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Wave of Church vandalism strikes East Tennessee

Chattanooga parish joins growing list of U.S. church properties damaged by hate acts     

By The East Tennessee Catholic/Catholic News Service

As increasing incidents of vandalism against Church properties are reported across the country, St. Stephen Parish in Chattanooga has sadly found it was not immune.

A 5-foot-tall outdoor statue of the Blessed Mother was beheaded at St. Stephen sometime over the weekend of July 11-12. The missing head has not been found.

The vandalism was discovered by Father Manuel Pérez, St. Stephen pastor, as he walked the parish grounds before Mass on July 11. No one was injured and no other damage was reported.

The incident was the focus of local and national media coverage due to recent similar incidents of desecrated statues and Catholic church buildings in other parts of the country.

An official from the Department of Homeland Security investigated the incident at St. Stephen on July 16. Homeland Security is investigating a number of similar acts of vandalism across the country that occurred in the same time frame as possible hate crimes.

A statue of the Blessed Mother decapitated at St. Stephen Church in Chattanooga is shown on July 11.

Bishop Stika informed the diocese of the vandalism on July 13.

“These are indeed strange times in the United States, and so I just urge you to be vigilant. Over the last month, Church properties have been vandalized throughout the country, and this has also occurred at various times in our own diocese,” Bishop Stika said.

In December 2004, vandals attacked a statue of the Blessed Mother with the Christ child in front of the Diocese of Knoxville Chancery. Mary’s head was defaced and the head and arms of Jesus were severed. In July 2010, vandals painted vulgar graffiti on a statue of the Blessed Mother and damaged other statues at St. Mary Church in Oak Ridge.

“Anytime something like this happens it is disappointing and concerning. We don’t know if this was the targeted desecration of a sacred statue, or some kind of misguided prank, but it hurts,” said Diocese of Knoxville communications director Jim Wogan. “For whatever reason we are living in a very chaotic time, and anger seems to be the default setting for people. Our bishop has asked that we live by the example set in the Gospel of Matthew, to treat others as we ourselves would want to be treated.”

The beheading of a statue of Christ at a Catholic church in the Miami Archdiocese has saddened the parish community of Good Shepherd Church and prompted Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski to call on law enforcement to investigate the incident as a hate crime.

On July 15, the statue at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Southwest Miami-Dade was found with its head chopped off and knocked from its pedestal.

“It is too soon to arrive to any conclusion, but we have seen other churches vandalized around the country. We totally ‘condemn’ this action. We invite our community to pray for peace,” parish officials said in a statement.

A decapitated statue of Jesus is seen at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Miami July 15, 2020. (CNS photo/courtesy Florida Catholic)

“The statue, located outside the church, was on private and sacred property,” said Mary Ross Agosta, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Miami. She told the local Fox News affiliate Archbishop Wenski requested investigators consider the vandalism “a hate crime.”

The Department of Homeland Security is among the agencies investigating the case.

In recent weeks around the country, angry mobs have toppled statues of figures such as St. Junipero Serra, a Franciscan priest from Spain who founded several missions in California. Statues of historical figures, like Christopher Columbus, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglass also have been knocked down and heavily damaged.

The wave of recent attacks on Catholic statues includes an unidentified person using red paint to deface a statue of Mary in front of St. Mary’s Cathedral in downtown Colorado Springs, Colo., on July 15.

“It does look like a graffiti tag more than anything else,” Father David Price, the cathedral’s rector, told local reporters. “I’m not sure there was any sense or meaning behind it.”

A statue of Mary was found defaced July 10 on the grounds of Cathedral Prep School and Seminary in the Diocese of Brooklyn.

Father James Kuroly, Cathedral Prep’s rector and president, called the incident “an act of hatred.”

A statue of Mary defaced July 10,  is seen on the grounds of Cathedral Prep School and Seminary in the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. (CNS photo/courtesy Diocese of Brooklyn) 

“Obviously, this tragedy saddens us deeply,” he said in a statement, “but it also renews our hope and faith in the Lord as He has shown His goodness in the many people who have already reached out to us.”

He urged prayers “for those who committed this act of vandalism and hatred toward Our Lady and the Church.”

Police in Boston were likewise investigating a fire that damaged a statue of Mary outside St. Peter Church the evening of July 11. News reports said flowers in Mary’s hands were set on fire, causing damage from her arms up to her face.

Fire also claimed much of two Catholic churches, one in Florida and one in California.

In the Diocese of Orlando, a man crashed his van through the doors of Our Lady Queen of Peace Church in Ocala, Fla., early in the morning July 11. Once inside, he set the interior of the church ablaze. There were no injuries reported.

Police apprehended the suspect, who had fled. He was charged with several felonies, including attempted second-degree murder, arson to a structure, and felony fleeing or attempting to elude.

And in Los Angeles, fire ravaged Mission San Gabriel Arcangel Church before dawn on July 11. Investigators have yet to determine what started the blaze that gutted the 230-year-old church.

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  1. Sacred art is sacred. It can comfort and lift a distressed soul. But then again, many are ignorant. I wonder if these people know that Jesus Himself gave us the first Christian image. His image… left on the Shroud of Turin.

  2. Sacred art is sacred. It can reassure, give comfort and lift a distressed soul. I wonder if these vandals realize that Jesus Himself gave us the first Christian image. The image of Himself…left on the Shroud of Turin. I hate to think what they would do to it.

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