Vandal’s attack on crucifixes unites basilica, N.C. parish

Desecration of sacred objects prompts faith communities to help St. Joseph’s

By Bill Brewer

Father David Carter, left, presents a basilica crucifix to Father Peter Shaw.

One vandal’s act of desecration has created fellowship between the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga and St. Joseph’s Parish in Bryson City, N.C., that is a testament to the teachings of Jesus.

And the physical attack on the Catholic Church and sacred objects at St. Joseph’s Church has solidified the friendship of basilica rector Father David Carter and St. Joseph’s pastor Father Peter Shaw, who have found they share more in common than the priesthood and a love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

On Aug. 7, a man described by authorities as under the influence of an intoxicant used a sledgehammer to destroy the corpus of a seven-foot-tall exterior crucifix that was part of a parish grave memorial in front of St. Joseph’s. The crucifix had become a city landmark.

St. Joseph’s Church is on Main Street, near the center of town, and the grave marker with the crucifix is placed in front of the church just off the roadway.

Once the vandal had crushed the reinforced concrete statue suspended on a heavy wooden cross, he moved inside the church and used a cross from the altar to destroy a crucifix that was placed just behind the altar.

Father Shaw said the adult male desecrated the crucifixes in the middle of the day as a women’s group was meeting in the church basement. One of the women confronted the man while another woman called police, who shortly thereafter took the man into custody.

According to news accounts that cited the police report, as the man destroyed the sacred objects he was ranting that Jesus wasn’t dead and wasn’t on the cross anymore and that the church was “poisoning the community.”

Despite the disturbing nature of the attack, Father Shaw explained that something special arose from the incident.

St. Joseph’s Parish’s exterior crucifix is seen after a vandal desecrated it with a sledgehammer.

Other faith communities in Bryson City joined to raise money for a new exterior crucifix, with one Protestant churchgoer telling Father Shaw how much she depended on regularly seeing the crucifix and how it comforted her and reminded her that Jesus died for us.

“There’s really been an outpouring of support, and people in town have remarked how important the crucifix is to them. That’s why we have these sacramentals, to give us reminders of God’s love for us and the sacrifice Jesus made,” Father Shaw said.

“It was a beautiful, humbling coming together of the community,” he added.

But the goodwill was not exclusive to the outdoor icon.

Father Carter and Father Shaw have known each other for about five years, visiting each other’s parishes in that time.

On one of Father Shaw’s visits to the basilica he mentioned how identical a crucifix in a basilica chapel was to one in St. Joseph’s sanctuary.

When Father Carter learned of the St. Joseph’s Church vandalism and desecration, he shared his concern with Father Shaw, and the two talked of the identical crucifixes.

They then discussed a crucifix offering.

“Our crucifix was one we used on Good Friday and was in the chapel. It was important to our community,” Father Carter said. “But you don’t just give from your surplus. We gave from ourselves something important to our community to a parish in need. It was a moment of solidarity.”

A damaged crucifix is seen at St. Joseph’s.

On Oct. 21, as Father Carter drove from Chattanooga to Lake Junaluska, N.C., for a Diocese of Knoxville priests retreat, he made a stop in Bryson City to visit with Father Shaw and deliver the crucifix.

Father Shaw welcomed it into his Diocese of Charlotte parish in the Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina.

“It’s exactly the same. It was always fun to note that the crucifix I would see when I visited his parish was one we had in my home parish,” Father Shaw said. “What we know about our faith is that even in the worst circumstances, something good can come from it if we listen to Christ.”

In addition to their faith, Father Shaw and Father Carter share a love for the outdoors that they ascribe to the scenic region where their parishes are located.

Both are kayakers and they report kayaking together on occasion.

And Father Carter is a canon lawyer, while Father Shaw is completing studies to become a canon lawyer.

According to news reports, the man police arrested faces two charges: damage to personal property and breaking and entering to terrorize.

St. Joseph’s Parish pastor
Father Peter Shaw shows the new interior crucifix to replace one nearly identical to it that was desecrated on Aug. 7.

There were no injuries in the incident, and authorities say the man arrested has no connection to St. Joseph’s.

Father Shaw is hopeful authorities and the court will provide any help the man arrested needs.

“We have no animosity toward the man. Now he will be impelled to get help,” Father Shaw said.

“This is an opportunity for him to get help and help for his family,” he added.

Father Carter sees the same good coming from the incident that Father Shaw sees, and the basilica rector feels blessed that his parish can help bring out the positive from something so dark.

“Isn’t this the Gospel message? From the greatest tragedy in human history—the crucifixion—comes salvation,” Father Carter said. “Only God can make good come from evil. But He does that through us in so many mysterious ways.”

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