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Ushers of the year? Attempted church robbery stopped by parishioners

When a gunman held up two ushers and a 72-year-old friar, the ushers chased after him and recovered more than $500.

Not at my church.

That's the attitude – described as both "pretty stupid" and "incredibly heroic," that two ushers had when an armed robber grabbed the collection following mass and they ran after the suspect, recovering the money.

At about 1:30 p.m. Sunday, after one of the busiest masses of the year celebrating first communion for dozens of elementary age children, ushers Francisco Torres and Jose Garcia brought the canvas bag, holding the day's collection to Brother Karl Koenig in the sacristy.

The organ at St. Anthony's of Padua started playing the recessional hymn as the crowd –mostly families with girls and boys dressed in white dresses and suits - got ready to pour into the sunlit street.

Meanwhile the ushers and the 72-year-old Koenig, who had recently had open heart surgery to repair an aortic valve, started the two minute walk from the church to the rectory where they planned on placing the bag of about $500 in a safe.

A minute into their walk, a man holding a black hood to cover his face walked toward them, lifted an arm to point a gun at them, grabbed the satchel and fled.

"He didn't say a word," Koenig said in an interview Monday. "No one did."

What happened next was both "incredibly heroic and pretty stupid," father Jud Weiksnar, also of St. Anthony's said.

Maybe it was the frustration of living in a city so accustomed to violence or the juxtaposition of the innocence of the church service with the aggressive act, but Garcia and Torres bolted after the guy.

They chased him a few blocks down to an intersection where another parishioner who witnessed the robbery tried to block the escape path with his SUV. The suspect turned the gun to the SUV and the man swerved, Koenig said.

Koenig said the gun looked like a BB gun but he was still terrified he'd hear gunshots as he watched the ushers run after the man.

Moments later, as the suspect tried to scale a fence to get away, he dropped the bag and kept running.

"I would have preferred they just hand the money over and let him go. It's not worth the risk, it was a brave thing, very heroic but not very practical," said Koenig.

It's not the first time something like this has happened at the parish. In the 1980s a robber hit a friar over the head and snatched the collection he was transporting. That's when the church instituted the policy of having two ushers accompany the friars on the trip.

Police Monday arrested a suspect in the incident. They say they will assign police to the immediate church area on Sunday mornings.

Weisnar said he hopes the guy gets help.

"If somebody's gonna steal money from a church they're probably very desperate. That's the impressive thing, the guys chasing him were saying, 'We have to pray for this guy, he's probably in a very bad situation.'"

Koenig said he hopes it doesn't set back the church, which had its largest crowd of the year for the morning of communion masses, or discourage the community, which has advocated for increased safety measures, including lights in the neighboring Von Neida Park.

"It'll scare a lot of people, that's the problem," Koenig said. "Here we have another violence problem in Camden and we were hoping we were getting further away from that."

- Julia Terruso