No one was hurt during a recent break-in at the St. Mary Cathedral rectory, though some items were stollen and windows smashed.
No one was hurt during a recent break-in at the St. Mary Cathedral rectory, though some items were stollen and windows smashed.

Updated Feb. 18, 2021

On Ash Wednesday at 3:27 a.m., according to an official Portland Police Bureau news release, Central Precinct officers were dispatched to a report of a burglary in progress at St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and its rectory.

Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, the new rector of the cathedral, told the Catholic Sentinel he had been 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,” said Msgr. O’Connor.

The shouting continued.

The monsignor realized with alarm that the cacophony was coming from within the rectory.

He descended the stairs to the reception area, where he discovered a man “shouting nonsense, swearing and being offensive,” said Msgr. O’Connor.

The priest was attempting to calm the intruder, to “talk him down a bit,” when his houseguests, Msgr. John Cihak, pastor of Christ the King Parish in Milwaukie, 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 rambling 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 in the mail on Shrove Tuesday.

The man tried to walk toward the sanctuary. “I told him, ‘You need to come back here,’” said Msgr. O’Connor.

The priests had called 911, and now the police arrived in force.

The police news release noted they had been informed that the suspect was holding what might have been a box cutter type of razor blade. “When the officers arrived, they could hear yelling and see the pastor of the church inside trying to talk with the agitated suspect,” according to the report.

The officers told the clerics to exit the building.

“The three of us went outside in our jim-jams,” 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 Northwest Davis Street 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 say the suspect tried to escape out an exit and was apprehended by perimeter officers.

Franciscan Sister Connie Furseth, neighborhood liaison for Cathedral Parish, who arrived on the scene later on Wednesday, was shocked to find the rectory had become a crime scene.

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.

Christopher Colletta, 44, was arrested and charged with burglary, criminal mischief and resisting arrest.

Colletta’s Facebook page seems to reveal a man long troubled by social injustice and also struggling with addiction and anger. He stopped posting in 2016, but in the weeks before he went silent he shared, “Im a horrible drunk, im not happy on the inside, im frustrated n thats turning to rage … im lonely, angry, confused, and tired.”

The night’s tumult left Msgr. O’Connor 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.

It’s uncertain how long Colletta will be held. This month 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. The county had earlier reduced its inmate population by 30% in order to enable a minimum of social distancing. Public defenders have called for more inmates to be released.

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.

As for sleep that night, it wasn’t in the offing for the monsignor. “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.”

kristenh@catholicsentinel.org

katies@catholicsentinel.org