Carroll congregation shaken by vandalism, but after anger comes prayer

Father Art walks to the altar at St. John's Catholic Church and points to the tabernacle that was ripped from a marble stand and thrown in a field.

"You can barely notice that any damage was done," the priest said yesterday, pointing to the top of the plainly decorated metal box that houses one of the holiest symbols of Catholicism, the consecrated communion wafers that represent the living body of Jesus Christ.


The Westminster church was burglarized Nov. 17, apparently for the first time anyone there can remember.

The vandal or vandals pried open a locked door, punched two holes in a hallway wall, opened another door and shook the 100-pound tabernacle from its perch.


Before leaving, the intruders ripped the cover off an empty poor box.

They didn't get very far, nor, so far as Father Arthur F. Valenzano can tell, did they get away with anything of value.

A day later, the pastor found the tabernacle discarded in a field beside the church parking lot.

But, while repairs to the physical damage at the 22-year-old church on Monroe Street were almost finished yesterday, the spiritual damage is a bit harder for Father Art and more than 3,600 parishioners to overcome.

"My reactions have been disbelief, deep sadness, and, after passing through some anger -- justified anger, I think -- prayers for whoever did it," the 44-year-old pastor said. "It was a bit of a shock."

The slightly damaged tabernacle wasn't the only thing thrown in the field. The consecrated hosts also were found lying on the ground.

"That was terrible," Father Art said, recalling the sight of the desecrated wafers. "It gave me a terrible feeling."

The wafers were gathered and buried on the church grounds. Afterward, a special Mass was celebrated to rebless the church, Father Art said.


A reparation Mass -- celebrated any time a sacrament is desecrated -- will be said Dec. 2.

The vandalism was reported to Westminster police Nov. 18 and announced from the pulpit Sunday.

Police, who have no suspects in the break-in, said damage to the church was little more than $1,000.

Police and Father Art said they don't believe the vandalism was aimed at sending any anti-Catholic message.

"My suspicion is that this is an isolated incident. . . . Whoever broke in had no idea what it was he or she was doing," the pastor said.

Father Art couldn't recall an incidence of vandalism hitting any of the three Baltimore City churches where he has been a pastor.


Church vandalism is rare in the 152 parishes of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, an archdiocesan spokeswoman said yesterday.

It also is rare in Westminster, according to police.

In most instances, the vandals turn out to be teen-agers who were out to cause trouble, said Lt. Dean A. Brewer.

"It's not real common. The things we usually see stolen is food and small office equipment," the lieutenant said. "The situation at St. John's is kind of unusual, where something was desecrated."

The last incidence of a church break-in that Lieutenant Brewer recalls was in February, when a Westminster detective -- alerted by the strong presence of body odor -- arrested a Damascus, Howard County man for breaking into Westminster Church of the Brethren and the Ascension Episcopal Church.

The man apparently made $200 worth of calls to "live talk" services from church telephones.


Another rash of church vandalism occurred about three years ago, hitting adjacent churches on Crest Lane, the pastors of those churches recalled yesterday.

"They just trashed the place," said Pastor Stanley Cottrell of the Westminster Seventh-day Adventist Church.

He said two boys -- neither older than 13 -- were arrested after they caused more than $15,000 in damage to the church.

"We're far past the point where we can leave our doors open so people can come into church and pray," Pastor Cottrell said. "It's a sad commentary."

Pastor Larry Steen of Westminster Baptist Church -- several doors away -- said the same youths hit his church and broke windows.