‘It Proves Haters Didn’t Win And We’re Still Here’
BENSONHURST — Mary Guadagni was heartbroken last spring when she learned that the crucifix outside St. Athanasius Church had been vandalized. She could hardly believe her eyes when she saw the statue of Jesus Christ that had been affixed to the cross lying in shattered pieces on the ground.
But on Sunday, she felt joy. A new crucifix and statue were dedicated — signaling a fresh start for the parish.
“It feels good to see our beloved crucifix again,” said Guadagni after Msgr. David Cassato, the church’s pastor, led a dedication service at the site. “It’s so important to us and to our Catholic faith.”
Parishioners were shocked and angered when the vandalism occurred. The incident took place at some point between the night of May 13 and the morning of May 14. The vandal scaled the fence outside the church at 6115 Bay Parkway and threw the cross to the ground, knocking the attached statue of Jesus Christ from it in the process.
Parish employees discovered the toppled crucifix and the damaged statue when they arrived for work at around 7 a.m. on May 14. The vandal had also removed an American flag that had been hanging outside the church and set it on fire.
A suspect, identified by law enforcement authorities as Ali Alaheri, 29, of Brooklyn, was arrested a week later and charged with criminal mischief as a hate crime.
The incident “was a very deep offense to all of us as Catholics,” Msgr. Cassato said on Sunday.
In a separate incident, Alaheri was also charged in a federal indictment with arson for allegedly setting fire to a synagogue in Borough Park.
The crime at his church hit Msgr. Cassato particularly hard, for personal reasons. The crucifix — originally erected in 2010 — had been dedicated to his late mother, Fay Cassato, who had died of cancer a year earlier.
Determined to move forward after the act of vandalism, the church raised $25,000 and had a new crucifix built.
Last weekend’s dedication ceremony took place after the 11:30 a.m. Mass. A group of parishioners stood on the corner of Bay Parkway and 61st Street and prayed as the pastor sprinkled holy water on the crucifix.
Msgr. Cassato recalled how parishioners gathered at that same corner 10 months earlier so that they could be together as a parish community in the wake of the crime.
“They came together that night and there were 300 or 400 people on this corner praying. No politics, but prayer. And probably because of that, we’ve come together again,” he said.
The plaque dedicating the crucifix to the late Fay Cassato was put back at the bottom of the crucifix. Two new panels — one with the Virgin Mary and the other depicting St. John — were placed on either side.
Jeff Baker, remembering the anger he felt after the vandalism, said the dedication said something about the St. Athanasius parish community. “It shows the haters didn’t win and we’re still here. We’re proud to be Catholic and we’re not afraid to show it,” he added.
Another parishioner, Ariana Napoli, said the public display of the crucifix can help bring people together “and give us a sense of community.”