Romanian Orthodox community dismayed by theft of religious objects

·4 min read

Members of New Brunswick's Romanian Orthodox religious community are very upset about an incident last weekend at their new church.

St. Varlaam Church in River Glade, about 31 kilometres west of Moncton, was broken into late Friday night, Dec. 11, and several items went missing, including some that are used in religious rituals.

The stolen items include a gold-plated chalice and tabernacle, sacred bread, wine, candles and cash.

"Everybody's in shock," said Andreea Popescu, a parish council member.

"It is sad when a building is robbed, but more, when it is a church."

Submitted by Andreea Popescu
Submitted by Andreea Popescu

The chalice and tabernacle were brought to New Brunswick by the parish priest, said Popescu.

Father Cezar Pelin said the items were purchased in Romania.

"I brought them when I arrived in Moncton on Dec. 20, 2016," he said. Before that, Pelin worked as an assistant professor of theology in Romania. He was ordained 12 years ago.

The replacement costs, he said, would be about $1,000 for a chalice and $2,500 for a tabernacle.

But Pelin says the real value to church members is higher.

"Because they are used for the most important service in the church — Divine Liturgy — they are priceless to our community."

Submitted by Andreea Popescu
Submitted by Andreea Popescu

The saddest part, said Popescu, is that someone took consecrated bread away from the altar.

"These small crumbles of holy communion are preserved in the holy tabernacle and are offered to the sick people in hospital or at home, people who can not come to the church to partake."

Submitted by Andreea Popescu
Submitted by Andreea Popescu

It's a rude welcome to the neighbourhood for the congregation, which only purchased the former Baptist church last July.

The congregation had been working to establish a home for itself since 2012. It held some services in other churches in Moncton, Fredericton and St. George before taking the "huge step" of buying the place in River Glade — mortgage free.

Submitted by Andreea Popescu
Submitted by Andreea Popescu

The first liturgy was celebrated there in August.

People travel to St. Varlaam from all over the province to attend. Bogdan and Mihaela Ciolanescu make the trip every Sunday from Saint John.

"It is very important for us," they wrote in an email.

They spent hours getting the church ready so they would have a safe place to gather with their faith community.

Submitted by Andreea Popescu
Submitted by Andreea Popescu

The opening of the new church was the best thing that happened during a year when nothing has been normal, said the couple.

Submitted by Andreea Popescu
Submitted by Andreea Popescu

They called the theft "heartbreaking" and described the chalice as the most important object in the church.

The Ciolanescu said in their email that they suspect the thief was probably looking for electronics, and doesn't realize the significance of what they took.

Fellow Saint Johner Elena Stanica said she was in tears when she got word of the theft.

"It's very hard to believe that this happened."

"Everybody's sad," said Popescu.

Submitted by Andreea Popescu
Submitted by Andreea Popescu

A special ceremony was held in the aftermath of the break-in to try to deal with the grief.

"Last Sunday, our priest did a service of the sanctification of water, which was used for spiritual cleansing of the building," said Popescu.

"It was a sensitive moment," she said. "We prayed to God to send good thoughts to the robbers and to give the objects back to us. It is not about the monetary value but spiritual huge impact for the entire community."

Submitted by Andreea Popescu
Submitted by Andreea Popescu

Church members are hopeful the thieves will have a change of heart and return the items, Popescu said, and would be grateful to have them back, no questions asked.

She expects it might be difficult for the thief to sell the items for cash because they are quite distinctive.

Although, it's possible someone might try to melt down the gold.

Popescu said police found fingerprints on some other objects on the altar that had been moved. She has had no other update on the investigation. The Caledonia detachment of the RCMP did not respond to CBC's request for an interview.

Police were called at about 11:30 Friday night, Dec. 11, after a neighbour spotted flashlights in and around the church and a car parked out front.

He thought perhaps the power had gone out and phoned to see if they needed help.

The priest confirmed there was no sanctioned activity going on.

Church members take some solace in the fact that there was no damage or vandalism during the incident, said Popescu.

The priest said fortunately he had a spare chalice, so services can still take place, including upcoming celebrations for Christmas.