The death of a popular Roman Catholic priest in Eureka whose body was found in the church rectory Wednesday has stunned the community and parishioners.

The Rev. Eric Freed was found dead inside St. Bernard Church on New Year's Day after he failed to show up for a Mass. Police have so far declined to reveal how he was killed or in what condition his body was found but have confirmed that a homicide investigation has been launched.

Eureka Mayor Frank Jager told ABC that the community was "devastated. These kinds of things just don’t happen here."

The death of Freed, described as a popular priest who was active in the local Japanese community, stunned parishioners, who gathered outside the church Wednesday upon hearing the news.

Freed also taught at the religious studies department at Humboldt State University.

Speaking at a news conference Wednesday, Jager said Freed's death was "absolutely a tremendous loss, not only for the St. Bernard’s parish, but for our community in general.”

Police Chief Andrew Mills, meanwhile, sought to reassure residents that his department was tapping "every resource possible" for the investigation.

"I want to assure the citizens of Eureka that this does not appear to be a larger situation, where people need to be concerned," he said. "However, we are expending every resource possible to make sure this investigation is as thorough as possible."

Few details about the investigation have been released, but police said they were looking for Freed's missing gray Nissan Altima hybrid, with the license plate 6NDW400.

Mills told the Eureka Times-Standard it wasn't clear when the vehicle was last seen, or if it was even at St. Bernard Church prior to Freed's death, but warned anyone who may see the car not to approach it but call police.

Anyone with information on Freed's death or the whereabouts of his Nissan was urged to call Eureka police at (707) 441-4044.

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jason.wells@latimes.com

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