BILLINGS — At St. Patrick Co-Cathedral in Billings, the Christmas nativity scene is typically left up until early February.
But this year—that's not the case. The church's outdoor nativity scene was destroyed on Jan. 16—the same night Mary Queen of Peace Catholic Church was broken into on the Billings South Side.
Father Leo McDowell said Tuesday the incident has rattled the church at 215 N 31st St.
"The wise men were all decapitated, the animals were strewn all over, and Mary, Jesus, and Joseph were missing,” McDowell said. “It was kind of a shock to think that someone would come in and do that."
McDowell said the incident was similar to what occurred at Mary Queen of Peace.
“Having heard the next day about what had happened down at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish, Little Flower Church, I was starting to think maybe it could be some sort of a hate crime,” McDowell said. “To hear about it happening down there kind of just raised a question: Was it something that we were targeted, or was it something that somebody just lost it when they went by and was mad and did the anger thing?"
And parishioners are upset.
“I don’t think it was just a random act of violence. I think it was a pre-meditated event,” Linda Casey, a regular at the church, said on Wednesday. “I hope for their sake and their eternal soul they are caught, so maybe they can get some help."
Others were almost expecting the vandalism.
“Throughout the holidays I saw the nativity scene and I was saying, ‘Well, with the way things are going, I hope nobody destroys it,’ and I guess somebody did," said St. Patrick regular Mike Lew on Wednesday. "So it was something I had in the back of my mind that it might happen. I was sorry to hear it."
McDowell said he filed a police report but was frustrated with the lack of response from the community service officers, who were hired recently to alleviate certain duties previously conducted by regular patrol officers.
"We’ve been waiting for the Community Service people to come by and visit us to finalize that police report. It was a holiday when we called, and (church members) called again this afternoon to see when somebody was going to show up. Because they haven’t shown up yet at our church to talk to us,” McDowell said. “I’m a little frustrated. It makes me question whether they’re taking it seriously."
MTN News reached out to the Billings Police Department on Wednesday for a response. Lt. Matt Lennick said the department was at fault for the delay in the response. After receiving a message from MTN News, the department sent out officers to complete the initial investigation.
He blamed the delay on an error in filing the paperwork, and he added that all community service officers are back on duty following time off and providing coverage six days a week.
"The wait time on these types of reports should continue to be minimal as was one of our goals in creating the program," Lennick wrote in an email.
He added that the community service officers will continue to monitor reports in hopes to avoid similar delays with the new system.
The investigation continues into the St. Patrick's vandalism, and police are working to determine whether it's connected to the incident at the South Side Catholic church, Lennick said.
"As far as this case being connected to the other church burglaries and vandalisms in the last couple weeks, it still (is) to be determined. Much of the vandalism is similar in nature, so it could be connected, but each case has received a fair amount of social media attention as well. So there is always the possibility for copycat incidents. Currently, no suspects have been identified, and if the public is aware of any information in any of these cases, we would encourage them to call into dispatch or Crime Stoppers," Lennick wrote.
While investigators work to find potential suspects, the church is left to pick up the pieces.
“I just want to thank people for their support of St. Patrick’s. Those who have been praying for us, praying for Our Mary Queen of Peace parish as we go through this time," McDowell said. "Thank you for the encouragement, and thank you for every little bit trying to show that unity and peaceful existence we have. We ask that you continue to pray for us."