Hundreds of mourners, among them Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and members of the Milwaukee Police Department, gathered at Our Lady of Good Hope Church on Wednesday, Nov. 12, for the funeral of Laylah Petersen, the 5-year-old Milwaukee girl shot to death on Nov. 6.
Laylah was a parishioner at Our Lady of Good Hope and a student in K4 at Northwest Catholic School in Milwaukee. She was killed when several shots were fired into the front of the home she shared with her grandparents on North 58th Street.
“God has sped her off quickly from tragedy,” said Fr. Michael Barrett, pastor of Our Lady of Good Hope, at the funeral. “God, who commands legions of angels, dispatched them to the scene of Laylah’s tragic death. God has already seen her through this mess, and has taken her home to the never ending joy and happiness.”
Laylah was sitting on her grandfather’s lap when a bullet struck her in the head, and she died later at a hospital, according to media reports. She was the daughter of Ashley Fogl (a 2007 Messmer High School graduate) and RJ Petersen and the sister of Destiny, age 8.
Laylah’s funeral was open to the public, and a long line wound from the entrance to the steps of the altar, where her small, white coffin was flanked by bouquets of pink roses and photo boards decorated with butterflies.
During his homily, Fr. Barrett invoked the consolatory message of the Gospel of Matthew – “Come to me, all you who labor andare burdened, and I will give you rest.”
“Those words of Jesus ring out this morning to us who seek meaning in this meaningless and senseless death of Laylah,” he said. “We are weary, for beauty and innocence have been plucked from our midst. We are left with death and grief. But grief is the cost of love. Because you loved Laylah greatly, your grief is nearly overwhelming.”
Many mourners also wore buttons and T-shirts beseeching justice for Laylah, featuring her picture and the phrases “Stop the violence” and “Justice for Laylah.” Fr. Barrett also addressed Laylah’s murderer – who is still at large – during his homily.
“To the perpetrators, the shooters – you, too, will grow weary and burdened and troubled as we all are. You will run, you will hide,” he said. “But you will not rest until you, too, come to Jesus.”
‘Our faith is all that is left to us’
Principal Michelle Paris described the tragedy as “very shocking, very surreal … you just can’t wrap your head around it.”
Students and faculty at Northwest Catholic were given the day off on Nov. 12 to attend the funeral.
Staff members learned of Laylah’s death on Friday, Nov. 7, a day off for the students, and congregated at the school to mourn together.
“We prayed and shared and unpacked some of the trauma and tragedy and worked together … to support the staff so that they could become the pastors to these children as they arrived back to school on Monday,” said Fr. Barrett.
Paris said students were informed of Laylah’s death on Monday morning at school.
“Our whole existence on Monday was helping the students to understand this. The kindergarteners did a lot of drawing, did a lot of (grieving) through storytelling,” she said.
Students receive sad news
Patti Keller, a second-grade teacher at Northwest Catholic, has Petersen’s sister Destiny in her class. She gently broke the news to her own students on Monday morning.
“I invited all of them to sit on the floor with me and told them I had some very sad news to share … that someone had made a very bad choice which resulted in Laylah getting hurt so badly that she had died,” she said. “The grief in their eyes that first morning was almost too much to bear. Suddenly we were wrapped around each other in a group hug.”
Over the weekend, Keller had purchased a stuffed animal for each of her students “to hug whenever they wanted to hug Laylah.” Her class also created an angel-themed bulletin board with messages and hand-drawn pictures of Laylah to comfort Destiny when she returns to school.
All students at the school participated in a private prayer service on Tuesday attended by Petersen’s grandparents, mother and cousins.
“Many children talked about Laylah being in heaven … what heaven must be like and how Laylah will always be happy now,” said Keller.
The family announced last week that they would donate Laylah’s heart to save another child. Paris said it is a fitting tribute to a little girl remembered by friends and family members as a warm, loving and cheerful soul.
“She was always there to help a classmate,” said Paris. “It could have been that she helped them pick up a toy, it could have been that she saw them crying, it could have been that if somebody wasn’t included in playing in the sandbox she invited them in. That was who she was…. I think Laylah would have wanted to help another person have a chance at life if she couldn’t.”
Faith-filled at a young age
Paris related a favorite memory of Laylah from last year, before she entered K4. At the time, Destiny was in first grade at Northwest Catholic, and Laylah would often attend the school’s weekly Wednesday morning prayer service with her grandparents. During the service, Fr. Barrett encourages the students to raise their hands to share special intentions for which they wish to pray .
“Laylah raised her hand, and I don’t remember what she prayed for, but she was very articulate, very sincere, just like she was one of the students,” she said. “You could tell she was going to be very faith-filled. It was unusual for one of our own students to have the courage to do that, and to see a 4-year-old do that was amazing.”
It is that element of faith that friends and family are clinging to in the wake of Petersen’s death.
“I know we have difficult moments ahead, but I feel God beside us,” said Keller.
Fr. Barrett agreed.
“The only thing left standing in such a tragedy is our faith,” he said.