Catholic Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Iconographer Kathy Sievers and poet Mary Ann Schnorenberg stand before the cross at St. Matthew Church in Hillsboro.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Iconographer Kathy Sievers and poet Mary Ann Schnorenberg stand before the cross at St. Matthew Church in Hillsboro.
HILLSBORO — The story received little outside attention and still the crime is unsolved. But each Lent, some members of St. Matthew Parish here remember the day six years ago when the key symbol of their faith disappeared.

A simple wooden crucifix was suspended 12 feet above the altar as it had been for decades in the church, dedicated in 1965.

Between the evening of Saturday, Feb. 12, 2005 and the next morning's Masses, the crucifix was cut from its wires and taken. No one knows how and most of all, no one knows why.   

"What would one do with it?" asks Mary Ann Schnorenberg, a parishioner for 45 years. "Were they angry with the church? It was not something you could cash in."

It was an agonizing blow for a parish that in the mid-1990s was hit by vandals who had set a fire and sprayed anti-Semetic, anti-homosexual and anti-Hispanic graffitti on the marble interior walls.

Questions remain, but parishioners now look back on the theft of the crucifix and the response as a holy moment.

Father Juan Jose Gonzalez, pastor at the time, decided on the spot to revise his morning homily to talk about the troubling incident. Those who heard him were deeply moved, some to tears. The priest asked parishioners to pray for the person, or people, who took the holy symbol that had focused their prayers for a generation and more.  

Schnorenberg sensed what she calls "a surge of the Spirit." A poet, she was moved to write something that day.

"Where have they taken Him?
our people cry
at the foot of the altar.
A thief who needs what?
a broken Man?
a wooden Cross?
a hated Symbol?
Our shock turns to rage
turns to whys
turns to blame
turns to revenge
Until a man of God
hears the Voice of God
pleading mercy
pleading forgiveness
pleading kindness."

For several months, the empty space remained in the air above the altar — an in teh hearts of worshipers.    

"The community was shocked, and puzzled," says Kathy Sievers, who was liturgy coordinator at the time. "We felt so violated to have somebody take the central image of the whole place."

Father Gonzalez ordered a new carved corpus from Italy — a little over three feet tall. A local cabinet maker, Mark Leriche, fashioned a white oak cross on which to hang it for Good Friday that year.

But the re-creation was not done. Father Gonzalez had been speaking with Sievers, who is an iconographer, about combining western and Byzantine imagery in the crucifix. Leriche had created panels on the cross for icons and Sievers set to work, praying and fasting as iconographers do before picking up the brush.

After months, the icons were finished and attached to the crucifix for Holy Week, 2006.

At the top is the hand of God, matching a hand in one of the church's windows. Below it is an image of a dove representing the Holy Spirit. Mary is on the left, wearing red. On the right is John the Baptist, wild but holy. At the bottom of the crucifix is an image of the parish patron, St. Matthew the Evangelist, holding a quill.

"It is a beautiful, beautful cross," says Schnorenberg.

Iconographers understand that they are tools in the hand of the Spirit, so Sievers is not apt to take credit. But she does like the way it turned out.

"The whole experience was remarkable," Sievers says. "I would never wish it on any parish, but we all grew through it. The crucifix looks like it always belonged there. As for my part, it was an honor to be a part of the process of helping the community heal."