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Left, the cathedral tabernacle from the Cathedral of St. Catharines of Alexandria in St. Catharines, Ont., was found in a canal in Centennial Gardens. The tabernacle was stolen from the cathedral Sept. 8. Parts of the ciborium were recovered the next day, though police are still looking for the thieves. Photos courtesy of the Cathedral of St. Catharines of Alexandria

Empathy arises from tabernacle theft in St. Catharines

  • September 16, 2020

Parishioners of the Cathedral of St. Catharines of Alexandria were given a punch to the gut during morning Mass Sept. 8. 

St. Catharines’ Bishop Gerard Paul Bergie delivered the unfortunate news that thieves absconded with the cathedral tabernacle hours earlier. What followed over the next few days was the unravelling of a mystery — still not completely resolved — infused with some dramatic twists and turns.

Jenny Anderson, a congregant for over a quarter-century, told The Catholic Register it was “very shattering and distressing to receive the news” about the stolen tabernacle, particularly on the birthday of the Virgin Mary. Bergie felt the same way. 

“My first reaction was shock and disbelief and then a feeling of profound sadness,” said Bergie. “I realized that not only was the tabernacle (missing) but more importantly the Blessed Sacrament inside the tabernacle was gone. I had this great fear of what desecration could be done to the blessed Eucharist.”

Surveillance footage recorded two individuals breaking into the cathedral at approximately 4:30 a.m. to abduct the tabernacle and its precious contents from the main altar. 

In a public plea for the suspects to return the tabernacle and its treasures, the bishop told local radio station NewsTalk 610 CKTB that afternoon the video footage “was kind of grainy,” so it was difficult to get a clear physical description of the offenders. 

Fr. Donald Lizzotti, rector of the cathedral, told Catholic News Agency he suspected “the thieves had previously cased the cathedral to determine how to steal the tabernacle.”

“And they came back later and pried the cover, which is over the old metal tabernacle,” said Lizzotti. “They pried that off and put it on the floor. They took brass doors off of that, and then finally took the entire tabernacle off of the altar.”

Fingerprint identification was not an option for the police — the thieves cleaned the crime scene.

This robbery occurred just under a year since the cathedral’s bronze and copper lamppost was stolen (ultimately recovered) as the building underwent renovations. This incident, along with other vandalism and thefts, led to the installion of a number of security cameras.

Perhaps the most revealing insight Bergie parsed from the video was the likely motive of the robbery.

“There are many theories out there of people saying this was nefarious, and the Lord was taken for occult reasons. I don’t think that’s the case here,” he said.

“Interestingly, the first thing the thieves did when they entered the cathedral was go to the money box for candles and the poor, and then they saw the tabernacle and saw it was beautiful with brass doors that I’m sure looked like gold to them. And I’m sure they thought it was a safe with something valuable inside, so that is why they went through all that effort to take it.”

The tale of the stolen tabernacle took a couple of positive turns the day following the theft. Soon after a noon Mass of reparation celebrated by Bergie, Leo Bonomi — a parishioner at the cathedral for over 60 years — was approached near the church by an unknown young male in his late teens or early 20s, in Bonomi’s estimation, with one of the stolen tabernacle doors. 

“He looked a little disheveled or disoriented — a kind of poor soul in a way — so I thought he was going to ask for some chump change,” said Bonomi. “He said he possessed some knowledge about something wrong that was done, and that he had a plate in his knapsack. He opened the bag up, and it wasn’t a plate at all — it was one of the tabernacle doors.”

Bonomi was told by the young man that another person gave him both of the doors, and then in turn another person came along and stole one of the doors. 

“This gave me a feeling of the environment this young fellow was living in,” said Bonomi. 

Standing outside of the cathedral inspired this young man to tell Bonomi and a couple of other friends how he attended church until he was 14 years old. Still, he drifted away from religion as he took a wrong turn in his life’s path. 

This random encounter touched Bonomi. He empathetically listened to this young man share his story. Upon concluding this meeting, he told the young man he would receive prayers. Bonomi believes returning the door will help the man begin a journey of turning his life around. 

Bergie also shared empathy for the thieves and encouraged those attending the service to pray for them. 

Bonomi wasn’t sure he could do that.

“I was sitting in a pew by myself, and I thought, ‘I don’t think I can do that — that is a hard
teaching. You want me to pray for the thieves who just upset the whole parish and diocese?’ But I came to my senses and said, ‘no, you can’t think like this.’ ”

Meeting the stranger outside the church inspired Bonomi to view this incident through a sympathetic lens.

“It was a revelation for me and it softened my heart — this poor lost kid with no job, no home, no nothing. I don’t want to punish this kid. I want to help him and all the others who have fallen through the cracks. We have to get to their heart and their mind and help give them some purpose and a future.”

Later that day, another group of parishioners returned to the cathedral with the broken tabernacle along with the cover of the ciborium. The artifacts were found partially immersed in a canal in Centennial Gardens, a landmark park about a 20-minute walk from the cathedral. 

One of the tabernacle doors, elements of the ciborium and the eucharistic hosts remain missing. 

More than the tabernacle, Anderson anguished over the plight of the Eucharist.

“We were fearful of what could happen,” said Anderson. “Up to now, we haven’t found the Body of Jesus. The bishop was telling us that ‘all I can do is hope the Blessed Sacrament was in the water just like the tabernacle was and it would dissolve and go back to nature.’ That would be our consolation.”

Bergie and the rest of the cathedral staff are more fixated on re-acquiring the still stolen items than arresting the thieves. 

Niagara Regional Police released video stills of the thieves both inside the cathedral and their escape from the building, hoping the public can assist the investigation. The first male wore a red hoodie, camo pants and black running shoes, while the second sported a black hoodie and grey jogging pants. The latter individual pushed a shopping cart. Both had backpacks. 

Anyone with information can call Niagara Regional Police at 1 (905) 688-4111 ext. 4233.

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