Vandals defaced St. Francis of Assisi Parish at the beginning of Holy Week. (Submitted photo)

Unfortunately, Holy Week had a less-than-holy start at one landmark local church.

It was shortly before the start of 8:30 a.m. Mass on Palm Sunday, March 28, that parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi on Vel R. Phillips Avenue in Milwaukee rushed to inform their pastor, Fr. Mike Bertram, OFM Cap., that someone had vandalized the north side of the parish center, which is in the process of being constructed.

“Sure enough, sadly, somebody had spray-painted the wall with the message ‘demons control me 666’ and painted in large letters kind of an alternate spelling of the word ‘psycho,’” said Fr. Bertram. “It’s a little disturbing. You wonder where somebody comes up with a message like that.”

Security cameras on-site were able to show what time the vandalism occurred but were too obstructed to identify any perpetrators, said Fr. Bertram, who also filed a report with local police.

“What we could determine was that there were two people on the property at 4 o’ clock in the morning and within 25 minutes, they had done their damage and were off,” said Fr. Bertram. “There was a black Toyota vehicle but no license plate could be identified.”

Fr. Bertram called the damage “really disheartening.” The exterior walls of the new parish center are being constructed with historic Cream City brick reclaimed from the parish monastery, discovered behind plastered walls that were being torn down (the monastery is also being renovated).

“This Cream City brick is just gleaming, it’s unspoiled,” he said. “It was taken out brick by brick individually and cleaned individually, so it cost a little bit more than had been projected, but the result was absolutely beautiful, gleaming, stunning. It makes it all the harder and more hurtful when you see the spray painting that was done on it.”

The contractors that are working on the construction project are going to be in charge of cleaning up the vandalism, said Fr. Bertram. It will result in added costs for the parish, likely between $3,000 and $4,000.

St. Francis of Assisi Parish was founded in 1871 and has been served since that time by the Capuchin Friars, whose presence in Milwaukee dates to 1851. In 1904, Blessed Solanus Casey was ordained a priest in the church while he lived and studied at the monastery. Throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, the parish distinguished itself as a champion for causes of social justice.

The parishioners are “crestfallen,” said Fr. Bertram.

“Really, really heavy hearts walked into church after seeing that on Sunday morning,” he said. “Some people even made the connection — you know, here we are in this week when Jesus’ body was defiled and killed, and you see a similar defacement and defilement going on with our own parish building. But they are also optimistic about it, saying this will not take us down, this will not get us down, we will pick ourselves back up, we will clean it and we only wish and hope for the best.”

No official funds have yet been organized to cover the cost the parish will incur as a result of this vandalism, but anyone interested in financially supporting St. Francis of Assisi can contact the parish office.