On Tuesday, a statue of St. Joseph — as in the father of Jesus — was found knocked over and headless near the manger at Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Catholic church in the hills outside Doylestown.
Police in Buckingham Township responded, and though the culprit was determined to be a wind gust, the rapid response was a sign of the times for the 2,700-family congregation.
The church has seen multiple acts of vandalism in the last year and a half. Donation boxes were pried open and emptied. The word pedophile was spray-painted on a sign. An annual antiabortion display was smashed. October was the worst of it, with three incidents in as many weeks, according to the Rev. Robert Ianelli, one of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s faith leaders.
In response to those incidents and other acts of violence at places of worship throughout the country, the church last year formed its Safety and Security Team, a volunteer board of parishioners including a former Philadelphia cop and others with law enforcement backgrounds. But as frustrated as the members of Our Lady of Guadalupe are, the approach of their namesake’s feast day on Thursday, and Christmas two weeks later, has them focusing on forgiveness.
“If you hold on to resentment, it will tear at you,” Ianelli said. “And forgiveness kind of releases us from that bitterness. So that’s what we emphasized to our people. Although you may be shocked and angry, you can’t hold on to that resentment. It’ll eat at you.”
It’s a complicated response. While church leaders say they want authorities to prosecute vandalism, they’re also open to a dialogue with those responsible as a long-term solution.
“In the U.S., we have freedom of religion, and we shouldn’t be afraid of public displays of faith,” Ianelli said. “Obviously, whoever did this doesn’t agree with our message, but there are more civil ways to hash out our differences.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe rises up suddenly on motorists driving on Route 413, its burnt-orange stucco contrasting sharply with surrounding greenery. The church split off from Our Lady of Mount Carmel in 2000 when that parish grew too large, using space at Central Bucks High School East to offer Sunday Mass. In 2011, its current facility opened.
After the fatal shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last year, church leaders started having frank conversations about safety — particularly how to balance the tradition of welcoming everyone while protecting against those without good intentions.
Ray Lokay, a member of the Safety and Security Team, says the changes have been subtle, including locking the doors midway through Sunday Mass and having ushers keep a close eye on the church’s exterior. Last year, 40 security cameras were installed outside the church.
“We’ve been careful about not being alarmist. We’re trying to dance in the zone of being observant without being overly cautious,” Lokay said. “Part of the charm of this congregation is that this is a highly positive environment, and we strive to keep it that way.”
Lokay said his fellow congregants for the most part feel safe and have moved past the incidents in the fall. But the Buckingham Police Department, with 21 officers, hasn’t given up. Chief Mike Gallagher said the vandalism remains a “top priority."
Officials of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia said Thursday that the vandalism seemed confined to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and that other nearby churches hadn’t experienced similar incidents.
“This is a safe place to live. It’s quiet,” Gallagher said. “We’re fortunate here that we don’t have people getting repeatedly victimized, but for some reason, this church is repeatedly targeted.”