On Tuesday morning, empty, Father Frank Tumino stepped into the pulpit at Brooklyn’s St. Francis Xavier Church. Six blocks away, St. Augustine’s, the other church where he serves as pastor, was locked up and cordoned off with police tape. In the middle was a literal and figurative hole.
“This is just another blow,” Father Tumino said after presiding over Mass. He was referring to the theft of the Tabernacle of Saint Augustine, a $2 million gold hoard that was severed from its 19th-century foundation with a power saw last week. presumably disappear into the murky underground of stolen artifacts.
The ornate tabernacle box that contained the Eucharist — the consecrated wafers believed to embody Jesus Christ — disappeared from the sanctuary of Park Slope Church sometime between last Thursday evening and Saturday afternoon, police said.
The church, which was under construction at the time, had security cameras, but they were not working, police said. Anyway, said Father Tumino, whoever stole the tabernacle thought to grab the digital recorder where the videos were supposed to be stored.
For the Brooklyn Diocese, the break-in was just the latest bad news, Father Tumino said. Municipalities that were scarce before the pandemic have become even thinner since the beginning. Tight budgets continue to shrink, he said, priests tend to several congregations and tight budgets mean too loose of security.
“Understand: these parishes have been decimated,” Father Tumino said.
“These parishes need between $10 million and $15 million in work,” he added. “That is entrusted to me, and that money is not there, so you have to choose what you can choose and do it now.”
Father Tumino found the tabernacle missing when he arrived at the church on Saturday, the Brooklyn Diocese said in a statement. Regardless of how devastating the loss of such a central fixture was, he said Tuesday, he was glad the theft happened when the church was empty.
“I’m grateful that nobody, that the cleaning company, the people who normally hand out Saturday morning food – that nobody has come across this,” he said. “The kind of violence used to take it really would have meant someone’s life.”
Police said the tabernacle was made of pure gold, but a 2013 church program said it was sterling silver and plated with 18-karat gold. Both placed the value of the tabernacle in the seven digits; the police estimated it at about $2 million.
The piece was insured, a spokeswoman for the diocese said, although it is not clear by whom and for how much.
The significance of the tabernacle extends beyond its monetary value or even the Catholic faith – the nave is in itself a Brooklyn relic, a bejeweled ghost from an era when Park Slope was populated by German and Irish immigrants, many of them Catholics. .
The item was designed by Alfred Parfitt, a prolific Brooklyn-based architect who, along with his brothers, Walter and Henry, chiseled some of the city’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 in 1888 by the parishioners of the church.
“The pastor asked for jewelry to be brought,” Father Robert Whelan, a former pastor of the church, said when speaking about the building and tabernacle in the 2013 program. Parishioners, he said, brought wedding rings, engagement diamonds and other jewelry. that were used to decorate the piece.
“It’s probably the most elaborate tabernacle in the country,” Father Whelan said on the program. He made contact on Tuesday, but declined to comment.
Selling such an item to a legitimate buyer can be difficult. When dealers in New York buy gold or other valuable items, they are supposed to upload the seller’s identity and the item to an online database, said Uness Ahmed, the owner of J&M We Buy Gold Buyers in the Coney Island section. from Brooklyn. Law enforcement agencies, he said, have access to the database.
“If something is reported stolen, the police will have the opportunity to match purchases with reports,” said Mr. Ahmed.
Thefts of such valuable artifacts are rare, said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the New York Archdiocese, which does not include Brooklyn’s churches. But vandalism and break-ins do happen occasionally, he said, noting that two statues were damaged in a Manhattan parish earlier in May.
The Archdiocese of New York has no estimate of how much of its assets could be worth more than $1 million, Mr. Zwilling. There are certainly items of great value — historical, monetary or spiritual — belonging to the parishes of the archdiocese, he added.
“Our risk management office, along with our insurance companies, would work with any parish that would have such an item to ensure proper security measures are in place,” said Mr. Zwilling.
Church treasures have long been attractive to high-stakes burglars and propelled an age-old trade. Panels of the Belgian Mystic Lamb by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck have been repeatedly taken over the centuries, including by the Nazis. Just days before the Brooklyn tabernacle was stolen, a collection of precious relics disappeared from a Florida church.
Whoever took Saint Augustine’s tabernacle also threw the Eucharist over the altar and beheaded a statue of an angel, the diocese said. For those of the Catholic faith, the scattering of the Eucharist was as shocking as the break-in of the receptacle, a diocese spokeswoman said.
Maryann Taranto, a Brooklyn resident who attended Father Tumino’s Tuesday morning service, said afterwards that St. Augustine had been her principal parish for 35 years.
“It is an abomination for someone to come in and desecrate our church,” said Ms Taranto, 69, adding that that would be praying for the tabernacle’s return.
“I don’t remember,” she said. “Today, little children are being killed all over this country. So there is no respect for life, there is no respect for property, there is no respect for anything.”
The tabernacle, which was about two feet high, was probably weighted down – a tradition to prevent it from being carried away. In the 2013 church program, Father Whelan said it would cost at least $500,000 to replace such a sacred object.
‘And that is of course also very heavy,’ joked the presenter of the program and nodded at it.
“Yes,” Father Whelan replied, the two men grinning. “Yes.”
Liam Stack reporting contributed. Kitty Bennett research contributed.