On May 6, 2020, a 35-year-old man opened an unlocked door at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Casper, Wyoming, and proceeded to damage the altar and kick over a statue before leaving the church. The damage was estimated at $25,000.
While acts of vandalism to church properties have been occurring for millenia, this was the first incident recorded by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty since it began tracking cases of arson, vandalism and other destruction at Catholic sites across the United States 17 months ago. Since then, at least 105 acts of vandalism or arson have occurred on Church grounds. The following list, according to the USCCB, is just a small sample of these incidents:
- May 28, 2020: “Someone broke into the church and poured flammable liquid under the pews, lighting a fire that damaged pews and the floor” (Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis).
- May 30-31, 2020: “Graffiti with messages such as ‘God is dead’ and ‘There is no God,’ and windows shattered by rocks” (Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Denver).
- July 3, 2020: “Outdoor statue of St. Mary beheaded and hands severed” (St. Ann Catholic Parish, Gary, Indiana).
- July 11, 2020: “Man crashed minivan through church door, poured gasoline on the foyer and lit it on fire. People were inside the church, preparing for Mass” (Queen of Peace Catholic Church, Ocala, Florida).
- Sept. 29, 2020: “Statues of Joseph, Mary, and infant Jesus decapitated, heads carried away” (St. Joseph Cupertino Catholic Church, Fall River, Massachusetts).
- Dec. 25, 2020: “Nativity scene vandalized on Christmas morning” (St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Indianapolis).
- April 1, 2021: “Gunshots fired at abbey of Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles” (Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus, Gower, Missouri).
Each of these incidents itself is heartbreaking, because to the faithful, these churches are not simply an amalgamation of wood, stone and steel. They are where we were baptized, where we received the Eucharist for the first time, where we were married and became one flesh with our spouse, and where we mourned the loss of loved ones. These are the sacred spaces where we come together as a community and worship the God who created the world out of nothing and who gave us his son so that we might have eternal life.
Following the 100th recorded incident of vandalism, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, chairman of the Committee for Religious Liberty, and Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, issued a statement saying, “These incidents of vandalism have ranged from the tragic to the obscene, from the transparent to the inexplicable. There remains much we do not know about this phenomenon, but at a minimum, they underscore that our society is in sore need of God’s grace.”
That these vandalous acts began piling up in the spring of 2020 is probably no coincidence. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic — including the isolation brought about by quarantine, job loss, financial pressure, and the death of loved ones — have put a severe strain on our mental health. These incidents also coincided with the numerous protests across the country that stemmed from the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, some of which also sadly resulted in vandalism and arson. Last, fueled in part by a lack of civil discourse on social media, the political climate in this country has turned vicious — even violent.
While we can’t directly attribute the rise in vandalism to any one thing, it seems clear that there is a tremendous lack of peace in our culture — replaced instead by an ever-present tension that seems ready to snap at any time. Too often, this tension is sadly manifested in a rock being thrown through a stained-glass window depicting a scene from Scripture or the smashing of a statue of Our Lady or one of God’s holy saints — all things that point us toward God.
Thankfully, windows can be rebuilt and statues can be replaced. What makes our churches sacred — and what we need to remind the world and ourselves — is that it is there where we find Christ, who is wholly present to us, the Prince of Peace.
Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board: Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott P. Richert, Scott Warden, York Young