BRYSON CITY — Priceless crucifixes – one 7 feet tall that serves as a grave memorial – were destroyed at St. Joseph Church Aug. 7.
The man who damaged the outdoor crucifix, as well as one hanging inside the church, was arrested during the broad-daylight attack.
Father Peter Shaw, pastor of the small mountain church that sits along the Tuckasegee River, was returning to the church property just as a man was inside “ranting.” A women’s studies group was meeting in the church basement.
“Around 5:20 p.m., someone showed up on campus in broad daylight,” Father Shaw said. “He came out in a rant and destroyed the crucifix corpus that sits in front of the parish on Main Street.”
After destroying most of the outdoor crucifix, the man then went inside and grabbed the cross off the altar and used it to destroy the crucifix that hangs on the wall, Father Shaw said.
The church remains unlocked during the day. No damage was done to the altar or tabernacle, he noted.
A women’s group was meeting at the time and heard the commotion, Father Shaw said. One of them confronted the man while another called police.
Bryson City Police responded quickly and the man was taken into custody, he said.
No one was injured. The man’s name is not available, pending the completion of the incident report. Father Shaw said he was not familiar with the man, nor was he connected to the parish.
Police said the man was suspected of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The man’s rantings were about how the “town was going to hell” and about the “dead Jesus on the Cross,” Father Shaw said.
The outdoor crucifix is a memorial marker for a Korean War veteran and about a half dozen, mostly indigent people. Their names are commemorated on plaques on the back of the cross, Shaw said. The memorial crucifix has been a prominent feature in front of the church since the 1950s.
Dedicated in 1941, St. Joseph Church is the oldest Catholic church in that area of the Smoky Mountains.
“I think there’s a shock that happens about how anyone would do this,” Father Shaw said. “That’s the initial human reaction when you witness the loss of any sacred image, like the crucifix. The crucifix is a reminder of how deep God’s love is for us. To see it destroyed is jarring.”
Father Shaw said we have to be witnesses of what that crucifix represents and pray for the man responsible for destroying it.
“We should pray that God’s grace will be there to aid him through whatever struggle may be going,” Father Shaw said. “It’s a sacred object that was destroyed, but it’s just that – an object.”
He stressed that the person is more valuable.
“We need to be reminded as a parish that when we lose something like that it can cause a deep emotional response. It shows us the preciousness in things,” Father Shaw said. “It reminds us how precious God’s love is to us.”
He related the emotional response of his parishioners to the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris – albeit on a much smaller, more local scale.
“Parishioners are deeply saddened by it,” Father Shaw said. “We can’t let the fear and sadness dominate.”
Some parishioners have asked if he will lock the church going forward, and Father Shaw’s response was no. He said the church must continue to be a refuge from the busyness of daily life, where people can come in and spend time with the Lord – and that far outweighs the risk of losing an object.
Father Shaw is working to determine how much it will cost to replace the damaged items. For the two crucifixes at St. Joseph's, both of the damaged corpuses will be respectfully removed and buried. When the parish has replaced them, there will be a ceremony with the solemn blessing of a crucifix for public veneration.
Weekend Masses will continue as scheduled, and daily Masses resume Monday, he said.
— Kimberly Bender, online reporter Catholic Herald News