A ‘hate crime’ at Montana Catholic churches? Some think so

Montana church vandalism Statues of Joseph and Mary were stolen from a Nativity scene at St. Patrick’s Co-Cathedral in Billings, Montana, after vandals destroyed the statues the night of Jan. 16, 2023. The statues were found Jan. 26, 2023. | Credit: Montana Television Network News/Screenshot

Wise men were decapitated, animals scattered, and Mary, Jesus, and Joseph were missing from a Nativity scene at St. Patrick’s Co-Cathedral in Billings, Montana, after vandals destroyed the statues the night of Jan. 16.

The incident was similar to another that occurred at Mary Queen of Peace Catholic Church on the city’s south side that same night. Three statues and some paintings were stolen there, artwork of Our Lady of Guadalupe was damaged, and graffiti such as “Mary is the whore of Babylon” was written on the walls.

Two other non-Catholic churches were also vandalized the same week. It is not clear if the crimes are connected, but the pastor of one of the churches, Central Christian Church, said he doesn’t think they’re related, KTVQ/Q2 News reported.

Police estimated the stolen items at Our Lady Queen of Peace were worth about $8,300. Damage done to the front door of the church and by the graffiti was estimated at $4,000, according to KTVQ/Q2 News.

Father Jose Marquez, parochial administrator of Our Lady Queen of Peace, called the perpetrators “mentally, emotionally sick.”

A parishioner at Our Lady Queen of Peace set up a GoFundMe page Jan. 18 to “help us repair, replace our sacred items and purchase a much needed alarm system.”

“We have come to the conclusion that this was a hate crime,” a Jan. 21 update to the page reads. “Please help us restore our faith community.”

According to the GoFundMe page, damage at the church “is so severe that we are unable to worship until the space is repaired and reconsecrated by the bishop. All of our statues, holy books, and sacred icons are gone. The painting of Our Lady was defaced and marked with vulgarity.”

Almost $14,000 had been raised as of Friday afternoon.

CNA reached out to Marquez for comment but did not hear back by time of publication.

“Having heard the next day about what had happened down at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish, [also called] Little Flower Church, I was starting to think maybe it could be some sort of a hate crime,” the pastor of St. Patrick’s, Father Leo McDowell, told KTVQ News. “To hear about it happening down there kind of just raised a question: Was it something that we were targeted, or was it something that somebody just lost it when they went by and was mad and did the anger thing?”

Nine days after McDowell filed a police report, he said he was still waiting for someone to investigate the case, according to the news outlet.

“I’m a little frustrated. It makes me question whether they’re taking it seriously,” McDowell said.

Montana Television Network News said it reached out to Billings Police Department about the incident on Jan. 25. Soon after, the department responded and sent out officers to complete the investigation, the network reported. Lt. Matt Lennick of the department took the blame for the delay in responding to the case, citing an error in how the paperwork was filed.

“As far as this case being connected to the other church burglaries and vandalisms in the last couple weeks, it still (is) to be determined,” Lennick told MTN News. “Much of the vandalism is similar in nature, so it could be connected, but each case has received a fair amount of social media attention as well. So there is always the possibility for copycat incidents.”

On Jan. 26, after seeing news coverage of the vandalism at St. Patrick’s, a “Good Samaritan” found the missing statues of Mary and Joseph in her apartment building’s fire escape and contacted MTN News, the outlet reported.

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“Hello! I have some good news; I have Mary and Joseph!” the anonymous woman wrote in an email to the station. Joseph’s head was decapitated, but the woman said she tried gluing it back on. Despite her efforts, McDowell said the statues will all most likely have to be replaced.

He also expressed hope that the baby Jesus statue, which is still missing, will be found.

“I am hopeful that someone will run across it maybe hearing the story tonight,” he told MTN News Jan. 26.

“We don’t have widespread cameras [on the church property right now], but that might be changing before too long,” he added.

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