Catholic Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, that she met Graber during high school Spanish classes. Graber did not live in Ottumwa but attended Mass at St. Mary of the Visitation on special occasions.

"We kept in touch all the time ... our relationship was very special," De la Torre said.

In her Facebook post, St. Mary-Fairfield parishioner Diane Tone called her friend "a bright light gone way too soon" and "one of the sweetest people I have known." Tone had collaborated with Graber on several occasions and attended diocesan and pro-life events with her.

"You will be missed by so many, especially by the community at St. Mary's," Tone said in her post. "We supported and encouraged each other so many times. Usually, it's what helped me to persevere."

Tone told The Catholic Messenger that Graber was beloved by her parish family and served as a confirmation sponsor for many. One of the most powerful moments Tone has experienced during this "horrific time" was when law enforcement authorities announced Graber's death.

"We had eucharistic adoration at the church that day. (Her daughter) Nohema and (husband) Paul came during the 5 p.m. hour," Tone recalled. "That day, many of Nohema's friends and family came to pray for her during that 5 p.m. hour. We prayed a rosary for her, half in English and half in Spanish. It was a beautiful moment."

Steele is a staff writer and Arland-Fye is the editor at The Catholic Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Davenport.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021