Theft of Brooklyn Church's Gold Tabernacle Stabs at Hearts of Faithful

Theft of Brooklyn Church’s Gold Tabernacle Stabs at Hearts of Faithful

Deflated, Father Frank Tumino stepped into the pulpit at St. Francis Xavier Church in Brooklyn on Tuesday morning. Six blocks away, St. Augustine’s, the other church where he serves as pastor, was closed and cordoned off with police tape. At its center was a literal and figurative hole.

“This is just one more blow,” Father Tumino said after presiding over Mass. He was referring to the theft of St. Augustine’s tabernacle, a $2 million gold treasure that was separated from its 19th-century foundation last week with a power saw before presumably vanishing into the murky underground of stolen artifacts.

The ornate tabernacle box that held the eucharist—the consecrated wafers that the faithful believe embody Jesus Christ—disappeared from the Park Slope church’s sanctuary sometime between last Thursday evening and Saturday afternoon, the police said.

The church, which was under construction at the time, had security cameras, but they were not working, the police said. Regardless, Father Tumino said, whoever stole the tabernacle thought to grab the digital recorder on which the videos would have been stored.

For the Brooklyn diocese, the burglary was just the latest piece of bad news, Father Tumino said. Congregations that were sparse before the pandemic have gotten even thinner since it started. Tight budgets continue to shrink, he said, priests are tending to multiple congregations and tight budgets mean security that’s too loose.

“Understand: These parishes have been decimated,” Father Tumino said.

“These parishes need between $10 million and $15 million worth of work,” he added. “I’ve been entrusted with doing that, and there is not that money available, so you have to choose what you can pick and do now.”

Father Tumino discovered that the tabernacle was missing when he arrived at the church on Saturday, the Brooklyn diocese said in a statement. Regardless of how devastating such a central fixture’s loss was, he said on Tuesday, he was glad the theft happened when the church was empty.

“I’m grateful that no one, that the cleaning company, the people who normally are giving out food on Saturday mornings — that no one stumbled across this,” he said. “The kind of violence used to take it really would have meant someone’s life.”

The police said the tabernacle was pure gold, but a church program from 2013 said it was sterling silver and plated in 18-karat gold. Both placed the tabernacle’s value in the seven figures; the police estimated it to be around $2 million.

The piece was insured, a diocese spokeswoman said, although it was unclear by whom and for how much.

The significance of the tabernacle goes beyond monetary value or even Catholic faith — the vessel is a Brooklyn relic in its own right, a bejeweled ghost of 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 architect who along with his brothers, Walter and Henry, chiseled some of the borough’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 by the church’s parishioners in 1888.

“The pastor asked to bring jewelry,” Father Robert Whelan, a former pastor of the church, said in speaking about the building and its tabernacle in the 2013 program. Parishioners, he said, brought wedding bands, engagement diamonds and other jewels that were used to adorn the piece.

“It’s probably the most elaborate tabernacle in the country,” Father Whelan said in the program. Contacted on Tuesday, he declined to comment.

Selling such an item to a legitimate buyer could be difficult. Whenever dealers in New York buy gold or other valuable items, they are supposed to upload the identity of the seller and the item to an online database, said Uness Ahmed, the owner of J & M We Buy Gold Buyers in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. Law enforcement authorities, he said, have access to the database.

“If anything is reported stolen, police get the opportunity to match purchases with reports,” Mr. Ahmed said.

Thefts of such valuable artifacts are rare, said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, which does not include Brooklyn’s churches. But vandalism and burglaries happen occasionally, he said, noting that two statues were damaged at a Manhattan parish earlier in May.

The Archdiocese of New York does not have an estimate of how many of its possessions might be worth more than $1 million, Mr. Zwilling said. There are certainly items of great value — historically, monetarily or spiritually — that belong to the archdiocese’s parishes, he added.

“Our office of risk management, along with our insurance carriers, would work with any parish that might have such an item to make certain that proper security measures are in place,” Mr. Zwilling said.

Church treasures have long been attractive to high-stakes burglars, propelling a centuries-old trade. Panels of Belgium’s Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck have repeatedly been taken over the centuries, including by the Nazis. Just days before the Brooklyn tabernacle was stolen, a collection of priceless relics disappeared from a church in Florida.

Whoever took the St. Augustine’s tabernacle also tossed the eucharist across the altar, and beheaded a statue of an angel, the diocese said. For those who adhere to the Catholic faith, the strewing about of the eucharist was as shocking as the burglary of its receptacle, a diocese spokeswoman said.

Maryann Taranto, a Brooklynite who attended Father Tumino’s Tuesday morning service, said afterward that St. Augustine had been her main parish for 35 years.

“For somebody to come in and desecrate our church is a horror,” Ms. Taranto, 69, said, adding that would be praying for the tabernacle’s return.

“I don’t know any more,” she said. “Today, little kids are getting killed all over this country. So there’s no respect for life, there’s no respect for property, there’s no respect for anything.”

The tabernacle, which measured around two feet tall, was likely weighted — a tradition to keep it from being carried off. In the 2013 church program, Father Whelan said that it would cost at least $500,000 to replace such a sacred item.

“And, that’s obviously very heavy, too,” the program’s host joked, nodding toward it.

“Yes,” Father Whelan responded, the two men chuckling. “Yes.”

Liam Stack contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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