Donations pour in as suspect is arrested in church heist

VIOLET, La. (RNS) At Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Violet Tuesday night (Dec. 22), parishioners gasped with astonishment, and a few even cried joyfully, as they faced their organizational task ahead.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, a burglar broke into the St. Bernard Parish church and rifled through about 65 Christmas gifts destined for some of the parish's needy children.

As word of the crime spread, people from across the metropolitan area and as far as Wisconsin and Ohio stepped up to help. By Tuesday night, gifts were piled on the floor about 7 feet deep along three walls, including 15 bicycles donated by Boy Scouts and bags stuffed with toys from the Salvation Army.

Parishioners' fear of whether they would be able to distribute gifts gave way to worry over whether they'd have enough wrapping paper, they said.

"Unreal," said Jean Arnone, the mother of the church's pastor, the Rev. John Arnone. "It's unreal."

Her son used the theft to speak of sacrifice and resurrection, and of humbled hearts moved by gratitude. "They can steal our gifts, but they cannot steal our spirit," he told his parishioners during Mass. "We are resilient people."

Early Wednesday morning, sheriff's deputies arrested Herman "Peter" Smiles, who lives nearby, in the theft, said Chief Deputy Jimmy Pohlmann. Detectives were led to Smiles after another suspect, under questioning, fingered Smiles.

Deputies arrested Smiles at the home he shares with his mother. They found the missing presents in his room. Smiles was charged with burglary of a religious building and a parole violation.

Smiles allegedly confessed during questioning. According to Pohlmann, he told detectives that he broke into the church shortly after smoking crack. He allegedly searched for money but instead stumbled upon the stack of wrapped presents.

After the theft was discovered, Arnone said the anger he initially felt had changed to sorrow for the thief. "It's an unfortunate need," he said. "But so much good has come of it. It's really been incredible."

The church has received help from charitable and civic groups and businesses, including a national chain store that provided gift cards to purchase clothing for 125 senior citizens. The Marine Corps Reserve offered three pallets of gifts collected through its Toys for Tots drive.