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Slain 8-Year-Old Illinois Girl's Pastor Wept When He Learned 'the Sweetheart of Our Church' Died

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Denise Haley

One week after an 8-year-old Illinois girl was abducted from her grandmother’s front porch, PEOPLE has learned that the bus she was waiting for in the dark to take her to her church’s weekly Bible study was never coming.

Just hours after Sabrina Stauffenberg waited in vain for the bus, her body was found dumped behind a vinegar plant in the small town of Olney, and a 53-year-old man is behind bars charged with her rape and strangulation.

Sabrina’s pastor tells PEOPLE that Calvary Baptist Church’s regular Wednesday night Bible study was rescheduled for Tuesday evening in light of the impending Thanksgiving holiday.

“We’d moved it up so people could travel and we passed out a flier to all the kids about the change,” Pastor Chris Jennette explains. “You know how kids are with those fliers … they throw it away or most times it doesn’t even make it home. Sabrina’s family was unaware we weren’t having services that night so she was outside, waiting for the bus. But it was not coming.”

Police allege Sabrina was sexually assaulted and murdered by Glen Ramey, who was arrested Sunday. The rape “caused great bodily harm to [Sabrina] that was life-threatening,” a spokesperson for the state’s attorney’s office tells PEOPLE. Sabrina’s official cause of death was “suffocation.”

A family friend claims Sabrina was allegedly “lured” from the porch by Ramey, who was familiar to her; Ramey once dated one of Sabrina’s cousins.

Jennette tells PEOPLE he first met Sabrina when she began attending services at age 2. He was visiting relatives in Kentucky for the holiday when he received word of her death.

“At first, I was shocked, and then I [wept],” Jennette says. “We kind of went from disbelief that it was her to quite possibly — to be truthful — anger toward the villain and we started questioning why he would do something like this to this little girl.”

In the proceeding days, the particulars of Sabrina’s final moments would begin trickling out in media reports.

“What I know is more than I wanted to know,” says Jennette, who admits it has been difficult to stay strong for his grieving congregants. “I’m trying to be there for the family, because my main concern is to bring them comfort and give them the strength to get through the next few days.”

Sabrina’s wake is scheduled for Thursday night, Jennette says. He will deliver the eulogy during her funeral Friday morning.

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“Grief is like the ocean … it comes in in waves,” Jennette says, “but we know it’s over and no one will ever hurt this little girl again, and that’s where we find great comfort. As tragic as this is, we know we haven’t lost Sabrina. We will see her again. Our faith carries us through these valleys.”

When Jennette thinks of Sabrina now, he remembers her smile.

“She was always full of smiles, because she was always discovering life and enjoying it,” Jennette tells PEOPLE. “She loved candy, but she also loved our church and she loved those here and it was mutual. Our church loved her — she was the sweetheart of our church. No one ever dreamed anything like this would happen. We are all shocked, but we have the Gospel and we have hope beyond the grave, and we know no one is ever going to hurt her again.”

When he eulogizes Sabrina Friday, Jennette says he’ll focus on her happiness, both before “those few moments of struggle in her life” and after.

“I don’t want to focus on how she died but how she lived and where she is now,” Jennette says. “I believe that will heal a lot of broken hearts.”

A GoFundMe page has been established to help Sabrina’s family in the wake of her death.

Ramey has been charged with first-degree murder and predatory sexual assault. His bail has been set at $10 million. He has not entered a plea and has not retained an attorney.

Court records show that Ramey has been the subject of at least four separate orders of protection since 2014. He is not listed on Illinois’ sex offender registry.