For close to nine decades, a statue stood tall in front of Our Lady of Mercy parish in Forest Hills, New York. But this past weekend, police released shocking surveillance footage of a woman deliberately toppling, smashing and destroying the 84-year-old religious statue and another statue outside the Queens church.
Local news reports indicate that the video shows the woman rocking the statue in front of the parish facility until it fell over about 3:30 a.m. Saturday.
The suspect then dragged the statue out into the driveway and continued to smash it with a hammer. The woman also toppled another statue during the attack on Kessel Street near 70th Avenue, police said.
The two statues depict the Blessed Mother and St. Therese the Little Flower.
“It’s obviously premeditated, she came on Wednesday and couldn’t do it and then came back on Friday with a hammer. It’s just sad,” Diocese of Brooklyn spokesperson John Quaglione told The New York Daily News. “The element of the church being a safe place to worship, when something like this happens you have to think this will send shockwaves to people, ‘Am I safe going to church?’”
In a post on Facebook, the diocese assured that its faithful "continue to pray that in the face of attacks on our churches, hearts will convert to faith in Jesus Christ."
According to Pew Research findings: "In nearly three out of every four countries of the world, religious groups experience harassment by individuals or groups in society. The harassment and intimidation take many forms, including physical or verbal assaults; desecration of holy sites; and discrimination against religious groups in employment, education and housing."
Pew Research further confirms in a 2020 poll that harassment of religious groups continues to be reported in more than 90% of countries.
For Our Lady of Mercy Parish, this is the second time that its two statues have been targeted. According to the Catholic newspaper The Tablet, the diocese reported that the statues were toppled over but not damaged last Wednesday. The diocese believes the same person is responsible for both incidents.
The suspect is described as a female in her mid-20s, wearing all black clothing, medium complexion and medium build.
"It is heartbreaking, but sadly it is becoming more and more common these days,” the church's pastor, Father Frank Schwarz, said in a statement. “I pray that this recent rash of attacks against Catholic churches and all houses of worship will end, and religious tolerance may become more a part of our society.”
Replacing the statue could reportedly cost as much as $12,000. Schwarz encouraged the shaken-up parishioners during mass on Sunday to forgive and pray.
“We go on, we worship, we love God. And I ask you to simply pray for the person who did this,” said Schwarz, according to The Daily News. “Remember, Jesus himself tells us to forgive, to pray for those who persecute us and to love those who hate us. And that’s the way we fight back, not vengeance but love.”
However, one parishioner told The Daily News that she can not yet forgive the person who vandalized the statue.
“I pray that they get caught but I can’t pray for them right now,” said Jennifer Bondanza, 51. “It’s just too sad. I have pictures of my kids in front of these statutes. I was brought up here. This is my home.”
Another parishioner wondered why the vandal chose to destroy the church’s historic monument.
“It could be people who have lost their jobs or are struggling coming out of the pandemic and blame God,” said Quaglione. “The church is a place where you can get help. Knock on the door. Let us help you get through your anger or your doubts.”
According to The Daily News report, the police Hate Crimes Task Force was notified and is investigating. Cops are asking for the public’s help identifying the assailant and tracking her down.
The vandalism at Our Lady of Mercy follows other acts of vandalism committed against New York City Catholic churches. In May, hundreds attended a prayer gathering after St. Athanasius Church in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn was vandalized. An unidentified person pushed over a statue of Jesus’ crucifixion and torched an American flag hanging outside the church. The parish priest called it an "act of hatred."
Across the U.S., an increase in attacks against Catholic churches has garnered concern from many, including lawmakers. After more than a dozen attacks against Catholic churches last year, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., urged the U.S. Justice Department to take action.
"These disturbing attacks range from arson to the beheading of a statue of the Virgin Mary," Fleischmann's letter reads.
"I find these attacks to be a disturbing trend, happening in multiple areas across the nation, including within my own congressional district. In times of uncertainty, we naturally turn to religion for comfort and peace, something many Americans are seeking as we combat COVID-19, but these attacks add another level of distress for many across our nation."