Bishop asks people to pray for imprisoned former Mascoutah priest who died
By Teri Maddox
March 07, 2020
Bishop Edward K. Braxton of the Catholic Diocese of Belleville has sent a letter to priests and deacons, asking them to pray for a former Mascoutah priest who died Friday while serving a prison sentence for child pornography and methamphetamine.
“From the perspective of the Christian faith, his death is a call to each of us to pray for him in the hope that God in his love and mercy will give him a share in the eternal life that is promised to those who strive to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ,” Braxton wrote.
The bishop noted that he had visited the former priest, Gerald R. Hechenberger, when he was in St. Clair County Jail, and that Braxton had serious concerns about his well-being due to health problems.
Hechenberger, 56, was pronounced dead Friday morning at Pinckneyville Community Hospital. He had been serving a nine-year sentence at Pinckneyville Correctional Center.
“We’re not releasing any other information (including cause of death) until after the autopsy on Monday,” Perry County Coroner Paul Searby said Friday afternoon.
Hechenberger was a former associate pastor at Holy Childhood of Jesus Catholic Church and School.
Here is the full message Braxton sent to priests and deacons on Friday afternoon:
“It is with sadness that I inform you that the Reverend Gerald R. Hechenberger died this morning at Pinckneyville Community Hospital. We have not been informed of any details concerning his death. We hope to have more information after an autopsy that is scheduled to be performed on Monday, March 9th, is completed.
“However, as I wrote to you in my letter after I visited Father Hechenberger in the St. Clair County Jail before beginning serving his sentence, I had very serious concerns about his well-being since he had a number of major health problems. Humanly speaking, Father Hechenberger’s untimely death is a sad ending to what has already been a sad story.
“From the perspective of the Christian faith, his death is a call to each of us to pray for him in the hope that God in his love and mercy will give him a share in the eternal life that is promised to those who strive to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ.
“I urge each of you to pray for him by name today, to include prayers for him in the Prayers of the Faithful at the Masses this weekend, and to continue to pray for him as we move towards the celebration of the Easter mysteries by which we are reborn.
“Please pray as well for the members of his family, for his friends, and others who knew him that they may be comforted at this time of grief and sorrow.”
Hechenberg’s autopsy will take place at 1 p.m. Monday at Searby Funeral Home in DuQuoin. Perry County doesn’t have its own morgue. Autopsies are common in deaths of correctional center inmates, Searby said.
On Nov. 7, Hechenberger pleaded guilty to four of the 17 counts with which he was charged two years ago, including three counts of possessing pornographic photos of children and one count of possession of methamphetamine.
He was sentenced to nine years in prison by St. Clair County Circuit Judge Zina Cruse, despite defense lawyer Randall Kelley’s argument that sentencing him to any form of incarceration would be a “death sentence” because of his poor health.
Pinckneyville Correctional Center is a medium-security prison for adult males with 19 buildings on 148 acres. It has more than 2,000 inmates, who are allowed seven visits per month.
Hechenberger’s Illinois Department of Corrections page describes him as 6-foot-2 and weighing 475 pounds with no tattoos.
Hechenberger was arrested at Holy Childhood Catholic Church by Belleville police on Jan. 8, 2018. The investigation grew out of a cybertip from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which flagged an image coming into his Google account as child pornography.
At his sentencing hearing, Hechenberger told the court that his behavior resulted from a “perfect storm” of mental health issues, including depression and bipolar disorder, drug use, hypersexual thoughts and grief over the death of his father in 2014.