Deflated, Father Frank Tumino ascended the pulpit at St. Francis Xavier Church in Brooklyn on Tuesday morning. Six blocks away, St. Augustine’s, the other church where he ministers, was shut down and cordoned off with police tape. In its center was a literal and figurative hole.
“It’s just one more blow,” Father Tumino said after presiding the mass. He was referring to the theft of the Tabernacle of St. Augustine, a $2 million gold hoard that was severed from its 19th century foundation last week with a power saw before it presumably disappeared into the dark underground of stolen artifacts.
The ornate tabernacle box that held the Eucharist – the consecrated hosts believed by worshipers to embody Jesus Christ – disappeared from the Park Slope church sanctuary between last Thursday evening and Saturday afternoon, police said.
The church, which was under construction at the time, had security cameras, but they weren’t working, police said. Either way, Father Tumino said, whoever robbed the tabernacle thought to seize the digital recorder on which the videos would have been stored.
For the Brooklyn Diocese, the burglary was just the latest bad news, Fr. Tumino said. Congregations that were scarce before the pandemic have shrunk further since it began. Tight budgets continue to shrink, he said, priests tend to multiple congregations, and tight budgets mean too loose security.
“Understand: these parishes have been decimated,” said Father Tumino.
“These parishes need 10 to 15 million dollars of work,” he added. “I was tasked to do this, and there is not that money available, so you have to choose what you can choose and do now.
Father Tumino discovered the tabernacle was missing when he arrived at the church on Saturday, the Brooklyn Diocese said in a statement. No matter how devastating the loss of such a central device was, he said on Tuesday, he was glad the theft happened when the church was empty.
“I’m thankful that nobody, just the cleaning company, the people who normally hand out food on Saturday mornings — that nobody stumbled across it,” he said. “The kind of violence used to take him really would have meant someone’s life.”
Police said the tabernacle was pure gold, but a 2013 church program said it was sterling silver and plated in 18-karat gold. Both placed the value of the tabernacle in the seven figures; police estimated it at around $2 million.
The piece was insured, a spokeswoman for the diocese said, although it was unclear by whom and for how much.
The Tabernacle’s significance goes beyond monetary value or even Catholic faith – the ship is a Brooklyn relic in its own right, an adorned ghost of a time when Park Slope was populated by German and Irish immigrants, many of whom were Catholic.
The object was designed by Alfred Parfitt, a prolific Brooklyn architect who, along with his brothers, Walter and Henry, chiseled some of the borough’s notable brownstones in the early 20th century. The materials used to make the tabernacle – gold, diamonds and other precious stones and metals – were donated by parishioners to the church in 1888.
“The pastor asked to bring jewelry,” said Father Robert Whelan, a former pastor at the church, of the building and its tabernacle in the 2013 program. Parishioners, he said , brought wedding rings, engagement diamonds and other jewelry which was used to adorn the room.
“It’s probably the most elaborate tabernacle in the country,” Father Whelan said on the show. Contacted on Tuesday, he declined to comment.
Selling such an item to a legitimate buyer could be difficult. Whenever New York dealers buy gold or other valuables, they are supposed to upload the identity of the seller and the item to an online database, said Uness Ahmed, owner of J&M We Buy Gold Buyers in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. Law enforcement authorities, he said, have access to the database.
“If something is reported stolen, the police have the ability to match the purchases with the reports,” Mr Ahmed said.
Thefts of such valuable artifacts are rare, said Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, which does not include churches in Brooklyn. But vandalism and break-ins happen occasionally, he said, noting that two statues were damaged in a Manhattan parish earlier in May.
The Archdiocese of New York does not have an estimate of how many of its assets could be worth more than $1 million, Zwilling said. There are certainly objects of great value – historically, financially or spiritually – that belong to the parishes of the archdiocese, he added.
“Our risk management office, along with our insurance companies, would work with any parish that may have such an item to ensure that appropriate security measures are in place,” Zwilling said.
The church’s treasures have long attracted high-stakes burglars, propelling an age-old trade. Panels from the Belgian Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck have been taken over several times over the centuries, including by the Nazis. Days before the Brooklyn Tabernacle was stolen, a collection of priceless relics disappeared from a church in Florida.
Whoever took St. Augustine’s tabernacle also threw the Eucharist on the altar and decapitated an angel statue, the diocese said. For those who adhere to the Catholic faith, the scattering of the Eucharist was as shocking as the burglary of its receptacle, a spokeswoman for the diocese said.
Maryann Taranto, a Brooklyn resident who attended Fr. Tumino’s Tuesday morning service, said afterward that St. Augustine had been her main parish for 35 years.
“For someone to come in and desecrate our church is a horror,” said Ms Taranto, 69, adding that it would be praying for the tabernacle to return.
“I don’t know anymore,” she said. “Today little children are being killed all over the country. So there is no respect for life, there is no respect for property, there is no respect for anything. that is.
The tabernacle, which was about two feet high, was probably weighted down – a tradition to keep it from being swept away. In the 2013 church program, Father Whelan said it would cost at least $500,000 to replace such a sacred object.
“And, it’s obviously very heavy too,” the show host joked, nodding.
“Yes,” Father Whelan replied, both men laughing. “Yes.”
Liam’s Stack contributed report. Kitty Bennett contributed to the research.