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Priest ruined teen’s funeral by saying he might not get into heaven, Michigan family says

Suicides are rising across the U.S.

Suicide is on the rise across the United States. It is more than a mental health condition — states and communities can adopt comprehensive strategies to prevent suicide.
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Suicide is on the rise across the United States. It is more than a mental health condition — states and communities can adopt comprehensive strategies to prevent suicide.

A Michigan priest has been barred from preaching at funerals after a family said he “basically called our son a sinner” who might not get into heaven at the teen’s funeral.

Maison Hullibarger, an 18-year-old from Temperance, Michigan, died on Dec. 4, according to an obituary. Suicide was the cause of death — a fact that Hullibarger’s grieving family said the Rev. Don LaCuesta would not stop bringing up and condemning during the teenager’s funeral on Dec. 8, the Detroit Free Press reports.

“It was his time to tell everybody what he thought of suicide, (and) we couldn’t believe what he was saying,” said Jeff Hullibarger, Maison’s father, according to the Free Press. “He was up there condemning our son ... He wondered if he had repented enough to make it to heaven. He said ‘suicide’ upwards of six times.”

Maison’s parents said they spoke with LaCuesta before the funeral about what they wanted to be said during the ceremony at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church in Temperance, adding that he jotted down notes during the conversation, the Free Press reports.

What they heard instead was a surprise.

“He basically called our son a sinner, instead of rejoicing in his life,” said Linda Hullibarger, Maison’s mother, the Toledo Blade reports. “It was what he wanted. He said nothing about what we asked him to say.”

Others who attended the funeral agreed the homily was inappropriate, WTVG reports.

During the funeral, Maison’s father tried to put a stop to the talk of suicide by approaching the priest and whispering to him, but he said the priest ignored him, WTVG reports. The family has called for LaCuesta to be removed altogether.

“It’s not OK,” Jeff Hullibarger said, according to the Blade. “He needs to be held accountable.”

After the service, the family told the priest not to come to the cemetery, WTVG reports.

The Archdiocese of Detroit said in a statement that LaCuesta won’t be allowed to give sermons at funerals indefinitely.

“We understand that an unbearable situation was made even more difficult, and we are sorry,” the archdiocese said, according to the Free Press. “For the foreseeable future, he will not be preaching at funerals and he will have his other homilies reviewed by a priest mentor. In addition, he has agreed to pursue the assistance he needs in order to become a more effective minister in these difficult situations.”

Suicide is a controversial topic in many faiths, including Catholicism. Some traditions condemn suicide in ways that end up hurting the families of those who die, according to some priests who say that viewpoint is misguided.

“Pope Francis stresses the merciful God and the forgiving God,” said the Rev. Charles Rubey, director of Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide, a part of the Archdiocese of Chicago, the Blade reports. “For a priest to even hint that the person might not be in heaven is grossly wrong.”

LaCuesta wasn’t the only person at the funeral who made a difficult day even worse, the grieving family said: A former high school football coach showed up at the church, even though he’d been specifically told not to come, the Blade reports.

“We’ve had four boys who played for him,” Jeff Hullibarger said, according to the Free Press. “He’s been bullying kids for many years.”

It cost the football coach his job.

Bedford Public Schools Superintendent Carl Shultz said in a statement that coach Jeff Wood “is no longer affiliated in any way with the Bedford football program. The District holds all of its staff to the highest standards of professionalism.”

Hullibarger graduated in 2018 from Bedford High School and was a student at the University of Toledo when he died, according to his obituary. He’s survived by five siblings.

“He was loved deeply by all who knew him,” the obituary said. “Maison loved the National Football League, Pittsburgh Steelers, video games and hanging out with his friends. Life will never be the same without him.”

A GoFundMe page set up by the Hullibarger family to cover funeral expenses surpassed its fundraising goal of $10,000, bringing in $17,280 from more than 300 people in just a week.

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