Inner-city churches face the challenge of balancing safety with ministering to their communities
The shooting and killing of Father Kenneth Walker, a member of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, on June 11 in Phoenix has brought attention to the careful balance parishes must maintain between safety and remaining accessible to the communities they serve.
Many inner-city parishes are no stranger to crime, including St. Francis of Assisi Church in Chicago. One Monday morning, the pastor, Father Don Nevins, was assaulted while taking the weekend collection to the bank. A thief smashed his car window and fought with him over the collection. Father Nevins was struck repeatedly and the thief made off with the cash.
Another time, a thief attempted a “grab and go” robbery as he was about to enter the bank, knocking the priest over. This time, Father Nevins was able to fight off the thief and save the collection.
“I had gotten into the routine of taking the parish collection to the bank on Monday mornings without realizing I was being observed,” Father Nevins told Our Sunday Visitor. “Unlike Father Walker, I was fortunate I was not seriously injured. It’s taught me to be careful and aware that there are people out there who will hurt you.”
Father Nevins’ attacks weren’t one of a kind. Early on Jan. 1, Father Eric Freed of St. Bernard Catholic Parish in Eureka, California, was beaten to death in his parish rectory by a burglar with an impaired mental state. And on June 12, a methamphetamine user broke into the same parish rectory. Dave Adams, finance officer for the Diocese of Santa Rosa, California, recalled feeling “a great sense of grief and a loss of control” by the events.
As a result, the Santa Rosa diocese hired a security consultant who observed parish grounds at night. The results were “eye-opening,” said Adams, whose duties include parish security. “We have people parked on our lots at 1 and 2 a.m. engaging in drug use and other illegal activities.”
Today, Father Nevins is pastor of St. Agnes of Bohemia Parish, located in another high-crime area in Chicago. The parish has undertaken a variety of security measures, including installing security cameras and an intercom-buzzer system to let visitors into parish buildings. The adoration chapel now remains locked throughout the day; Eucharistic adorers let each other in and lock the door behind themselves. Parishioners are reminded to watch their valuables on parish grounds.
Father Frank Hicks, pastor of St. Basil Catholic Church near downtown Los Angeles, has adopted many of these measures, as well as hiring security and parking lot attendants. Theft and vandalism are common and one of the lot attendants recently was assaulted. For added protection, St. Basil maintains a close relationship with the local police department, Father Hicks said. The parish staff and members are also watchful of the many homeless who are drawn to the area.
“We’re not aggressive about driving people away, but we don’t allow them to move into private spaces or pitch tents,” he said. Father Hicks feels safe at the parish, but said “we’re fully aware of our environment. We don’t let our guard down.”
Franciscan Father Carroll Mizicko is pastor of St. Augustine Catholic Church in East St. Louis, Illinois, a city with some of the highest crime rates in the country, according to FBI reports. In his 12 years at the parish, Father Mizicko has seen many flee.
“We’re a deteriorating community,” he said. “You see a lot of empty lots where homes and businesses once stood.”
His parish has experienced both break-ins and vandalism.
“We’re aware of our neighborhood. We don’t take any unnecessary risks,” he said. The parish buildings have alarms, and “we don’t open the door unless we know who it is.”
Father Mizicko makes sure to wear his Roman collar when he travels in the community, as he believes most residents are “churched” and respect the clergy. But, he added, “You have to know where you’re going. There are plenty of neighborhoods I wouldn’t walk around at night.” Despite the challenges, Father Mizicko believes St. Augustine is an important witness of Christ in the community. “We’re trying to do our part, staying here and being a sign of hope.”
Father Jesus Nieto-Ruiz, pastor of the combined parishes of St. Anthony and Mary Help of Christians in Oakland, California, likes to focus on “community-organizing efforts that are proactive in reducing crime,” such as the establishment of after-school programs that keep teens out of trouble. Members of his parish staff are from the community they serve, he said, and know how to stay safe in it. “Sure, I worry about them, but no more than a father worries about his kids,” he said.
Oakland Police Department Assistant Chief Paul Figueroa encourages parish staffs to be involved with community groups, particularly those in contact with the police, but also “to be aware of what’s going on around you.” He warned about “putting valuables on display” in front of potential thieves and lauded locked doors, alarm systems and neighborhood watch programs. Getting a dog can also be a good idea.
Should someone in a parish hear suspicious sounds outside after hours, Figueroa advised people to “call the police and talk to the dispatcher. We can send an officer to take a look.”
In Santa Rosa, the diocese is reviewing its safety options. Adams recently addressed priests on a retreat concerning security. Some tips he offered were not having a pastor be the first respondent to a late-night alarm, building a “solid corridor” in a rectory where priests can be secure while waiting for law enforcement and installing outdoor cameras and motion-controlled lighting.
More controversial was the suggestion that parish priests live in houses off-site. Should a priest be called to a hospital late at night, for example, it is safer for him to exit a residence than a parish rectory parking lot, where illegal activity might be occurring. A few priests have already moved to houses, and he suspects over the next 15 years more will do the same.
Some pastors were concerned about their safety, others not, Adams said. “Many of our priests have been ordained for 25 years or more and grew up in different times. Our world has changed, and we have to make changes, too, while still accomplishing our mission.”