A shocking act of vandalism has inspired an outpouring of love from outside and inside a Catholic parish in Lindenwold.
"We're praying for whoever did this," says the Rev. Joseph Capella, the pastor of St. Lawrence Church, where sections of stained-glass windows were smashed and the central altar was trashed shortly before noon Jan. 6.
The perpetrator "must have been filled with rage," says Capella, 54, a Hammonton native who continues to set a tone of forgiveness in mainstream and social media.
Perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that the desecration has, in his words, "brought people together."
Indeed: A second grader at the parish's St. John-Paul II school donated $26. "I collected money," 8-year-old Cameron Caudle explained in a handwritten note to "Father Joe" that was reproduced in the church bulletin.
The pastor's former students at Bishop Eustace Prep in Pennsauken organized an effort that raised $6,150 online. "We just felt we should do something," says Justin Spaeth, 31, of Plymouth Meeting, a member of the Class of 2002.
And the Delaware Valley Citizens' Crime Commission in Philadelphia posted a $2,500 reward - funded by Cherry Hill philanthropist Kal Rudman - for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.
Says Rudman, 85, who gave another $2,500 toward the restoration: "It's the right thing to do."
About $30,000 has been pledged so far.
"The community has really been supportive," says Lindenwold Police Chief Thomas J. Brennan, who grew up in the borough and attended the parish school.
When the vandalism occurred, the White Horse Pike church was open, but there were no witnesses. A maintenance worker discovered the damage.
"We did recover fingerprints, and we are awaiting results from the state police lab," Brennan says. "The investigation is continuing."
Says Michael Walsh, spokesman for the Diocese of Camden, "At this point, we have not received any direction from the police that suggests the vandalism was motivated by any animus toward the Catholic Church, in general."
Capella takes me on a tour of the sanctuary, where a flag, a candle, and a crucifix were overturned or thrown, and heavy glass candleholders were hurled through sections of 10 windows.
Missing pieces of stained glass have been covered with cardboard and duct tape. Even with such scars, St. Lawrence is still beautiful.
"People call and say, 'I'm not Catholic,' or, 'I don't even know if I believe in God,' but they still want to contribute," Capella says. "People ask me about it everywhere I go."
Although a damage estimate has not been made, pending a restoration expert's visit this week, Capella says any leftover funds will go toward the purchase of a security system that will include video surveillance.
He notes that St. Lawrence is open daily and includes a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. She's the namesake of the parish, which has nearly 5,400 families and is one of the largest in the diocese.
St. Lawrence Church itself was built in 1958. The spectacular stained-glass windows were designed, fabricated, and installed by the Edward J. Byrne Studio in Doylestown.
"I worked with my father on that project," says Edward Byrne Jr., 82, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., who ran the studio until his retirement seven years ago.
The Byrne studio was widely respected and did the windows for a number of prominent churches in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, including the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, in Trenton, and Our Lady of Ransom on Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philadelphia.
"The fellow who is going to do the actual [restoration] work in Lindenwold," Byrne notes, "is James Darrah, who worked in my studio for decades."
Darrah, 67, who owns J.M. Darrah Studio in Doylestown, says he planned to inspect the damage this week.
"I dare say we can restore them," he says. "Fortunately they're not that old, and we can match the glass.
"These windows are pretty tough," Darrah adds. "It takes a lot of work to break them."
It takes a lot more than an ugly act of vandalism to break the spirit of the people who love St. Lawrence Church, too.
"It was done by somebody who was really angry with God, and who wanted to act out to get attention," says devout parishioner Stephanie Greco, 65, of Gloucester Township.
"They were angry or heartbroken or distraught. They were lashing out," she adds.
"And I feel badly for that person."