Grieving community ‘turns hearts to God’ in midst of tragedy

Family, friends and community members flooded the parking lot at St. Anthony Church in Watkins Aug. 23 to remember the short life of 5-year-old Alayna Ertl at a candlelight vigil.

Supporters carried candles, lighted paper luminaries in the symbol of a cross and lined the back of a flatbed truck with colorful votives.

Balloons in hues of pink and purple floated into the night sky to honor the life of the girl known for her sweet smile and ever-ready hugs who was abducted in the early hours of Aug. 20, setting off a statewide AMBER alert.

Authorities believe Zachary Todd Anderson, a friend of Alayna’s father who had stayed overnight at their home, abducted the girl, stole his truck and took her to a remote area where she was found dead. Anderson was formally charged with murder Aug. 23.

Kelly Haag of Richmond moves in close to her 7 year-old daughter Alayna as they join in prayer to remember the life of Alayna Ertl. Photo by Paul Middlestaedt FYI - I NEGLECTED TO GET INFO ON WHETHER THEY ATTEND A CATHOLIC CHURCH - I WAS JUST HAPPY I GOT THEIR NAMES DUE TO THE SITUATION
Kelly Haag of Richmond moves in close to her 7-year-old daughter Alayna as they join in prayer to remember the life of Alayna Ertl during a prayer vigil Aug. 23 at St. Anthony Church in Watkins. (Paul Middlestaedt / For The Visitor)

The memorial was spearheaded by neighbors of the Ertl family who collaborated with community members, including Father Aaron Nett, pastor of St. Anthony Parish, which is part of the New Ulm Diocese but is paired with Assumption Church in Eden Valley and served by the Diocese of St. Cloud.

Father Nett led the service, which included music, prayer, readings, reflections and a slide show of Alayna’s life.

“It’s a distressing time, so hard to wrap our minds around it,” Father Nett said. “The service was a testimony to how we cherish life in the church, how precious life is.”

He said it was a time of “necessary grieving” but also a time of hope.

“Spirits were lifted because people came together to pray, to express care and concern. It was really encouraging to see that many people come out and show such an outpouring of support,” he said.

Father Nett was scheduled to be on vacation that weekend, but when he heard about Alayna’s disappearance and, later, her death, he quickly changed his plans and headed back to the parish in Eden Valley, where he met with Father Robert Rolfes, vicar general of the St. Cloud Diocese who was covering the Saturday evening Mass there.

Father Rolfes served in the Eden Valley and Watkins parishes for nine months while they awaited the assignment of a new priest, so he knew Alayna’s family — parents Kayla and Matt Ertl and their son, Carter, who celebrated his first Communion with Father Rolfes this spring.

Father Rolfes also knew Kayla and her parents from the 11 years he served in Rockville, where they are originally from.

Around 9 p.m., Aug. 20, Father Nett arrived at the parish in Eden Valley and he and Father Rolfes headed to the Ertl home just across the street from the church in Watkins. As Father Nett drove, he began to pray a chaplet and part of the rosary, asking Mary for help in preparation for what he knew would be a difficult encounter.

At the Ertl home, the two priests met with Kayla and Matt and then gathered to pray with them on their front lawn with others who also came to offer support.

Friends, family and community member surround the parents of Alayna Ertl, Matt and Kayla (center) Tuesday night in the parking lot of St. Anthony Church in Watkins.  Photo by Paul Middlestaedt
Friends, family and community members surround the parents of Alayna Ertl, Matt and Kayla (center), Tuesday night in the parking lot of St. Anthony Church in Watkins.
(Paul Middlestaedt / For the Visitor)

“There are so many things we don’t know in times of tragedy that can be confusing and very hard, but in prayer we can reach out for God’s mercy and comfort,” Father Nett said. “I think it’s important that, in all times, we turn our hearts to God.”

“The family has kept very close to the church through all of this,” Father Rolfes added. “Even though it is such a tragedy, some might ask, ‘Why is God doing this to me?’ and simply turn their back on God. I have not seen that happening at all in this case. They are really embracing the church and their faith.”

Father Rolfes noted the dedication Father Nett has shown to a community he has only served since July 1. Just days after he arrived there, a tornado ravaged the town causing major destruction to homes and businesses. Father Nett pitched in to help with clean up efforts as well as to pray with nursing home residents and others who had suffered from the storm, Father Rolfes said.

“That’s what being a pastor is, to be willing to stand with them in the midst of their difficulties and their joys,” Father Rolfes said. “As Pope Francis says, you have to be willing to get in there with your sheep. You don’t sit back and wait for people to come to you. That’s not where we are at anymore. We have to go out to them.”

Over the nine months he served there, Father Rolfes often preached about God’s mercy and forgiveness. In the wake of what happened, he said it’s a message that’s going to take a long time to put into practice. But there are other immediate things people can do to help.

Mourners light the luminaries that were placed in a shape of a cross. Photo by Paul Middlestaedt
Mourners light the luminaries that were placed in a shape of a cross. (Paul Middlestaedt / For The Visitor)

“We can respond in many ways when a tragedy strikes,” Father Rolfes said. “We can respond through prayer. As Christian stewards, we can contribute to the fund that has been established for the family. Even if we may not know them, we can send them a card or a note. They will feel the strength of the community through our prayers, our words of encouragement and financial donations.”

Alayna’s funeral was scheduled for 10:30 a.m., Aug. 26, at St. Anthony Church in Watkins.

A GoFundMe account has been set up to help the family. For more information, visit

Author: The Visitor

The Visitor is the official newpaper for the Diocese of Saint Cloud.

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