Statue of Mary vandalized; some St. Thomas students criticize administration response

| April 1, 2019 | 0 Comments

University of St. Thomas students and staff participate in rosary procession March 21 in response to the destruction of Mary statue in Ireland Hall March 3. Nearly 200 students and staff participated in the procession on the St. Paul campus. Matthew Davis / The Catholic Spirit

Nearly 200 University of St. Thomas students and staff prayerfully processed across the St. Paul campus March 21 as an act of reparation for a vandalized Mary statue in Ireland Hall.

“I think the best way to respond to an act of hatred or violence of any sort is to pray as Catholics,” said senior Catherine Wessel, 22, a peer minister with campus ministry who engages fellow students in the Catholic faith. “I think to come together as a community, to pray a rosary especially, is really beautiful.”

But the procession was organized by students, not the administration, Wessel and others said, reflecting a perceived lack of support on campus for students concerned about appropriate respect for the Catholic faith at a Catholic university.

“The way it was handled reflects a lot of other issues regarding Catholic identity and how other intolerances are handled,” Wessel said.

Several students in the men’s residence hall destroyed the statue March 3, university officials said. Senior John Lucke, a Catholic and Ireland resident, said he saw another sign of disrespect to Catholicism 3 a.m. March 19 when he found a stale piece of bread with the words “Body of Christ” written across in black marker. He reported it to campus security.

St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan and Richard Plumb, executive vice president and provost, condemned the destruction of the statue in a March 12 letter and offered a listening session March 20 for students. “This was a grave act of disrespect, which has deeply hurt many in our community,” they wrote.

According to students who attended the listening session, Sullivan said she received an apology letter from a student who claimed responsibility for destroying the statue. She said the students were drunk when it happened.

Sophomore Peter Thompson, 19, said he felt Sullivan’s mention of the students drunkenness downplayed the seriousness of the offense.

St. Thomas students and staff at the procession focused on peace in response to the vandalism. Student members of St. Thomas campus ministry organized the procession, although it wasn’t an official campus ministry event.

“This is a time for us to come together as community with love in our hearts,” Tony Preston, a senior and a peer minister who majors in social work and philosophy, said at the procession. “Our great pope, Pope John Paul II, told us ‘overcome evil with weapons of love.’”

Preston first led five minutes of silence for those suffering religious persecution, including the 50 Muslims shot and killed in two mosque attacks in New Zealand March 15. Those gathered then prayed a rosary while processing from the Anderson Student Center to the Mary statue behind the chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Thompson, who is Catholic, said hearing the news of the statue disturbed him but the procession was “both healing and inspiring.” Fellow sophomore Derrick Diedrich, a Catholic and peer minister, said many people had varying viewpoints about the cause and intention of the destruction.

“It still hurts to know that something that’s so important to me — I love the Blessed Mother — is just another thing that other students don’t care anything for,” said Diedrich, 20, a leadership and management major who lived in Ireland Hall as a freshman.

When Lucke spotted the stale bread with its reference to the Eucharist, he considered it a “heinous act of hatred.” He expressed doubt that an intoxicated person could have written the letters so neatly.

“You’re not drunkenly writing four letters and two letters and (then) five letters, propping it nicely so that people can read it,” Lucke said. “This was intentional.”

Father Larry Snyder, vice president for mission, said the bread incident is being investigated.

“We are a strong Catholic community and hold our Catholic beliefs as central to all we do,” Father Snyder said. “Students of Catholic faith are welcomed and supported on campus and we will continue to hear their concerns and help them grow in their faith.”

Lucke compiled a list of 12 examples from students who said they didn’t feel supported in their Catholic faith. Wessel, who is majoring in neuroscience and Catholic Studies, read the list to university officials at the listening session. She mentioned examples such as a friend being insulted for wearing a pro-life T-shirt.

Thompson said he has been insulted for wearing a scapular, having pro-life stickers on his laptop and attending Sunday Mass. Thompson and Wessel said some students mentioned seeing professors disrespecting the Church.

Students interviewed by The Catholic Spirit also talked about what they saw as discrepancy in the university’s response to the religious vandalism compared with a racist graffiti incident last fall. University officials canceled classes Oct. 31 so students could attend a campus-wide meeting regarding racism in response to a racial slur written in red letters on African-American freshman Kevyn Perkins’ door in Brady Hall Oct. 19.

Father Snyder explained the distinction he saw between the two incidents.

“The racist incident that occurred on campus was directed at an individual because of the color of his skin,” Father Snyder said. “This vandalism incident also had an impact on students and was a grave act of disrespect. It was not, however, an act motivated by bias or directed at any individual.”


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