Stations of the Cross artwork stolen from shuttered Germantown church

A Catholic church in southwest Germantown, shuttered as a result of Archdiocese-wide mergers, was burglarized twice in recent weeks.

St. Francis of Assisi, which was closed last year as part of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Parish Pastoral Planning Area initiative, recently experienced thefts totaling almost $65,000 in value.

According to police reports, the first heist took place sometime between Jan. 23 and Feb 1. A large wooden piece of art worth $5,000, titled “Jesus Falls the Second Time,” was removed from a wall inside the church. No means of entry were apparent, and police indicated that the doors to the church were still secured upon police arrival.

Police indicated that only five individuals had keys to the church, including the priest, nuns, property manager, principal and the Archdiocese.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

After police departed on Feb. 1, the building was secured, but that did not prevent thieves from entering a second time.

At 10:45 a.m. on Feb. 4, police once again returned to St. Francis, located on the 4800 block of Greene St. This time, signs of forcible entry were present, with police reporting that the side doors to the church were pried open.

While the methods were more overt, so too was the crime: A depiction of the Sixth Station of the Cross — “Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus” — and four lighting fixtures were taken, together valued at $60,000.

The crime scene was processed for evidence on both occasions.

On Monday, officials with the Philadelphia Police Department’s Northwest Detective Division confirmed that there have been no additional updates to their investigation.

Part of a pattern?

This is not the first time the church has been broken into since its merger with two nearby parishes.

In Sept. 2012, police took a 43-year-old man and a 25-year-old woman into custody after finding them inside the historic building.

It bears a similar modus operandi to February’s theft. After surveying the property, a priest found that a metal grate had been pried open and that a window on the first floor was open. Police responded and found two individuals, later identified as Angel Vasque and Crystal Kane, in the church’s basement.

Kenneth Gavin, associate director of communications with the Archdiocese, said at the time that the two allegedly attempted to break into the upper church and rectory, but were unsuccessful.

While nothing was reported being taken from the property, Vasque and Kane were charged with burglary, criminal conspiracy, criminal trespass, possessing and instrument of crime and related offenses.

Vasque’s and Kane’s charges were upheld at subsequent preliminary hearings last year, but according to court records both cases are now closed.

Checking security

While noting that similar intrusions have not been an issue at other churches affected by last year’s closures, Gavin said that additional measures are being taken to provide as much security as possible to the St. Francis site. He confirmed that all keys are accounted for.

Gavin said that maintenance and security of the building takes place at the local level by Saint Vincent de Paul Parish, which assumed responsibility for the buildings as a result of the merger. Inspections of the property occur on a regular basis, he said.

Unlike several Northwest parishes closed as a result of last year’s mergers, St. Francis of Assisi church is not being maintained as a worship site — i.e. available for weddings and funerals — due to the physical condition of the building and lack of funding for maintenance.

With no active appeals for reconsideration of the decision to close St. Francis, the sacred liturgical objects will eventually be cataloged, with some ending up in the newly merged parish, and others being warehoused.

Some stored items are placed for sale to other churches both within and outside of the Archdiocese, the proceeds of which are used to offset any debt from the closed or merged parish from which the objects originated.

“These objects are only available for use in a sacred setting,” said Gavin, “and are not available to collectors or the general public.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal