Minnesota bishop laments “satanical attitude” behind cemetery vandalism


Bishop of Winona Bernard Harrington lamented in his diocesan newspaper a series of vandalous acts and desecrations and suspects a “satanical attitude” of driving the latest incident in a string of attacks.   He connected the vandalism to a 2002 sacrilegious attack on a church in which consecrated hosts were desecrated.

Writing in The Courier, the newspaper of the Diocese of Winona, Bishop Harrington recounted several attacks on cemeteries in southern Minnesota. 

In the most recent incident at Calvary Cemetery in Rochester, a statue of Christ on the Cross was vandalized.  The perpetrators attempted to chisel off the head and feet of Christ, and one of the statue’s hands is missing after the attack.  The vandals removed the head and both arms from the marble statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, the patroness of the Rochester Franciscan Sisters.

Bishop Harrington said the vandalism seemed more than a mere prank.  “It seems to manifest hostility, perhaps even a satanical attitude, toward our Catholic religion,” he wrote.

The repairs to that part of the cemetery and its statues, which are owned by the sisters, are very costly.  Repairs to the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes will cost between $6,000 and $10,000.  Repairs to the statue of Christ on the Cross, a very old and intricate artwork, are estimated to cost over $100,000.

Since 1996 there have been at least six incidents of damage to statues and desecrated headstones and graves at Catholic cemeteries.

The bishop worried that there was so little reaction to the most recent vandalism at the cemetery.  “I wonder how much sense of loss and true compassion is present in our local Catholic and church communities over such actions,” he wrote.

Bishop Harrington also told of a church desecrated in October 2002.  St. Joseph’s Church in Theilman was broken into and the tabernacle was desecrated.  Intruders threw consecrated hosts across the sanctuary floor.

Desecrated churches must be re-consecrated before any other services can take place.  Bishop Harrington told how the whole parish came out for the ceremony, in a “wonderful demonstration of faith and respect for the Eucharist.”

The bishop said that night had fallen before the Mass had finished. 

“I decided that the desecrated hosts should be reverently placed in the ground in the parish cemetery, just above the church. It was quite a sight to have the parishioners walk up the hill to the cemetery with only the lights from a few cars showing the way. Two of the men dug an appropriate grave on the cemetery ground and the desecrated hosts were reverently placed into the soil. It was truly a burial in sacred ground,” he recounted.

A few days later, Bishop Harrington wrote, young teens confessed to the desecration.  One of the perpetrators came to the church on Sunday to ask forgiveness.  “This too was a most meaningful reconciliation for the Catholic community and the vandal,” the bishop wrote.

The bishop expressed sorrow about the recent vandalism of Cavalry Cemetery.  He also voiced concern about the safety of holy ground.

However, he suggested the incident was an occasion for Catholics to consider how to encourage respect between Catholics, between other Christian communities, and between religions.   “When one religious group or ethnic people are offended, we are all offended,” he said.

Bishop Harrington announced his personal contribution to the Franciscan Sisters to help restore the damaged statues.  He encouraged others to do the same, and to reflect upon the sacredness of their local Catholic cemetery.

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