Man arrested for burglary, property destruction at Catholic school in DC

Father Fred Close, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., blesses St. Anthony students after a blessing of the statue. Father Fred Close, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., blesses St. Anthony students after a blessing of the statue. | Courtesy photo

Police have arrested and charged the man believed to have vandalized St. Anthony School in Washington, D.C., last week.

The property destruction led to national outcry and support for a Catholic school celebrating its 100th year this fall. 

St. Anthony’s principal of 12 years, Michael Thomasian, believes the incident was a hate crime targeted at the school’s Catholic witness. The school serves grades Pre-K-8 in the Brookland neighborhood.

In a phone interview with CNA, Thomasian pointed out that the only objects destroyed in the attack were Catholic symbols of the faith.  

“Vandalism is always a violation,” Thomasian said, “but the devastation is elevated when sacred statues, symbols of our faith and Christian identity, are desecrated.”

“I don’t know what else to say, it was an act full of hate,” he added. 

The incident is being investigated as a potential hate crime, the Washington Metropolitan Police Department said, in which 32-year-old Demitrius Hansford of Northeast Washington vandalized the school’s St. Anthony of Padua statue, stole $1,400 in cash, and trampled areas on the property in two incidents, on Aug. 10 and Aug. 15.

Hansford was charged with vandalism and theft Aug. 16.

The St. Anthony statue, which has been a fixture at the school for eight years, was toppled over in the attack. Statues of the Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph were also desecrated, in addition to Advent candles.  

The head of the St. Anthony statue broke off in the fall and is still missing, according to Thomasian. He told CNA that the school seeks the help of anyone in the community who may have knowledge as to its whereabouts, so that it can be returned and fixed. 

More than a statue 

How the statue came to the school was the result of one parent’s good idea and a search that ended with a blessing. 

Thomasian’s effort to move the school’s front entrance in 2014 was a major upgrade, with a new central location, small flower beds, and the American flag.

“But something was missing,” Thomasian reflected. When parent and neighbor Maria Jones suggested the school find a statue of its patron, St. Anthony of Padua, the search for the perfect one began. 

High-quality religious statues are expensive and often hard to find, but a local pastor, Monsignor Charles Pope from Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian, gifted the school at just the right time. 

“I received word from [Msgr. Pope] that he had a wonderful statue that just needed his hand fixed,” Thomasian remembered. “Needless [to say], we found the money to fix the hand and transport St. Anthony to his new home. The children and I planted flowers and our pastor, Fr. Fred, blessed our patron.”

“An army” of support 

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While the attacks on the St. Anthony statue and rest of the school property have been a big blow on the school, Thomasian says that “there’s been an army” of support and love from the surrounding community. 

Raquel Terry, a teacher and a parent of two students, started a Go Fund Me page to help raise funds for repairs and replacements following the vandalism. So far, supporters have donated more than $32,000, exceeding the goal. 

Thomasian says that the attacks have helped the school, church, and neighborhood family come together. “We were reminded of our identity and our mission and we re-commit ourselves to the work,” Thomasian said, adding, “our theme is ‘looking back with gratitude, looking forward with joy!’”

Meanwhile, the school has been cleaning up the grounds and getting ready for the start of St. Anthony’s 100th school year, which starts Aug. 29. 

“We’re very excited. A lot of schools are closed in the city, but we’re still open. We’re full and we’re thriving,” Thomasian added.

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