When the pastor of a Brooklyn Catholic church came into work Saturday, he was struck first by a strange smell, the essence of metal cuttings.
As he made his way into the sanctuary, his other senses—namely, sight—compounded to make the scene even worse. Two sculpted angels around the altar were destroyed, with one missing its head. At the top of the altar, a steel case that once contained a $2 million gold tabernacle was cut open and empty.
“Obviously, they came with tools to be able to do that,” Father Frank Tumino, the pastor of Park Slope’s St. Augustine Catholic Church, told CBS New York’s Leah Mishkin. “ ... We all just thought that a sacred space would never be violated.”
The tabernacle—a highly decorative locked box designed to store consecrated hosts for Communion—was made of 18-karat gold, according to CBS. It dates to the late 1800s, when the parish was first built, based on a statement from the Diocese of Brooklyn, which calls the tabernacle “irreplaceable due to its historical and artistic value.” The burglary is thought to have taken place last Friday.
“This is devastating, as the tabernacle is the central focus of our church outside of worship, holding the Body of Christ, the Eucharist, which is delivered to the sick and homebound,” Tumino said in the statement. “To know that a burglar entered the most sacred space of our beautiful church and took great pains to cut into a security system is a heinous act of disrespect.”
St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church is a landmark in the Park Slope neighborhood, often referred to as the area’s “Notre Dame,” according to the New York Times’ Ali Watkins. The Catholic church sprung up in 1888 due to demand from the influx of German and Irish immigrants to Brooklyn, notes the Diocese’s website. Though it’s over a century old, St. Augustine cultivates a decidedly modern feel, with a Facebook page that calls it a “socially conscious Roman Catholic Church.”
Though places of worship are seen as sacred, the objects within can tempt would-be thieves. In March of this year, the Catholic News Agency reports, a tabernacle and other objects were stolen from a Catholic church in Hydes, Maryland; in a bulletin following the theft, pastor Father Pete D. Literal encouraged congregants to pray for the perpetrators and work to forgive them. Another Baltimore-area tabernacle theft in 1993 was solved when a parish priest found the consecrated box in a field near the church parking lot, the Baltimore Sun’s Darren M. Allen reported at the time.
Nor does the United States have a monopoly on church burglaries. In 2020, someone broke into a church in Regensburg, Germany and stole the thousand-year-old remains of Saint Wolfgang, according to Deutsche Welle. And back in 2015, British investigators unearthed a decade-long religious crime ring in a sting known as Operation Icarus, revealing a litany of robberies targeting sacred objects and even centuries-old architecture. The theft of the historic items “deprived the whole nation of its heritage,” a conservation expert told the Guardian’s Steven Morris at the time.
The NYPD is investigating the Brooklyn burglary, but has not yet identified a suspect or whether that person worked alone or as part of a team, per the Times. Law enforcement is not currently looking into the incident as a bias crime.
But parishioners have their theories. The person who stole the tabernacle also took the DVR from the St. Augustine’s security camera, says CBS—footage that would likely have offered information on the culprit.
“It had to be someone who knew something inside,” says parishioner David Flowers to CBS.
Tumino is not so sure. After all, he reflects, the church is a “public building.” People can come in and out to seek quiet or solace—or scope out the sacred crime scene in advance.