Saint Rita Parish

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Vandalism Update
by Lyn Colello

        It has been nearly one year since vandals attacked Saint Rita in the early morning hours of Thursday, October 26, 2005.  The attack was first discovered by Mike Downey, the Maintenance Director, at around 6:30 a.m.. The vandals surprised, sickened and brought tears to many parishioners.  Ellen O’ Connell said at the time, “It was hard to believe that someone could have done this…especially when we saw the hate graffiti.” 

     Word spread quickly that morning; nearly 60 people had come to clean and repair the damage.  But, because the church was a crime scene, the Mass was standing room only in a portable classroom.  Father Collins offered prayers of thanksgiving: that the Blessed Sacrament had not been touched and that no one from the parish had been harmed.  He prayed for peace for those who were grieving or angry over the assault, and finally, “for our persecutors”.  Within hours churches of all denominations offered prayers, support and even their communal and sacred spaces so that Mass could be celebrated on Sunday. 

     Early Friday morning state and local law enforcement ended the crime scene investigation and released the church.  The Sanctuary was given a cursory cleaning and Bishop John H. Ricard, SSJ, celebrated Mass amidst destruction, his words punctuated by the sound of enormous glass windows still crashing to the floor. The Bishop stressed the need for forgiveness and prayers for those who had done this; he promised prayers for St. Rita and her people and pledged the resources of the Diocese to restore the church.

      Clean-up began in earnest after Mass; nearly 75 people came and worked.  They brought brooms, sweepers, cleaning supplies, paint, putty whatever they thought might be needed. Within three hours all the broken glass was shoveled into dumpsters. Huge chairs which had been thrown through the Blessed Sacrament Chapel windows were cleaned and back inside. Shards of glass were removed from all window frames and even sifted from the landscape straw; all graffiti was either scrubbed away or painted over.  Eager hearts and hands cleaned every surface inside and out with reverence and care.

       Father Collins observed, “As bad as the damage Thursday was—and the damage was the result of truly hateful, determined, and methodical efforts—as painful as it was to see the damage…on Friday everyone showed up to help clean.  The act of hatred was swept up, cleaned up, and the windows were boarded up in a matter of hours.”

      By noon Saint Rita shone.   McAlister’s of San Destin called and provided huge lunch for all; parishioners ate outside in the sun beneath the bell tower. Weddings planned for the weekend went on undisturbed and Mass was celebrated as always.

       The break-in proved expensive, nearly $100,000.00 in damages, and extensive:  the tabernacle stand was destroyed and desecrated although the tabernacle itself was not breached; satanic words, numbers and phrases were spray painted everywhere both  inside and out of the building; musical instruments, furniture and appliances were smashed or stolen; two-thirds of all windows were broken; the floor in the Mary Star of the Sea Room was so deeply cut and embedded with glass that it had to be replaced. During the days immediately following, Saint Rita quietly installed an extensive, hi-tech security system.

     February 2006, three months later, the Walton County Sheriff’s Office announced the arrest of six males, five adults and one juvenile. All those arrested were booked into the Walton County jail. The juvenile was later transferred to the Department of Juvenile Justice and one adult male was extradited from Alabama to Florida.  Warrants and their adjudication( *  All data on sentencing from Missy Drake, Criminal Court Clerk) were as follows:

    The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE)  processed a "huge amount of physical evidence" connected to the crimes. Sheriff Ralph Johnson of Walton County extended a “special thanks to Director Tom Ring of the Pensacola FDLE office for expediting the fingerprint analysis that proved vital to bringing this investigation to a successful conclusion."  

       Father Collins commented, "The parish has moved on from this event and become stronger for it. I've been deeply impressed with the support we've received from the whole community:  other churches, civic organizations and businesses. We're also very grateful for the hard work of the sheriff's office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in apprehending these vandals. "We've had them (the vandals) in our prayers and are pleased that they have been found." Parish secretary, Terry Casey, added, "Now we have faces to put with the names of those we've been praying for. "

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137 Moll Drive                     Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32459                      (850) 267-2558                FAX (850) 267-3711