Thieves break into St. Philip the Apostle Church in Lake City

LAKE CITY — It may have been a simple robbery, or it may have been a hate crime, but when burglars broke into St. Philip the Apostle Church on July 5 they took consecrated hosts in the locked tabernacle they stole.

“It may be more than just robbery,” said Father Michael C. Okere, pastor. “They have desecrated our belief.”

The priest said that the thieves also took a computer from the church office, some change and other items from his desk, a sound system, and a microwave from the kitchen where weekly meals for migrant families are prepared. They broke a window, probably to get in, and an interior door. The cost of the damage and the stolen articles — including the gold-plated tabernacle with a pyx and ciborium inside — is not great, he said, but the impact on the faith community of this small parish could be devastating.

“The Blessed Sacrament is the core of our faith. The people will bounce back, I’m certain, but Jesus deserves to be protected. That’s why this is so painful,” Father Okere said.

Frank Ysasi, a parishioner and volunteer landscaper at St. Philip, found out about the theft before the Sunday Masses when the congregation was informed. He said that he was more hurt than angry about the crime.

Sister Angelina Robles left the church office at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, and when she came back less than 20 minutes later, the deed was done. She is a Sister of Perpetual Adoration and was particularly shaken at the theft of the body of Christ, according to Father Okere.

The priest was grateful that she did not return while the smash-and-grab robbery was still in progress.

“The church is located in a very bad part of town, so the police may not give this the attention it deserves, but we will pray for us and for those who did this thing,” Father Okere said.

He did not expect a quick solution to the crime.

Because of Catholic belief in the real presence of Christ in the consecrated hosts used to celebrate the Eucharist, and also because the church is about 25 percent black, serves a large migrant Hispanic population, and is in a poor neighborhood of this Florence County village, Father Okere interpreted the burglary as a hate crime.

He based his interpretation on the F.B.I. definition of a hate crime which states that it is “… a criminal offense against a person, property or society which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or ethnicity/national origin.”

The shrouded tabernacle stand remained empty except for five daisies in a simple vase, and the red sanctuary lamp indicating the presence of the Blessed Sacrament was extinguished on July 7 when a reporter from The Miscellany visited the parish.

The Lake City Police Department is investigating the break-in, according to Capt. Billy Brown, and has some possible suspects in mind.

South Carolina is one of seven states without a hate crime law on the books, he said, but there are “ways to get at the same idea.

“I’m hoping the merchandise will surface, and we’ve got some options when we do get someone,” Brown said. “We will charge them under several statutes.”

Both the police officer and Father Okere held out some hope that the tabernacle might be recovered because of its uniqueness and the fact that the thief or thieves did not find the key to it.

In addition to consecrated hosts from the Masses of July 3, the stolen tabernacle also contained a large consecrated host used in a monstrance for adoration of the Eucharist. Proper canonical procedures are being followed as required when desecration of the Holy Eucharist takes place.