GERMANTOWN -- Parishioners of Mother Seton Roman Catholic Church held an all-night prayer vigil last night to mourn the death of their pastor, who was found fatally beaten in the rectory yesterday after a possible burglary.
Expressions of grief poured in from beyond the parish for Monsignor Thomas Wells, 56, who had been pastor there for 18 months.
James Cardinal Hickey, Archbishop of Washington, said in a statement that Wells had been "beloved in every parish he served" for nearly 30 years. The cardinal appealed for prayers "for an end to senseless violence in our society."
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said the pastor's killing was "a shock to the community." He pledged an aggressive investigation and sent grief counselors to the church for last night's vigil.
"We haven't had a murder like this in quite some time," Duncan said last night, noting that this was only the county's third homicide of the year.
Wells was found early yesterday in a bedroom of his second-floor residence over the rectory office after he failed to appear for a morning Mass. Police theorized that he had been killed after struggling with one or more burglars.
"Monsignor Wells was involved with a violent altercation with an assailant or assailants," said Officer Joyce Barrow, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Police Department. There was evidence that an attacker might have been injured in the struggle, she said.
Another police spokesman, Lt. William C. O'Toole, said a staff member arriving for work found the priest's body.
An autopsy will be conducted to determine the cause of death, but investigators found evidence that Wells had been beaten. O'Toole said police are examining the possibility of a burglary but declined to say whether anything appeared to be missing.
As word spread through the parish of 2,200 families, members rushed to the church to express their shock and disbelief.
"It's like losing a parent or a grandparent," said Kacy Furey, whose two daughters were altar servers and whose husband regularly played golf with Wells.
Born in Washington and raised in Chevy Case, Wells spent 29 years as a priest, the last nine as monsignor. He served at churches in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
Wells was "one of the best preachers in the archdiocese," said the Rev. William Lori, auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese. "He was a priest who brought in many vocations to the church."
Those who knew Wells described him as outgoing, even fun-loving, but genuinely spiritual. He was enthusiastically welcomed to Mother Seton, a younger parish in a growing area of Montgomery County that is conducting a fund-raising campaign for a new, larger church building.
"He was exceptional, because he'd always have time for you," said Denise Clark, 45, a parishioner who manages the rectory's cleaning service.
She said Wells often counseled parishioners at his kitchen table.
Just two weeks ago, Wells recounted in the church bulletin the humility he felt when people stopped by the rectory to confess their sins.
"They would probably be surprised at what I am sometimes thinking as I give them absolution," he wrote. "Because it is a bit inconvenient for me to get to confession, I will sometimes say to myself how great it would be if I could, in turn, ask them to hear my confession."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.