Vandalized churches unbowed: St. Michael’s in Georgetown re-sanctified after desecration


By Mike Lang, The Dialog

Pastors at two parishes in Delaware said recent vandalism at their churches was disappointing but the congregations are eager to move on.

Father Dan McCloskey, pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Georgetown, was the main celebrant at a Mass of Reconciliation on Aug. 14 to rededicate the church after the tabernacle was removed and several items stolen during an early morning burglary Aug. 8.

He said the gravity of the situation first hit him when he saw the damage and again at the Mass, attended by approximately 100 parishioners. “Some were really emotionally touched by the whole thing,” said Father McCloskey, who will mark his 10th anniversary at St. Michael’s this October. “I felt empowered by the congregation being there because it’s not something you do every day. You want to say, ‘We’ll go on. It’s not going to stop us.’”

The damage was less severe at St. Polycarp’s in Smyrna but the feelings were much the same, said the pastor, Father Tom Flowers. St. Polycarp’s was vandalized sometime after
1 a.m. Aug. 15. The sacristy was ransacked, donation boxes emptied and items taken from the parish kitchen.

Police do not believe the two crimes are related. “Everything was so disheveled,” Father Flowers said. “Thank God the tabernacle wasn’t touched, but you feel violated.”

A Smyrna man, 32-year old Brian Morris, was charged with burglary, attempted theft, criminal mischief and possession of burglary tools after he allegedly entered through a kitchen screen. Morris, a St. Polycarp parishioner, is accused of trying to steal a chalice, a  pyx (a vessel that holds Communion that is taken to the sick), a portable microphone,  hearing devices for the impaired, holy water, Father Flowers’ rosary, sugar packets, peanut butter and coffee.

St. Michael’s is re-sanctified

At St. Michael’s, the tabernacle was removed from the church and consecrated hosts were scattered on the ground outside, causing the diocese to declare the church desecrated. A gold-plated chalice was stolen, along with two ciboria and a luna, which is a holder inside the monstrance.

The Catholic Encyclopedia defines desecration as “the loss of that peculiar quality of sacredness.” Material objects designed for the purpose of worship assume a sacred and inviolable character.

When that character is markedly changed, those objects are unfit for use until they are rededicated.

Also, in that case, according to Canon Law 1211, the church is not to be used for worship until the spiritual, if not physical, damage is repaired by a penitential rite. Fortunately, said Msgr. Joseph Rebman, the diocesan vicar for pastoral services, the instances of vandalism at churches in Delaware and on the Eastern Shore are so rare that he had to research the rite known as the Reconciliation of a Church.

While St. Michael’s celebrated a Mass, the parish could have had a quiet, private ceremony, Msgr. Rebman said. “It’s a very short service,” he said. “In fact, we had to put it together because it’s so rare that we have to use it.”

The bishop or a priest designated by him stands outside the church and blesses the doors and front walls with holy water. After a prayer, he enters the church and processes to the altar, where he recites a litany of the saints. He then sprinkles the walls of the church, significant interior furnishings and the location where damage was done.

The hosts found outside on the ground were wrapped in a cloth and buried under a statue on the parish grounds, Msgr. Rebman said. This ensured that no one would step on the buried hosts. Hosts that fall on the ground are normally dissolved in water and poured into a sacrarium, a sink that empties under a church, but the number of hosts involved at
St. Michael made that impractical.

Joan Ilgenfritz, the administrative assistant at St. Michael’s and also a parishioner, said she took the damage personally. “It’s as if your home or something very personal to you has been desecrated,” she said.

Ilgenfritz said other items damaged included a broken door, ripped screens and a broken door handle on a reconciliation room.

Father McCloskey said the reconciliation service was a morale booster.

“It was uplifting for me, lifting me out of my doldrums. It was powerful to realize for one moment the sacredness of all that we do,” he said.

Security system pays off

The break-in at St. Polycarp was captured on the parish’s four-month-old security system cameras, something Father Flowers had installed after several minor incidents over the
past few years.

“That, unfortunately, is the deck we’ve been dealt. It’s to protect the people and to protect the sanctity of the Eucharist,” he said.

Some parishioners who attended Mass on Friday for the Assumption were in tears upon hearing the news. That is understandable, he said, because parishioners see the parish as their home and because it is a “special and sacred place.”

Some of the items Morris allegedly placed into a bag he picked up in the sacristy have special meaning for Father Flowers. His mother gave him the chalice, and Pope John Paul II blessed his rosary. He said he reblessed them even though they were not desecrated “just so that I could use them again without getting the willies.”

Ironically, St. Polycarp had intended to hold a prayer service last Friday for the people of St. Michael’s.

“We didn’t expect we’d be quite so much in solidarity with them,” Father Flowers said.

Printed with permission from the Dialog, newspaper for the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware.

Follow us:

Check out Catholic News Agency Polls on LockerDome on LockerDome