PARK SLOPE — The sacred tabernacle made of silver and gold dating back to the 1890s at historic St. Augustine Parish was stolen in a brazen burglary that left consecrated Communion, housed inside, scattered within the rubble.
Father Frank Tumino, pastor of St. Augustine, located at 116 6th Ave., discovered the destruction at the church, which was founded in 1870, around 4 p.m. Saturday while on his way to hear confessions at St. Francis Xavier Parish, a few blocks up the street.
He called the police and an intense investigation ensued. No arrests have been made as of Sunday afternoon.
Father Tumino on Sunday took questions from reporters following the parish’s noon Mass. He addressed the perpetrators of the heist.
“I’d want to say you’ve taken away something that is so beautiful, that has given people beauty in the midst of the ugliness of their lives and times,” he said.
Father Tumino said that as he passed the front of St. Augustine on Saturday afternoon, he noticed one of the front doors slightly ajar, which seemed odd.
“I notice everything,” he said at the press conference in front of the altar. “It’s a curse.”
The pastor described how he went to investigate, but chose to go around to the side and enter through the sacristy. The stench of burnt metal hit him as he entered the sanctuary. Then he saw the tabernacle was missing.
The Eucharist was scattered on the floor and covered in metal shavings and marble dust. The image sickened him to the pit of his stomach, he said.
“This is devastating, as the tabernacle is the central focus of our church outside of worship, holding the Body of Christ, the Eucharist, which is delivered to the sick and homebound,” Father Tumino said. “To know that a burglar entered the most sacred space of our beautiful church … is a heinous act of disrespect.”
Bishop Robert Brennan said on Sunday that he was “truly saddened by the news of sacrilege of the Most Blessed Sacrament which took place in one of our churches in the Diocese of Brooklyn.”
The perpetrators apparently used some sort of power tool to cut the heavy steel case that enclosed the ornate tabernacle made of gold and silver.
Some marble fixtures surrounding the tabernacle were shattered as the burglars tried to pull their target free of its anchors. The heads of two marble statues — both of them angels — were among the debris littering the floor.
The extraction obviously was quite violent, Father Tumino said. He said he had no information indicating this was a hate crime. But there was no doubt the burglars targeted something valuable.
Police estimated the tabernacle is worth about $2 million. Father Tumino, however, said it was “priceless” for its historical value, yes, but also pointed to its beauty that inspired faithful parishioners for more than 100 years.
Father Tumino said the burglars either did not understand that they were desecrating the Eucharist, or they just didn’t care. He said there must have been more than one of them.
“It definitely seemed like it was more than one person,” he said. “I think it had to be pretty organized and just from the heavy weight of it.”
The pastor said he didn’t know the tabernacle’s exact weight, but he knew it was certainly quite heavy.
“Tabernacles are weighted, regardless of the material of them,” he said. “They’re weighted because they’re meant to be stationary.”
He is grateful neither he nor anyone on the staff, or parishioners themselves, encountered the crime in progress. He said anyone so willing to inflict such damage is dangerous.
Father Tumino said there were no apparent signs of forced entry, but there was proof of a forced exit. He explained that a latch appears to have been cut from the inside.
The priest said he could not speculate on an “inside job,” but he did say people could have gained access to the church during one of its public ministries, like a food pantry held in the basement that is open Saturday mornings.
He said the church has exterior and interior security cameras, but the burglars apparently made off with some components of the video recording system.
Father Tumino said police were investigating if any of the data was backed up, and if any images were videoed by other cameras in the neighborhood.
According to the NET-TV program “City of Churches,” the tabernacle was designed by architect Albert Parfitt in 1895. At the time, the pastor of the church asked parishioners to help decorate it, and they donated personal jewels and diamonds as adornments.
According to police, the theft occurred sometime between Thursday night and Saturday.
The heist was the work of determined if not skilled burglars with power tools that could penetrate barriers designed to protect the Eucharist in accordance with the Code of Canon Law.
The tabernacle was protected with its own vault-like case, which was bolted to the marble.
Canon Law demands strict measures to protect the Eucharist from “the danger of profanation.”
The code states that “the Most Holy Eucharist” is the actual presence of the “Lord himself” and is “contained, offered, and received and by which the Church continually lives and grows.”
Father Tumino said he hopes the tabernacle is found and returned.
Anyone who may have information that can help police with their investigation is asked to call the NYPD at 1-800-577-TIPS (8477). All calls are kept confidential.
The tabernacle that was stolen from St. Augustine Church, Park Slope, was featured in 2013 on the NET-TV series “City of Churches,” which highlighted the history of churches throughout the Diocese of Brooklyn. Watch the episode from Season 1 here.