Break-in takes place at Portland
cathedral, rectory on Ash Wednesday

Msgr. Gerard O’Connor is pictured in St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, Ore. He interrupted an intruder’s foray into the cathedral rectory in the early morning hours of Ash Wednesday Feb. 17, 2021. (CNS photo/courtesy St. Mary Cathedral via Catholic Sentinel)

PORTLAND, Ore. — On Ash Wednesday at 3:27 a.m., Portland police officers were dispatched on a report of a burglary in progress at St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland and its rectory.

Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, the new rector of the cathedral, told the Catholic Sentinel, Portland’s archdiocesan newspaper, that he was awakened by the sound of shouting, as well as a noisy vehicle outside his window.

“I looked out the window as a van sped away,” the priest said.

The shouting continued and the priest realized that the sound was coming from within the rectory. And when he descended the stairs to the reception area, he said he discovered a man “shouting nonsense, swearing and being offensive.”

The priest was attempting to calm the intruder, to “talk him down a bit,” when his house guests, Msgr. John Cihak, pastor of Christ the King Parish in Milwaukie, Oregon, and Deacon Dustin Busse, pastoral intern there, arrived on the scene.

Christ the King had been afflicted by western Oregon’s widespread power outage caused by the weekend’s ice storms. An Ash Wednesday vigil at the suburban church had been held in the cold by candlelight.

After the service, Msgr. Cihak and Deacon Busse had traveled to St. Mary Cathedral’s rectory to spend what they had hoped would be a warm, peaceful night there.

Now, in the early hours of Ash Wednesday, Msgr. Cihak gripped a cricket bat in case the trio needed protection.

“Being English, I usually keep a cricket bat with me wherever I live,” Msgr. O’Connor explained. Coincidentally, that particular bat had arrived the day before.

When the intruder tried to walk toward the sanctuary, Msgr. O’Connor said he told him: “You need to come back here.”

One of the priests called 911, and they arrived in force.

A police department news release said the officers had been informed that the suspect was holding what might have been a box cutter. “When the officers arrived, they could hear yelling and see the pastor of the church inside trying to talk with the agitated suspect,” the release said.

The officers told the clerics to exit the building.

“The three of us went outside in our jimjams,” said Msgr. O’Connor, using the English vernacular for pajamas. “It was cold, but I didn’t feel it much because of the adrenaline,” he added.

The police surrounded the rectory and cathedral as police dogs assisted with the search inside. The man disappeared into the rectory’s labyrinthine halls, breezeways and rooms. “It’s a big rectory,” Msgr. O’Connor acknowledged.

Police said the suspect tried to escape out an exit and was arrested by perimeter officers. The intruder, later identified as Christopher Colletta, 44, was arrested and charged with burglary, criminal mischief and resisting arrest. The police on the scene convinced Msgr. O’Connor to press charges, something he finally agreed to do in hopes that Colletta would get help.

“The man was all the way in the back,” said Franciscan Sister Connie Furseth, neighborhood liaison for Cathedral Parish, who arrived on the scene later Feb. 17.

In a curious twist, Sister Furseth reported that it appeared the man had been cutting his hair in one of the rectory’s bathrooms, perhaps shortly before he was apprehended.

The vandalization also included burglary.

“He’d thrown a few things into the road that he’d collected from my office,” said Msgr. O’Connor. “I think he threw a few into the van that sped away.”

The windows of Mary Jo Gornick’s reception office were broken out and stained-glass windows in a breezeway smashed. “That’s particularly upsetting because the windows are beautiful and 100 years old,” Msgr. O’Connor said.

The night’s tumult left him grateful for the police.

“They do this every night,” he said. “I really respect them. The Portland police get a lot of criticism, but they were uber-professional and kind.”

Sister Furseth also came away thinking about the people involved. “Thank God he wasn’t there by himself,” she said of Msgr. O’Connor.

She hoped the suspect, who was known to the police, will receive treatment for any mental illness or drug addiction he may suffer from. “At least he’ll be warm and well fed,” she said.

Msgr. O’Connor did not get any more sleep that night. “I’m very tired today,” he said on the afternoon of Ash Wednesday. “Tonight, the archbishop is celebrating Ash Wednesday Mass at the cathedral, and after that I plan to go to bed.”

It’s uncertain how long Colletta will be held. Multnomah County’s Inverness jail has been the site of a COVID-19 outbreak that had sickened 140 people by Feb. 14, according to The Oregonian daily newspaper.

The county had earlier reduced its inmate population by 30% to enable a minimum of social distancing. Public defenders have called for more inmates to be released.

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