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Two Catholic communities receive state's safety grants

Abbey, church two of six security grant recipients from Department of Public Safety

Published: March 15, 2024   
Jerrid Farnam was charged with using a sledgehammer to smash a large hole in the marble altar at Subiaco Abbey Jan. 5, 2023, stealing the relics from inside the altar. (File photo/ Subiaco Abbey)

Two Catholic congregations in Arkansas received grants from the Arkansas Department of Public Safety as part of their Right to Worship Safely Grant Program. 

Subiaco Abbey received $30,805 and St. Mary of the Springs Church in Hot Springs received $8,065. 

The Arkansas Department of Public Safety awarded six grants, totaling $227,000, to the two Catholic congregations, as well as four Jewish communities in Arkansas. The Department of Public Safety oversees the $500,000 grant program to support “physical security enhancement and other security activity projects that serve to assist nonprofit ideology-based /spiritual/ religious entities in the prevention, protection against, preparedness for and response to terrorist threat(s) and/or other extremist attack(s).”

All applicants must have received an active terrorist threat or extremist attack in the past 12 months. The grant award winners were announced Feb. 12, and the grants will be awarded by March 15. 

In addition to Subiaco Abbey and St. Mary Church, 13 other Catholic schools and churches applied for the grant.

St. Mary Church in Hot Springs received a grant following a criminal trespassing event in 2023. The parish plans to use the grant money to buy an outdoor video security system that will surveil the parish grounds. 

Father Ravi Gudipalli, pastor of St. Mary Church, released a statement on behalf of the parish after being notified of receiving the grant. 

“St. Mary of the Springs Catholic Church is humbled to be the recipient of one of the grants in the Department of Public Safety’s Right to Worship Safely Grant Program,” Father Gudipalli said. “Our parish first learned of this opportunity through the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock, and our decision to apply was based on various security and safety concerns that have arisen over this past year.  

“This grant of $8,065 is in response to our parish’s need for a video security system to help improve the safety of our parishioners, staff and visitors while on our campus. It is our hope that this increased sense of safety will benefit both parishioners and visitors alike in our worship of God and in our service to the broader Hot Springs community.”

Subiaco Abbey experienced a security event Jan. 5, 2023, when 31-year-old Jerrid Farnam used a sledgehammer to smash a large hole into the abbey altar’s marble slab, stealing the relics from inside the altar. Farnam, who is not Catholic, was seen by witnesses just four days earlier at the New Year’s Day Mass inspecting the side altars before sitting in the back pew. 

The Logan County Sheriff’s Office found the relics of Sts. Boniface, Tiberius, Benedict, Marcellus and Justina in Farnam’s truck, along with a sledgehammer. He was arrested after he returned to the church following the desecration. He was charged with public intoxication, theft of property, first-degree criminal mischief, breaking or entering, residential burglary and defacing or damaging a public building or an object of public respect. Farnam is currently awaiting trial.

Abbot Owens said attitudes about security have changed at the abbey since the altar desecration. 

“Thousands of people come to our abbey each month for pilgrimages, retreats and tourism. Chapter 53 of the Rule of St. Benedict calls us monks to welcome those people like Christ. In the past, security was just presumed, but we saw that failure when our altar was terribly desecrated,” Abbot Owens said. “Now, we have to realize that we can still welcome people like Christ, but we must also ensure that they are safe and free from potential harm in their visit with us. People with good intentions visit, but so do those with mental challenges or those intent on doing us harm.” 

Abbot Owens said after the altar desecration, generous donors stepped forward to help repair the altar and secure the monastery and all-boys academy. 

“We now have 119 cameras with audio installed across our campus and exterior security locks on our main buildings, but we still have unimpeded access to our church for prayer before the Blessed Sacrament throughout the day,” Abbot Owens said. “We still welcome people like Christ, but now we have to strive to actively ensure the safety of their visit.” 

Abbott Owens said the grant will be used to obtain more security.

“We are planning to install increased lighting and cameras in our church and retreat center parking and entry areas, motion lighting for problematic areas and upgraded cameras in our church body and entryway,” he said. “These will be monitored by our security staff and key members of our Campus Emergency Response Team.”

Abbot Owens said Subiaco is thankful for the grant and the opportunity to boost abbey security. 

“(This grant) finally allows us to complete an initial program of heightened security we began one year ago that we simply could not have achieved without this grant,” he said. “People across the country who come to Subiaco will know they will have a safe visit and an unimpeded right to worship. Subiaco depends solely on donations, proceeds from our investments, and the sale of our monastic products. Simply put, monk sauce, brittle, and rosary sales would never allow us to do what this grant from the state will allow us to do to enhance our security.”

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