Father Jacques Hamel, the Catholic priest killed during an ISIS-linked siege on a church in Normandy, is being remembered as a kind, dedicated priest who always made himself available to his parishioners, despite being retired for nearly ten years.
The priest, 84, was killed after two extremists slit his throat during morning mass Tuesday. The so-called Islamic State group (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement saying two of its “soldiers” had “executed the operation in response to calls to target countries belonging to the crusader coalition.”
Attackers took five people, including two nuns and two worshippers, hostage during what was described as a “vile terrorist attack” by French President Francois Hollande. Hamel was the only person killed; although another hostage suffered serious injuries.
“They forced him to his knees. He wanted to defend himself,” a nun identified as Sister Danielle told the Associated Press. “He was a great priest.”
Father Hamel was ordained as a priest in 1958 and celebrated 50 years of service in 2008, according to the church’s website. He regularly officiated at the church in St Étienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen, despite retiring at age 75.
WATCH: Attackers kill priest in siege on Normandy church
“He was a courageous priest for his age. Priests can retire at the age of 75 but he preferred to continue to work and serve his people since he still felt strong,” another priest at the church told French publication Le Figaro.
“He was a simple man, who avoided extravagances in life and lived in the simplest way possible. We really learned from his experience and wisdom at the Parish of St. Etienne. He was a wonderful priest who was always there to serve people throughout his life.”
Father Aime Remi Mputu Amba, pastor of Sotteville-lès-Rouen, told Le Figaro Hamel often joked about his lifelong investment to the church saying, “Have you ever seen a retired pastor? I will work until my last breath.”
On Twitter, parishioners expressed outrage and shock over Hamel’s death.
“The priest died, he baptized me, taught me the Catechism… I am outraged, shocked, sad…”
“Shocked, disappointed, priest who baptized my sister and my mother died.”
An Italian politician urged Pope Francis to put Hamel on a fast track for sainthood. In a tweet Roberto Maroni, the president of the Lombard region, said that “Father Jacques is a martyr of faith” and requested that the pope “immediately proclaim him St. Jacques.”
Shortly after the appeal, the hashtage #santosubito, which translates as “saint immediately,” began circulating on Twitter.
The canonization process is a lengthy one involving two miracles attributed to the person, but in the case of a martyr only one miracle is needed, after beatification. There must first be a declaration by the Vatican that the person indeed died for the faith.
The pope has condemned the attack in the strongest terms. Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, said in a statement the attack hits particularly hard “because this horrific violence took place in a church, a sacred place in which the love of God is announced, and the barbaric murder of a priest.”
France is on high alert and under a state of emergency after an attack in the southern city of Nice on Bastille Day – July 14 – that killed 84 people. ISIS claimed responsibility for that attack, as well as a series of attacks last year that killed 147 others around Paris.
Islamic State extremists have urged followers to attack French churches and the group is believed to have planned at least one church attack earlier.
– With files from The Associated Press