Brooklyn Tabernacle Theft Highlights Vulnerability of Catholic Churches

Thieves used power tools to cut through metal to steal an ornate late-19th-century tabernacle, valued at $2 million, at St. Augustine’s Church in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn.

The altar of St. Augustine parish as it appeared before the tabernacle was stolen.
The altar of St. Augustine parish as it appeared before the tabernacle was stolen. (photo: Courtesy photo / DeSales Media Group)

The recent theft of a tabernacle valued at $2 million has brought home a point Catholics have been dealing with for some time: Catholic churches are targets.

In late May, a thief — or, more likely, thieves — used power tools to cut through metal that guarded an ornate late-19th-century tabernacle at St. Augustine’s Church in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn.

The brazenness shocked parishioners and has emphasized the need for securing Church valuables.

The tabernacle theft made national news. The reaction hasn’t been universally sympathetic. The comments sections beneath the online stories of The New York Times and The Washington Post, for instance, drew scores of messages downplaying or even celebrating the theft, objecting to the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion or criticizing the Church for having such an expensive object when there are needy poor people.


How Did It Happen?

In Brooklyn, St. Augustine and St. Francis Xavier are combined parishes under one pastor, who lives at the rectory of St. Francis Xavier, which also has all the weekday Masses in the ordinary schedule. The two churches are 1 mile apart, on the same street.

New York City police offer a 45 1/2-hour window for when the theft may have taken place: between 6:30pm Thursday, May 26 and 4pm Saturday, May 28. The pastor, Father Frank Tumino, told parishioners he was driving by the church that Saturday afternoon to hear confessions at St. Francis Xavier when he saw a door at St. Augustine’s “slightly ajar.”

He went in and found the tabernacle gone. The sculpted angels around the recess were destroyed and, amid debris from the extensive cutting the burglars did with power tools to pry the tabernacle loose, were consecrated Hosts strewn about the altar.

Police told The New York Times that the security cameras in the church were not working; the pastor told the newspaper that even if they were, the thieves took the digital recorder that would have stored the video.


Why Is the Tabernacle So Valuable?

A former pastor of St. Augustine’s explained why the tabernacle is worth so much money during a video tour in a series called City of Churches produced about 2013 by New Evangelization Television.

Father Robert Whelan described the tabernacle this way:

“It’s a gold tabernacle by the architect Alfred Parfitt. It was done in 1895. It’s solid silver, coated with 18-carat gold. And it has diamonds and other jewels decorating it. All of that metal and jewels, all the jewels, were donated by parishioners. The pastor asked [the faithful] to bring jewelry. So you’ll see there are a lot of engagement and wedding-ring diamonds on the front of that.

“It’s probably the most elaborate tabernacle in the country. And it would cost half a million to replace, easily.”

For Catholics, the true worth of the tabernacle is connected to its purpose, which is to hold consecrated Hosts.

“We can’t put a monetary price on the value of a consecrated Host. Catholics believe that the bread that’s brought forward at Mass becomes the true Body of Jesus himself, even if its appearance doesn’t change. This is something we believe in faith. Therefore, we give the consecrated Host, the Eucharist, the devotion and respect and adoration that we owe to our Savior,” said Father Andrew Menke, executive director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, by email. “So, on one level, the desecration of the Eucharist is clearly something that pains us more than the loss of a material object. But the theft of a valuable tabernacle is also painful because the people in the parish rightly took pride in the sacrifices and generosity of their ancestors, who wanted to glorify and honor the Lord by creating a beautiful place to keep the consecrated Hosts.”


What Can Be Done to Stop Attacks?

This past week, the Register asked several experts how theft and desecration can be stopped.

“One thing would be an alarm. Another thing would be to put more gates around the tabernacle; that would become part of the tabernacle,” said Jerome Ziegler, who works in design sales for F.C. Ziegler Co., a family business in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Ziegler, an architect who designs altars, tabernacles and shrines for churches all around the country, described in a telephone interview incorporating a pressure alarm for a crown he made for a church in Dallas. He also described designing and making a bronze gate for a tabernacle.

But if thieves have time, will and power tools, Ziegler said, it’s hard to stop them.

Father Philip Landry, rector of the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis King of France in New Orleans, said cathedral officials “go to great lengths to ensure that we maintain the sanctity and security of our beautiful cathedral.”

“I would say the most obvious and important is that we have installed advanced alarm systems that cover the entirety of the church. This includes a specific alarm dedicated strictly to the area surrounding and including the sanctuary. Security cameras are also in place throughout and surrounding the church and its property,” Father Landry said by email.

Among the most visited Catholic churches in the country is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., a sort of unofficial headquarters for participants in the annual March for Life each January and an occasional target of pro-abortion demonstrators.

Msgr. Walter Rossi, the rector, said the basilica doesn’t disclose all of its security measures.

“That said, over recent years, additional security measures have been implemented at Mary’s Shrine, including retention of local police assistance on a daily basis, as churches have increasingly become targets of vandalism, desecration, and more,” Msgr. Rossi said in a written statement through a representative.


One Pastor’s Approach

Hiring security staff is not within the means of the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi in San Francisco, said the rector, Capuchin Father John DeLaRiva. Instead, he uses more direct methods.

Whenever he leaves the shrine, he doesn’t use the office door but instead walks through the church and out the entrance — “just to keep an eye and project to people that we’re around all the time,” Father DeLaRiva said in a telephone interview.

Father DeLaRiva is a former U.S. Marine and a former Los Angeles police officer. While greeting visitors to the shrine, he said, he tries to assess people the way cops do, engaging them in cordial conversation while looking from their words and body language for clues as to each person’s intentions.

Such attentiveness is needed. Once, he said, he came upon a disturbed young man in the shrine’s old baptistery trying to light a fire on the floor with twigs, leaves and papers. Another time, a mentally ill man used two fire extinguishers to spray powder around the shrine, broke the processional cross by smashing it on the marble floor, and broke into the vials of holy oils, pouring oil on the altar cloths and breaking the vials. Another time, a man disrupted Mass with loud noises and later knocked the priest down by hitting him in the face with a skateboard.

To try to keep the shrine and the Blessed Sacrament safe, Father DeLaRiva encourages participation from laypeople who go there.

“We tell them not to engage physically, but don’t be shy about protecting the sacrament or the sanctuary,” Father DeLaRiva said.

The shrine is located in an urban area of one of the most progressive and sexually permissive cities in the country. Father DeLaRiva knows the shrine stands in contradiction to the beliefs and practices of many people in the area, including some not inclined to respect what he said American society “used to have” — “restraint and proper civility.”

“The thing on the Church’s side is we have to be unapologetic about the faith and the dictates of our faith,” Father DeLaRiva said. “At the same time, we need to blow out the walls to be patient, open, understanding and loving, looking for the good of the other and inviting to a new day.”


Desecrated Brooklyn Church Restored to Worship

This past weekend, on Saturday, June 4, the combined parishes of St. Augustine and St. Francis Xavier moved the usual 5pm Mass to St. Augustine to allow the bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn to say Mass there. Bishop Robert Brennan sprinkled holy water on the congregants, the altar and the area that held the tabernacle, as part of a rite of reparation to make the desecrated holy place suitable for divine worship again.

After Mass, the bishop said he felt “a sense of emptiness” at seeing the space where the tabernacle once sat. But he said the incident is also a call to renewal.

“You know, there’s an opportunity for us to have a greater appreciation for the Blessed Sacrament, for our Church, for one another. That’s a hopeful outcome of all of this,” Bishop Brennan told reporters after Mass.

At Sunday morning Mass on June 5 at St. Francis Xavier (up the street from St. Augustine), Father Tumino said during his sermon that he has received many calls and email messages since the theft, seeking information or offering solidarity and advice.

“And, sadly, I also received horrible, horrible emails from people who do not understand faith, from people who do not understand why people in the 1800s would want to give God glory, why people in the 1800s would want to share things so precious that they wanted to adorn the house of God for all ages,” Father Tumino said. 

“These beautiful churches were built by people such as that. They’re maintained by people, even as times have grown difficult, but always to be witnesses to us of Christ’s presence in the world.”

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