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Archives The statues are home once more

March 20, 2024

By Suzanne Pietropaoli
Staff Writer

“The beauty of images moves me to contemplation,” wrote St. John Damascene, “as a meadow delights the eye and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God.” Even now these words, written nearly 1,300 years ago, continue to speak to the beauty and power of sacred images. They would seem also to speak to the great joy St. Mary’s parishioners felt at the recent return of three beloved statues a year after they were stolen and severely damaged.

St. Mary’s pastor Father Bryan Stitt recalls the morning he discovered the statues were missing from their accustomed places in the parish’s Divine Mercy Chapel. A serene and beautiful space where daily Mass is celebrated, it is also a favorite spot for folks looking for a quiet place to pray.

“Early in the morning of January 27, 2023, I walked into the chapel and saw that the statues were gone,” Father Stitt said. “My first thought: the work crew had moved them to start preparing for the floor refinish.  A quick text confirmed that the work crew had not done this.”

Amid an Exodus 90 meeting with college students that morning, followed by Sunday Mass, and a parish pancake breakfast, the pastor had to consult with police; they could only search for the statues if Father Stitt pressed charges, which he did.

The statues had not gone far and were recovered quickly. But each of the 5-foot-tall plaster statues had sustained significant damage. Because each one was around 100 years old and had historical significance within the parish, there was additional emotional pain among parishioners.

The statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel came to Canton upon the closure of St. Paul’s Church in Pyrites, which had been a mission, and later an oratory, of St. Mary’s throughout the 20th century. The St. Joseph statue had been donated to St. Mary’s generations ago by a parishioner and had had a place of honor in the church ever since.

The statue of St. Therese of Lisieux has a unique parish connection, according to Father Stitt. It was gifted to St. Mary’s following a most unusual occurrence involving the saint, a French Carmelite nun who died in 1897 and was canonized in 1925. In 1930, a group of Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent DePaul arrived in Canton to staff the parish’s fledgling grammar school. Two years later, in their convent on Court Street, not far from the Church, something extraordinary happened.

“The Sisters had finished Vespers one evening when a little girl appeared near the tabernacle,” Father Stitt said. “Since St. Therese had been canonized only a few years before, these sisters recognized their young visitor. They remained in the chapel and prayed through the night. When the priest arrived to say Mass in the morning, the girl disappeared, leaving a rose behind. When the matter was brought to the bishop, he approved that this visitation was authentic.” Shortly after, a parishioner purchased a statue of St. Therese for the parish.

The loss of these three statues, so lovingly gifted so long ago, was very painful for the priest and people of St. Mary’s. There was anger as well, but the focus was clearly on finding both justice and mercy in the situation. Justice obviously required that those responsible for removing and nearly ruining the treasured statues would also be responsible topay for their extensive restorative work. The effort to bring mercy into this situation moved the parish toward a process of restorative justice, which involves face-to-face meetings with those who cause harm.

“We came up with a fitting plan for healing,” notes Father Stitt. “This led to a genuine Christian experience of respecting the dignity of all involved.”

On Sunday, January 28, 2024, 364 days after the vandalism, the people of St. Mary’s gathered for Mass, for the blessing of the restored statues and the re-dedication of Divine Mercy Chapel.

In the congregation were descendants of those who bought the statues, one of the artists who worked on the repair, and one of those responsible for the damage, as well as a host of parishioners happy for this long-awaited day. It was a day for rejoicing and for reconciliation.

In his homily, Father Stitt did not evade the bad actions that made the day necessary but was careful to also remind his listeners that each one of us is a sinner in need of reconciliation with God and with one another.

“If we’ve been afraid to face our sins and seek God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, let’s think of this day,” he said. “And if we’ve thought ourselves not strong enough, let’s think of this day, of the face of that Divine Mother holding her Son enthroned in her arms. Let us look at the face of one who made bad decisions a year ago but allowed light and grace to win the day. And let us look at the unveiled face of the Lord and know him, the Holy One of God!”

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