Catholic churches vandalized, 1 torched with churchgoers inside

The building that houses the nearly 250-year-old San Gabriel Mission in California sustained extensive damage in a fire on June 11, 2020.
The building that houses the nearly 250-year-old San Gabriel Mission in California sustained extensive damage in a fire on June 11, 2020. | YouTube/CBS Los Angeles

Several Catholic churches and statues paying homage to one of the most revered figures in Christianity became the targets of violence and vandalism over the weekend. Two Catholic churches were set on fire while statues of the Virgin Mary in major cities across the U.S. were defaced.

The wave of vandalism began early Friday morning in the New York City borough of Queens, where a vandal targeted a statue of the Virgin Mary located at Cathedral Prep School and Seminary. 

Security camera footage captured an individual defacing the statue by spray-painting the word “IDOL” down the front in black paint, Catholic News Agency reports. 

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Father James Kuroly, rector and president of Cathedral Prep, described the vandalism as “an act of hatred” while praising the community for “the help we have received as well as the prayers.”

“This tragedy saddens us deeply but it also renews our hope and faith in the Lord, as He has shown His goodness in the many people who have reached out to us,” Kuroly told CNA. 

Less than 48 hours after the incident in Queens, a statue of Mary outside St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Boston, Massachusetts, was set on fire. The perpetrator set fire to the plastic flowers in the statue's hand, which caused damage to the statue's upper body.

As he said a prayer next to the statue on Sunday, Rev. John Currie, the pastor of St. Peter’s, reached out to the person responsible for the damage. 

“I know Our Lady in Heaven is looking down at the soul, or whoever it might have been, and saying, ‘I love you.’ If you need help, come get help. We’re here for you,” Currie said, the Boston Herald reported. 

Early Saturday morning, worshipers gathered inside Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Ocala, Florida, faced imminent risk to their lives when 24-year-old Steven Anthony Shields slammed his minivan into the church's front doors and poured gasoline in the foyer before setting it on fire.

The Ocala Star-Banner reports that Shields described his act of violence as “awesome” and relayed his grievances with the Catholic Church to law enforcement officials.

The Orlando Sentinel reported that “no one was injured” in the attack. Shields is being held at the Marion County jail without bond on several charges, including attempted second-degree murder, first-degree arson, burglary with assault and eluding law enforcement.

On the same day that Shields plowed his minivan into Queen of Peace, the San Gabriel Mission, a historic Catholic church in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, California, dating back a quarter millennium, caught fire.  

Jose Gomez, archbishop of the Diocese of Los Angeles, described the landmark as “the historic cornerstone and the spiritual heart of Los Angeles and the Catholic community here,” according to Catholic San Francisco

While no one was injured in the San Gabriel Mission fire, it suffered significant damage after its roof collapsed from the fire and the inside of the structure was burned.

Capt. Antonio Negrete of the San Gabriel Fire Department told Fox11 that the cause of the fire is still being determined.

He stressed that the recent destruction of a statue of St. Junipero Serra in San Francisco will be a factor in an arson investigation. Serra founded the church in 1771 during the era of Spanish colonization. 

Last month, as he exorcised the site where the statue of St. Serra once stood, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco described the destruction of the statue as “the activity of the evil one who wants to bring down the Church, who wants to bring down all Christian believers.” 

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