St. Clements Catholic Church – nestled several miles outside Bowling Green, Mo. — has been a hub of worship and activity in various buildings for 143 years. The present church rose out of the dreams and funding from several hundred Catholic families in 1969. It’s entirely possible that more cows than people still live within a five-mile radius of St. Clements.
A fairly simple, holy place in a fairly simple, humble part of the world. Alas, even St. Clements isn’t removed from the hatred and ugliness that can darken the human heart.
Thank God, however, that the faith thriving at St. Clements and shine a light in that darkness.
Thank God for Father Bill Peckman, the pastor at St. Clements, who reminded me of some immense beauty in our Catholic Church.
For an undetermined time just before midnight Saturday, July 23, and into the wee hours of July 24, a local woman apparently entered the church with something other than worship in mind. In fact, the actions of the woman – a middle-aged parishioner – were unholy. Some of the unholiest actions imaginable.
The woman poured wine on the vestments the priests wear for Mass, as well as on other linens. She tore out pages of the Bible and other books. She also spread human feces all over the church – on that Bible, on the baptismal font and, yes, all over the Blessed Sacrament.
The church has a special place in the hearts of my dad and our family. My dad has owned farmland and raised up to 350 head of cattle in the area for more than 40 years. He and my late mom attended many Sunday Masses together at St. Clements through the years. Same for my wife and I, our children and many teenagers who have gone to the Eisenbath farm for retreats.
We live in a fallen world, though, a world where a wonderful priest can be martyred while celebrating Mass and where Christians of all denominations can be beheaded for witnessing to the love of Christ. Hatred for the followers of Jesus isn’t new, of course. But when it strikes so close to home in such a profane act is unnerving and heart-breaking.
According to the Bowling Green Times, a woman was arrested the morning of July 25 and “admitted to the property damage. (She) told officers that she was ‘mad at God for how her life turned out.’ She stated later that she later returned to church to ‘seek forgiveness.’ ”
Bowling Green, Mo., sits somewhat quietly at the junction of US highways 54 and 61. Hannibal, home of Mark Twain, is about a 40-minute drive to the north. Driving southeast to St. Louis takes about an hour and a half. Immigrants from Kentucky and Virginia established the town in 1819. That upcoming bicentennial might be a big deal, cause for quite a party.
For the 5,300-or-so folks who call Bowling Green home, life is fairly peaceful. Aside from farming and connected businesses, the town’s biggest employer likes is Northeast Correctional Center, a minimum-medium custody prison that houses about 2,100 men. Despite that, crime still is a surprising development in the area.
That’s part of the reason the desecration of St. Clements and of God Himself hit the community so hard.
Father Peckman was out of town when the crime occurred. Upon his return, he found a parish community beset by suffering, anger and other challenging emotions. In a genuinely loving, pastoral gesture, he wrote this on his parish’s website, dated Thursday, July 28:
A Long Good Friday
My Church sits dormant. It is lifeless. No sacraments can be celebrated in her right now. Late Saturday night, she was desecrated. Her confessional, baptismal font, holy water font, presider’s chair, lectern, altar, and tabernacle were smeared with human feces. The Holy Oils were emptied into the carpet. Her books used for Mass destroyed. Her vestments soiled with wine. Worst of all, the Blessed Sacrament within the tabernacle desecrated with human feces. My church sits silent. The fecal matter has been washed away. The vestments cleaned. The books replaced. Like a dead body cleaned for burial, she lies dormant. The hearts of my parishioners and my own heart hang heavy. The violation of our Church was a violation of our parish. It was a violation of our faith.
When I found out about the violation of my parish, I was away. We were three hours away from beginning the second session of the summer camp I run. Three hours. My mind raced. It was too late for me to switch out responsibilities or to cancel. The attack was perfectly timed. As I was tormented about where to be, the (Jefferson City, Mo.) diocese made the decision for me and told me to stay where I was. At that time I did not know that my church was not allowed to be the place of celebration of the sacraments until the evil that had occurred had been exorcised and made reparation for. This takes a bishop. In place of being there, there were flurries of phone calls with parish staff, with law enforcement, with diocesan personnel, and with the media. It unfolded like a slow-moving nightmare. It seemed for 48 hours like every phone call added more hellish details.
In a conversation with my principal, we had both come independently to the same conclusion: Our parish is in a long Good Friday. We mourn as did the Blessed Mother and the disciples. We process the emotions that accompany this desecration.
For me, the first 48 hours was all about anger. It was a displaced anger. I wasn’t mad at the woman who had done the damage. I saw the picture of a lost soul in need of mercy. It is dangerous and perhaps even sinful to speculate to her motivation. That is for the civil authorities to discern. I knew that if we as a parish were to stay true to our faith, that we must fight through the anger and tears and find mercy. My public statements reflected this. My internal struggles, though, were much more profound. Why?
Like my parishioners, I felt deeply violated. The confessional from which I have exercised my priestly ministry of the forgiveness of sins many thousands times over was desecrated. The baptismal font from which I had baptized hundreds over my seven years as pastor had been desecrated. The pulpit from which I had preached and instructed on the faith for so many cumulative hours had been desecrated. The altar from which I had said thousands of masses, from which I had exercised my priestly ministry had been desecrated. The church in which I had celebrated every major event in my parish; her funerals, weddings, First Communions and ordination … the true parish center of my parish had been willfully desecrated. The Blessed Sacrament, for which I have tirelessly made present by the grace of God, of whom I have preached for almost two decades, had been desecrated. I felt as if I had been gutted. This violation had engendered deep anger at the situation. That anger had nowhere to go.
That is always dangerous. Displaced anger is a demon looking for a home. It is our human nature to want to find someone and somewhere to make the focus of the anger. I already knew that it couldn’t be the woman or God. I knew some in the parish were angry with me, with others, and with the woman. All were harmful places to deposit the anger as it creates the strife and division that was the desired product of the demonic nature of this attack. That’s when it occurred to me about this being a Good Friday. It was time for me to take my cues from that first Good Friday.
What was the attitude of Christ from the Cross as His Body was being desecrated and tortured? What was His attitude as His Blood was poured out and mingled with the earth into which it fell? “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” As I reflected on those words from the Cross of Christ, I knew that not only was this to be the attitude I was to have, but the attitude I would need to press upon my parish family. In His proclamation from the Cross, Jesus does not condone the evil visited upon Him, rather He asked that the Father not hold those responsible for this against them, for no one would be able to withstand such a judgment. Our attitude as a parish would have to be the same. Jesus did not allow the evil that was visited upon Him to change Him for the worse. Neither could we. This, though, is not going to be easy. It will be necessary.
When I had the first conversation with my bishop, he very clearly told me to not allow this event to change me or my parish for the worse. He said this in response to me suggesting that maybe we needed to start locking up the church building for the first time in its existence. In the past several years, our parish had come a long way. We are just starting to embark on a 3-5 year plan in which the major focus is re-catechesis, helping parents and youth, and evangelization. In so many ways, we had expunged so much of the devil and his natural charism of division out of our parish. Saturday night he roared back with a vengeance. But no more that Satan was able to defeat Jesus at Calvary, will he be able to defeat us unless we allow him. Our God is more powerful than he. If our parish had been found worthy to suffer violence for the name of Jesus, then so be it. For we know, the story doesn’t end in the tomb on Good Friday. Nor does our story end on this long Good Friday, either.
Not often does a parish know the hour of its resurrection. We do. At 8 a.m. on Saturday (July 30), our bishop will be with us and exorcise the evil visited upon our Church and to make reparation for that desecration. We will reclaim what was defiled. We will, by the grace of God, watch the Holy Spirit breathe new life into the dormant and lifeless church building. We will have Eucharistic Adoration afterwards, as must happen where the Blessed Sacrament has been defiled. When the time comes at 11 a.m., we will punctuate our taking back of our church building with a Eucharistic Procession that will encircle the outside and inside of the building. After our long Good Friday, we will experience our Easter.
I end with this: We also know that Easter wasn’t the end of the story. The Church, filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, was to engage in the mission of Jesus Christ. By the same token, we are not purging a building for the sake of merely having a place to celebrate sacraments. These avenues of grace have a purpose: to give us the means necessary to get about the business of the Kingdom. Archbishop Sample of Portland, Oregon, reminded his flock a few weeks ago that the Church exists for the salvation of souls. Given our church back this Saturday, perhaps we stand our ground to Satan and double down on our commitment to the mission of the Church. We will be given that chance. So many churches attacked as of late, especially in Iraq and Syria, will have to spend much more time in their own Good Fridays. Let us honor them and honor the mission of Jesus Christ Himself, and use this tragedy to give stronger and bolder witness to Jesus Christ and the power of His mercy and forgiveness!
Such a beautiful testimony and message – for the people of St. Clements and for all of us. If you would like to send the people of that parish a note of prayer and encouragement, you can write: 21509 Highway 161, Bowling Green, MO 63334. You can send Father Peckman and the parish office an email at: http://www.stclementmo.org/index.php/contact-us/
Please say a prayer tonight for Father Peckman, for the members of St. Clements Church and for the woman who committed the sacrilegious act.