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WALTHAM -- In the evening of May 2, a member of St. Mary Parish notified the parish priests that the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, located outside St. Charles Borromeo Church on Hall Street, had been damaged.
When the priests arrived, they found the statue's head and hand detached. They notified the police and brought the head and hand to the rectory for safekeeping.
"We asked the Lord to forgive us and anyone who may have done this or allowed it to happen," the pastor, Father Michael Nolan, said in a letter printed in the parish bulletin the weekend of May 8-9.
The day after the discovery, the priests canvassed the neighborhood for information. They learned that on May 1 a small group of people had been lingering around the church lawn for a few hours.
Father Nolan said they need to determine whether it was "an intentional attack on Christ, the Church, and the Catholic community in Waltham."
"If something was done unintentionally, there is still a responsibility to let the church know what happened. That is basic justice and humanity," he said in his letter.
In the past year, he noted, there have been 67 confirmed attacks on Catholic churches in the United States, including graffiti, arson, and, in Florida, driving a car into a church.
In a May 7 interview, Father Nolan said that damaging the statue was "a sacrilegious act, no matter what, because (it was) the misuse of a holy image or an attack on a holy image." However, he said, there was still a question of whether it was intentional.
"I don't think there's evidence confirming that. But I think it needs to be ruled on because there have been attacks going on against churches and images," he said.
In his bulletin letter, Father Nolan said, "If whoever did this has emotional or psychological problems or is suffering from demonic possession, we want to offer help and healing. If this was done intentionally, we want to help them before they go to God because the Lord is just and does not like attacks on His Church. It is a great opportunity for repentance, restitution, and forgiveness."
Father Nolan closed his letter with prayer and a promise to keep the community updated when they have more information.
"We will make sure to honor the Sacred Heart of Jesus and make reparation for the vandalism and all our sins against the Lord," he said.
The Waltham incident is the latest of several acts of vandalism directed at Boston-area Catholic properties in the past year.
In March, door locks were sealed with an unknown putty at St. Teresa of Calcutta Church and St. John Paul II Catholic Academy in Dorchester and St. Monica Church in South Boston. A statue of the virgin Mary was also toppled at St. Monica's.
In August 2020, fires were set outside two of the doors of Sacred Heart Church in Weymouth in an apparent act of arson. And in July 2020, a city garbage container was placed over the head of a statue of the Virgin Mary at St. Teresa in Dorchester in two separate incidents and a statue of Mary at the nearby St. Peter's Parish was burned.
In a statement released following the Waltham incident, C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, said, "When the League began tracking these crimes in 2012, they occurred, on average, about once a year. Now, they are being perpetrated at an average of one a month. The numbers quadrupled between 2016 and 2020, and have now quadrupled again between 2020 and 2021. I think it is quite reasonable to say that we are facing a growing epidemic of Catholic church vandalisms in the Bay State."