Broken statues lead to strengthened faith ahead of Christmas

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A statue of an angel that stood next to the tabernacle at St. Mary’s Basilica was vandalized Dec. 1. Rector Fr. Michael Weldon, OFM, says it’s symbolic of our own brokenness and call to proclaim the Gospel. (Tony Gutiérrez/CATHOLIC SUN)

Historic statues at basilica vandalized, but remind faithful of their own brokenness

A set of historic statues that were vandalized at St. Mary’s Basilica serve as a reminder of our own brokenness as we prepare for the coming of Christ, says rector Fr. Michael Weldon, OFM.

The incident occurred on Dec. 1, a Saturday afternoon, in between a funeral liturgy and the vigil Mass for the First Sunday of Advent. A man identified as Devon Thomas entered the church, spat on the floor of the sanctuary, climbed onto the church’s high altar and threw down the angel statues and crucifix that surrounded the tabernacle, said Br. Scott Slattum, OFM, who witnessed the event. The statues date back to at least 1915, where they are seen in photographs from the dedication of the church that year.

“It happened so quickly – it wasn’t like this transpired over several minutes,” Br. Scott said. “It was less than a minute.”

Br. Scott said that the basilica’s custodian Renee Poston and a visitor were able to pull Thomas down by the pant leg before he climbed further. The three of them and other staff members then surrounded him until the police arrived.

“You’re always just trying to discern, because you want this to be a welcoming space, and you want people to feel safe here. No matter who you are, this has to be a welcoming space where you can pray and be in the presence of God. But unfortunately, there’s those individuals, either due to drugs or mental illness,” Br. Scott said. “My heart went out to this person’s mother or father or family; it’s got to weigh on them, too, to see their son like this.”

Fr. Weldon said he was in shock when he was informed. Afterward, he said, staff members moved the broken pieces to the sacristy, but together they discerned it was best to leave them out, and they were placed on the altar of Our Lady on the right side of the church.

The crucifix that stood above the tabernacle at St. Mary’s Basilica was vandalized Dec. 1. (Tony Gutiérrez/CATHOLIC SUN)

“I wanted the people to see it and I preached on it at the 9 a.m. Mass. I said to the people that we have to see the reality of our community and our mission in downtown Phoenix, and in some ways it’s to be angels to proclaim the message of God’s presence and God’s love that’s credible enough for the poor,” reflected Fr. Weldon. “In some ways we’re all broken angels. All of us have been knocked around a little bit and have had pieces broken off, but that doesn’t excuse us from the task still to welcome and announce and to be God’s hands and feet and His care for the people in the city.”

In light of that, the rector said the statues would stay until Christmas, “just for prayer and reference.” After the Mass, Fr. Weldon said, parishioners brought their children to the altar and prayed and cried.

“The brokenness of the statues fits well with both our local church and the Universal Church because we are broken. It’s the angels who announce the Good News to the people on the margins, the shepherds and folks in the hills,” Fr. Weldon said, adding that although all are called to this mission, “we only do it through our lives, choices, relationships, service, our teaching and preaching. It comes with cracks, and our brokenness is the very gift God uses to bring the message home.

“It has nothing to do with perfection, but people of good will whose hearts are in the right places.”

A parishioner who is also an artist told the priest that the statues could be restored. As for Thomas, Fr. Weldon said he’s been added to the parish’s prayer list to be read at Mass. When police suggested to him that perhaps the historic downtown church should lock its doors during office hours, he responded that that would be counter to the basilica’s mission.

“This isn’t about plaster and buildings, despite how much we love this one. It’s about people,” he said. “And if this can’t be about serving people and attending people and announcing the Gospel to people, then truly we’re a museum and not a church. So, I hope that that happens from doing Advent around those broken images.”