Sunday September 9, 2012

NEW LEBANON, N.Y. -- A Pittsfield man was being held on $10,000 bail at the Columbia County Jail in Hudson, N.Y., on Saturday following his arrest by state police on Friday for allegedly vandalizing the historic Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes on Route 20.

The grotto, adjacent to the Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, has been the frequent target of vandals and thieves, according to a state police report.

Joseph Merriam, 23, of Pittsfield, Mass., was arrested Friday evening as the suspect in an Aug. 25 rampage that included the smashing of 126 glass candle-holders and the destruction of more than 200 candles that were stomped onto the stone floor of the shrine, police said.

Investigation Trooper Nicholas Lombardi, who was off-duty and not reachable for further comment on Saturday, identified the suspect based on a series of leads.

Following his arrest on a felony charge of third-degree criminal mischief, Merriam was arraigned at the New Lebanon Town Court and was taken to the county jail pending his next court date on Wednesday, Sept. 12. A supervisor at the jail confirmed Saturday afternoon that Merriam was still in custody.

In late July, state police in New Lebanon had arrested two local juveniles on charges of vandalizing and thievery at the shrine.

According to the church's Pastor, John Close, a surveillance camera installed at the shrine following an outbreak of thefts and vandalism 12 years ago helped police identify the suspect in the most recent incident.

"I'm baffled, it made no sense what he was doing," said Close. "The fellow had a pretty good temper tantrum, throwing things around."

The pastor said he had the camera placed at the shrine when he arrived in the year 2000 following a widely-publicized outbreak of thefts from the collection box.

"I hated to do it, but it's the age we live in," Close commented sadly. "People know donations are made to us, they think it's easy to dip in and help themselves."

The surveillance equipment is being upgraded to enhance the quality of the camera's images, he added. Close also pointed out that donations are now stored in a safe with a combination lock secured to the structure housing the shrine.

"You'd have to be a safecracker to even attempt to get in there," said Close, noting there has been an increase in criminal activities at the shrine during the past two years.

"We want people to be comfortable when they come in to pray," he said, "but having the camera is the lesser of two evils the way things go these days. It's a sad commentary and it's an expense for us."

According to the pastor, there's a mistaken impression about easy access to the donations at the shrine. "They're not targeting the church, they're saying here's an easy mark," he said. "We're ready for whatever might be coming."

The church dates back to 1869, part of the parish founded in 1852 when St. Joseph's Church, now in Stephentown, was erected in Lebanon Springs. The Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes was dedicated in July 1929 before a crowd of more than 9,000.

According to the parish's web-site history, the grotto was conceived by Father John B. LeFebre, who was serving at the church and noticed a resemblance between the Taconic Valley countryside and the setting of Lourdes in France.

To contact Clarence Fanto: cfanto@berkshireeagle.com or (413) 496-6247. On Twitter: @BE_cfanto.