MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A Minnesota couple missing after a cruise ship capsized off the west coast of Italy are devout Catholics who spend part of almost every day at church, where he teaches religious classes and she hands out baked goods and other sweet treats to parishioners.
Church members described the kindness and good deeds of Jerry and Barbara Heil on Monday as a search continued along the Italian coast. The Heils are among more than two dozen people still missing after the Costa Concordia hit a reef and ran aground near Tuscany on Friday night.
Six people have been confirmed dead, and prosecutors are investigating the ship's captain for manslaughter, abandoning ship and causing a shipwreck. The ship's owner said the captain, Francesco Schettino, caused the crash by deviating from the authorized course.
Diane Vorland, who is confined to a wheelchair, told The Associated Press that Jerry Heil, 69, came to her house every Thursday for the past three years to administer her communion and recite the rosary. The trip, she said, "was a big deal for them."
"On the Thursday before he left, he said, 'The next time you see me I'll have been to Rome,'" Vorland said.
Other members of Church of St. Pius X in White Bear Lake described the Heils as quiet, kind people deeply involved in the congregation. They joined the church in 1973, and their four children attended its elementary and middle school, said Larry Erickson, the parish administrator.
Jerry Heil taught religious education classes for everyone from children to senior citizens. Dennis Hardy, who attended one of his classes, said Barbara Heil, 70, often accompanied her husband, bringing baked goods she gave to class members.
"Both of them are at the church, I'd say, pretty much every day," Erickson said.
The Heils live in White Bear Lake, a suburb of about 25,000 people 15 miles outside St. Paul. The community sits between two large lakes, White Bear and Bald Eagle, which are encircled by opulent homes and historic cottages dating to the early 1900s when the area was a weekend destination for wealthy St. Paul residents. Today, the city retains vestiges of a resort aura but also is home to middle- and working-class neighborhoods.
Jerry Heil retired from a job at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. While reserved, he possesses a dry sense of humor, Vorland said. After communion and prayers, she said, he would engage her in deep and thoughtful conversations about history or church teachings.
"Every Christmas he and his wife would come and give me some fudge," she said. "They're just solid people."
Jerry Heil also is a longtime member of the congregation's Knights of Columbus chapter. Duane Jabas, a former grand knight, called him a jack-of-all-trades who helped plan and run nearly every chapter function for years. "You always knew every detail would be covered if Jerry was involved," Jabas said.
Shawn Gutoski, who works at St. Pius X, said the Heils were the type of people every church needs to function. "They're not people that want to draw attention to themselves, but you knew if they were involved that it would get done," Gutowski said.
The church's music director announced before Sunday Mass that the Heils were missing after the shipwreck.
"A lot of people gasped," said Hardy, who was in attendance. "I know there are a lot of prayers going over to Italy right now."
Hardy, who recently lost his driver's license, said Jerry Heil offered to drive him around on errands.
Several family members did not respond to phone calls from the AP on Sunday and Monday. A family friend outside the home of the couple's son, Aaron Heil, gave the AP a statement from the family.
"We are waiting patiently for the rescuers to safely try to find our parents," it said. "Our prayers and thoughts are with our parents; those others that are still missing and their families; and the brave rescuers. We are working closely with the U.S. Embassy in Italy and are confident that everything is being done to find our parents."
Sarah Heil, their daughter, told WBBM radio in Chicago that her parents had been looking forward to their 16-day vacation.
"They raised four kids and sent them all to private school, elementary to college, so they never had any money," Sarah Heil said. "So when they retired, they went traveling. And this was to be a big deal — a 16-day trip. They were really excited about it."