LOS ANGELES – A 780-year-old religious relic of the patron saint of lost causes and missing objects was stolen from a Catholic church near Los Angeles on Monday, just hours after it was put on display to commemorate the feast of St. Anthony, police said.
The relic, which is only brought out on special occasions, was stolen from inside a cabinet beside the altar at the St. Anthony Catholic Church in Long Beach on Monday morning, police Lt. Paul Arcala said.
The Rev. Jose Magana said he decided to bring out the relic this year, on the 780th anniversary of the death of St. Anthony, because many of his parishioners have lost hope in the rough economy.
Magana said the relic is invaluable and deeply symbolic to his parish.
"It's our history, so it's irreplaceable," Magana said. "It belongs to the church, not just the church here in Long Beach, but the entire Catholic church."
The church opened at 6 a.m., and when Magana turned to the relic during the 9 a.m. Mass, it had disappeared. Magana could hear his parishioners gasp when they realized it was gone, but he continued with the service and called police immediately afterward.
Arcala said the relic is housed in a 16-inch-tall case with angel-shaped handles made of gold and silver on either side. He declined to describe it further because that might jeopardize the investigation.
The last time it was on view was eight years ago, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the parish. In Catholicism, relics are usually part of a saint's body or clothes, revered as a physical connection to the saint.
While church members are upset that someone would steal a holy object, their faith is still strong.
"They said, 'Father, he's the patron saint of lost causes, so he'll come home,'" Magana said.
Police are looking for a person of interest who was curious about the relic earlier Monday morning, got too close and had to be asked to step away, Arcala said. The woman was in her late 30s and was short heavyset with wavy, shoulder-length black hair.
"I'm hoping we've got some higher sources who've got our backs here and we can get it back," Magana said. "People here are pretty upset but they're praying. They're praying to St. Anthony for the return of his own object."