WASHINGTON — While chanting and playing ceremonial drums, a group of Native American rights activists reportedly led by the man at the center of a videotaped confrontation with Kentucky high school students that went viral attempted Jan. 19 to enter Washington, D.C.’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during a Saturday evening Mass.
The group of 20 demonstrators, reportedly led by tribal leader Nathan Phillips, was stopped by shrine security as it tried to enter the church during its 5:15pm Vigil Mass, according to a shrine security guard on duty during the Mass.
“It was really upsetting,” the guard told CNA. “There were about 20 people trying to get in, we had to lock the doors and everything.”
The guard said the incident was a disappointment during a busy and joyful weekend for the shrine.
“We had hundreds and hundreds of people from all over the country come here to celebrate life, to celebrate each other together,” he said. “That a protest tried to come inside during Mass was really the worst.”
The guard told CNA the situation was “tense.”
“I’m just really grateful that nothing too bad happened,” he said. “They were really angry.”
A source close to the shrine’s leadership corroborated the security guard’s account, telling CNA that during the Mass, Phillips and the group tried to enter the church while playing drums and chanting, and were prohibited from entering the building by security personnel, who locked the main basilica doors with the congregation still inside.
The shrine’s spokeswoman would not confirm or deny that the group attempted to enter the Mass. She told CNA that “a group did assemble Saturday evening outside the shrine” and that they “left without incident.”
Philips was the subject of national media attention on Saturday, after video went viral on social media depicting parts of a Jan. 18 incident involving him and several teenagers, some of whom were students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky.
The incident has become the subject of intense national debate, and Phillips has been accused by some of instigating an encounter with the students, and subsequently altering his initial account of events.
Covington Catholic High School was closed Jan. 22, following threats against students and staff in the wake of media coverage of Friday’s incident.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that about 60 people gathered outside the shrine in support of Phillips Saturday night, though it did not mention reports that Phillips and some supporters attempted to disrupt the evening Mass.
Video footage showed one supporter saying that the group had gathered at the shrine to listen to Phillips, and to hold the Catholic Church “accountable” for the alleged actions of the Covington Catholic students and for the “colonial violence that the Catholic Church reproduces every day.”
A photograph attached to the post shows Phillips addressing the group outside the shrine.
The security guard told CNA that the incident was especially distressing given that Mass was underway.
“It’s a house of worship, a place of prayer where people come to celebrate,” he said. “All this anger is so against what we are all about here.”
He told CNA that he’d never witnessed anything like it during his whole time of employment at the basilica.
“I don’t know the details of what happened on Friday [after the March for Life], I wish I did,” the security guard said. “All I know is it’s a shame, and it’s got nothing to do with why people were here.”
“And this all happened on our biggest event of the year,” the guard said. “I hope we never see it again.”