Mystery of the missing Mary: Police recover church's stolen statue in river

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NORTH BENNINGTON, VT. >> A five-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mary could be the last thing you'd expect to find on the banks of the Walloomsac River.

But that's exactly what Bennington police recovered from the area of the Henry Bridge on Wednesday. The statue had been forcefully removed from Mary's Garden at the St. John the Baptist Church on Houghton Street in North Bennington, according to authorities and leaders with the church.

"The Madonna of the Street" statue came The Demetz Art Studio workshop in Ortisei — Val Gardena, Italy, said Henry Simpatico, a parishioner at the church. The statue has been at the church, in the Mary's Garden, since he and his wife Eleanore made the garden 15 years ago.

The statue is made of fiberglass, but still weighs about 150 to 200 pounds, Simpatico said. It's back at the church, but has some scratches and gouges in it.

"I have no clue who would have done it, but we'd like to find out," says Simpatico. "Luckily, the case was solved quickly."

It's not exactly clear when it was stolen. Police say they're reviewing video footage from the church to help in the identifying of a suspect.

At about noon on Wednesday, Banner photographer Holly Pelczynski was hunting for feature photos when she popped over to the Henry bridge and McWaters park. And then she saw the Virgin Mary.

"I saw the statue out of the corner of my eye and I jumped," Pelczynski says. "I was so startled. I didn't expect to see it. It's as tall as me!"

Looking around, she couldn't make heads or tails of what Mary was doing there, or how she got there. But it was a beautiful sight, Pelczynski says. In her line of sight, Mary was framed perfectly by a tree. And the light was perfect. So Pelczynski snapped several shots and went on her way. Back at the office, she uploaded it onto her laptop and then filed it into the Banner editorial system. She made a post on Facebook about it. Friends and family commented it was divine intervention — it was her birthday that day, and maybe it was a sign.

"And I just wondered, 'How did it get there,'" she says.

Simpatico and his wife had gone to the church at about 6 p.m. for a service. A fellow parishioner commented, "Where's the statue?" Simpatcio says he then called Father Bob Wiseman.

Wiseman said he was eating dinner when notified and was rather surprised to hear Mary was missing.

At about 6:30 p.m., Mark Rondeau, Banner night editor, was managing the night desk with two other Banner reporters, when a unique call came over the scanner: A police dispatcher radioed officers that a statue of the Virgin Mary had been reported missing.

Rondeau, who not long before had seen the photo in his que, suddenly made the connection. "The statue!" he exclaimed.

A quick call to Father Bob Wiseman confirmed that, yes, the statue was missing.

"Mark told me, "The statue, it's in the Walloomsac,'" Wiseman says. "It's just so ironic, the timing." He said he too is glad the statue has been returned.

A ceremony for the 15th anniversary of Mary's Garden is slated for October, Simpatico said.

Anyone with information about who stole and damaged the statue is asked to contact Corporal David Faden at the Bennington Police Department at 802-442-1030.

Contact Ed Damon at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.


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