STEM shooting hero remembered for his unwavering kindness and faith

Aaron Lambert

He loved the outdoors. He loved technology. He loved his friends. He just plain loved.

Kendrick Castillo was a faithful, kind and caring individual whose life was tragically cut short May 7 when he heroically lunged toward a shooter that attacked STEM School Highlands Ranch and gave his life to protect his friends. He was 18 years old, and just days away from graduating high school.

The week after his death, a series of events were held in the Denver Metro and surrounding areas in remembrance of his life, culminating in a funeral Mass held May 17 at St. Mary Parish in Littleton and presided by Bishop Jorge H. Rodriguez.

“Kendrick gave everything he is, and everything he had — family, a future, a degree, his life — so other young men and women could go back to their families, have a future, graduate and live,” Bishop Rodriguez said in his homily. “Kendrick’s life is like the echo of Jesus’ words: ‘Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.’

“Only a young man with God in his heart and possessing a big, good heart can do what he did: to lay down his life to save his friends. I’m sure [Kendrick’s parents] John and Maria, that you feel proud of your son. God, too, is very proud of his child, Kendrick.”

Kendrick Castillo was killed in a shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch May 8. His life and heroic actions have served as an inspiration for the local Catholic community, as well as the wider Colorado and national communities. Photo provided

Kendrick was an alumnus of Notre Dame Catholic School, where his dad, John, said he fit in so well. A few days after his funeral, John told the Denver Catholic he was sitting with his wife, reflecting on their son’s life and looking through his old schoolwork, when he came across an assignment where students were asked to choose their favorite saint. Kendrick chose St. John Bosco.

“I was reading and getting familiar with St. John Bosco, and it was really profound that he would’ve picked him because it’s how he lived his life,” John said. “He modeled [his life] off the saints.”

Upon graduation from Notre Dame, Kendrick went to STEM School Highlands Ranch for high school. John remembered being a little worried for his son transitioning from a Catholic school to a non-Catholic one. However, Kendrick remained true to who he was and what he learned at Notre Dame.

“He made it a point to seek out and find people that he shared his faith with there,” John said of Kendrick’s time at STEM. “[But even] those who didn’t practice religion, he was still a friend to them and would hang out with them.

“I believe he walked his faith, and I was so proud of that.”

In addition to praying before meals and always being the first to volunteer to altar serve at funeral Masses, Kendrick joyfully served with his dad in the Knights of Columbus at Notre Dame Parish. He especially loved helping out with the pancake breakfasts.

Kendrick and his dad, John, would volunteer with the Knights of Columbus at Notre Dame Parish in Denver. Photo provided

Kendrick was an only child and was very close with both of his parents. The relationship between Kendrick and John was different than a typical father and son, John said.

“It was more of a friendship than it was a father-son type thing,” John said. “We had a special bond.”

It’s because of that special bond between Kendrick and his parents that John believes he loved others the way he did – and why he didn’t hesitate when giving his life to save his fellow students during the STEM shooting.

“When you’re lucky enough to have the relationship the three of us had, you almost don’t even realize you’re doing things,” John said. “It’s not like you’re planning to raise someone a certain way. If there’s love in that family, it’s what you do.

“There’s no changing what he would do. He wouldn’t waver from doing good.”

As news broke about Kendrick’s actions, many have used the word “hero” to describe him.  John feels very proud of his son’s act of heroism, but he said that it’s the way that Kendrick lived his life that he’s most proud of.

Kendrick poses with his mom, Maria. Kendrick was an only child who was very close with his parents. Photo provided

“I believe God used him for what he needs him for. He was a tool, a faithful follower…he saved his friends,” John said. “The fact that he did what was in his heart for his friends is more powerful to me than that word ‘hero.’ It really represents who he was.”

The pain that John and Maria are bearing is a pain that will never go away. “It’s a really tough thing,” John said through tears. “Kendrick is the most devout, holy person I’ve ever known. He was a beautiful spirit. He was my strength.”

As unbearable as the pain is, John and Maria rest in the confidence that Kendrick is enjoying eternal life in heaven and that they will be reunited with him there.

“I truly believe in my heart that Kendrick was on loan to my wife and I,” John said. “I think he’s with his true father.”

Featured image by Andrew Wright | Denver Catholic

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Last November 11, on the centenary of its relocation to a 93-acre campus in suburban Washington, D.C., Georgetown Preparatory School announced a $60 million capital campaign. In his message for the opening of the campaign, Georgetown Prep’s president, Father James Van Dyke, SJ, said that, in addition to improving the school’s residential facilities, the campaign intended to boost Prep’s endowment to meet increasing demands for financial aid. Like other high-end Catholic secondary schools, Georgetown Prep is rightly concerned about pricing itself out of reach of most families. So Prep’s determination to make itself more affordable through an enhanced endowment capable of funding scholarships and other forms of financial aid for less-than-wealthy students is all to the good.

What I find disturbing about the campaign is its “branding” slogan. I first became aware of it when, driving past the campus a few months ago, I noticed a billboard at the corner of Rockville Pike and Tuckerman Lane. In large, bold letters, it proclaimed, “FOR THE GREATER GLORY.” And I wondered, “…of what?” Then one day, when traffic allowed, I slowed down and espied the much smaller inscription in the bottom right corner: “Georgetown Prep’s Legacy Campaign.”

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam [For the greater glory of God], often reduced to the abbreviation, AMDG, was the Latin motto of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. Georgetown Prep is a Jesuit school. So what happened to the D-word? What happened to God? Why did AMDG become AM[D]G while being translated into fundraising English?

I made inquiries of Jesuit friends and learned that amputating the “D” in AMDG is not unique to Georgetown Prep; it’s a tactic used by other Jesuit institutions engaged in the heavy-lift fundraising of capital campaigns. That was not good news. Nor was I reassured by pondering Father Van Dyke’s campaign-opening message, in which the words “Jesus Christ” did not appear. Neither did Pope Francis’s call for the Church’s institutions to prepare missionary disciples as part of what the Pope has called a “Church permanently in mission.” And neither did the word “God,” save for a closing “Thanks, and God bless.”

Father Van Dyke did mention that “Ignatian values” were one of the “pillars” of Georgetown prep’s “reputation for excellence.” And he did conclude his message with a call for “men who will make a difference in a world that badly needs people who care, people who, in the words Ignatius wrote his best friend Francis Xavier as he sent him on the Society of Jesus’s first mission, will ‘set the world on fire’.” Fine. But ignition to what end?

Ignatius sent Francis Xavier to the Indies and on to East Asia to set the world on fire with love of the Lord Jesus Christ, by evangelizing those then known as “heathens” with the warmth of the Gospel and the enlivening flame of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith. St. Ignatius was a New Evangelization man half a millennium before Pope St. John Paul II used the term. St. Ignatius’s chief “Ignatian value” was gloria Dei, the glory of God.

Forming young men into spiritually incandescent, intellectually formidable and courageous Christian disciples, radically conformed to Jesus Christ and just as deeply committed to converting the world, was the originating purpose of Jesuit schools in post-Reformation Europe. Those schools were not content to prepare generic “men for others;” they were passionately devoted to forming Catholic men for converting others, the “others” being those who had abandoned Catholicism for Protestantism or secular rationalism. That was why the Jesuits were hated and feared by powerful leaders with other agendas, be they Protestant monarchs like Elizabeth I of England or rationalist politicians like Portugal’s 18th-century prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal.

Religious education in U.S. Catholic elementary schools has been improved in recent decades. And we live in something of a golden age of Catholic campus ministry at American colleges and universities. It’s Catholic secondary education in the U.S. that remains to be thoroughly reformed so that Catholic high schools prepare future leaders of the New Evangelization: leaders who will bring others to Christ, heal a deeply wounded culture, and become agents of a sane politics. Jesuit secondary education, beginning with prominent and academically excellent schools like Georgetown Prep, could and should be at the forefront of that reform.

Jesuit secondary education is unlikely to provide that leadership, however, if its self-presentation brackets God and announces itself as committed to “the greater glory” of…whatever.