Surveillance videos showed that a man stole nine items last month from the… (Christopher Reynolds )
Parishioners at Mission San Buenaventura were stunned by their pastor's announcement at Sunday Mass: Someone had stolen relics from the 230-year-old mission, including two bone fragments from California mission pioneer Junipero Serra and two from St. Bonaventure, the mission's patron saint.
In all, nine items were missing, most of them scooped out of a shadow box mounted on the wall of the church's baptistery, a room set apart for baptisms and, at San Buenaventura, normally entered just twice a month.
A man in Ventura County Jail on other charges has admitted taking the items, police said. None have been recovered. The relics were discovered missing Saturday, but surveillance videos showed they were stolen last month.
The suspect, who has not yet been identified by police, "probably didn't know what he was dealing with," said Father Tom Elewaut, the church's pastor. "They don't have much of a street value."
The tiny bone chips, traditional relics in Catholic churches, were set in ornate medallions. Although the collection was meant to be visible through the baptistery's padlocked iron gates, church officials mistakenly thought the gates were secure.
As it turned out, the padlock held in place a lever that wasn't long enough to keep the doors shut. All it took to open them was a good shove — and that's what Elewaut and police officers saw as they scanned a surveillance video made Oct. 12.
That date was significant because of two incidents at the Mission in downtown Ventura: A man was cited for attempting to break into a car, and the same man was believed seen on video shoplifting at the mission's shop.
Surveillance tapes show the man spending about 30 minutes in the baptistery, hiding in an alcove when people walked by, the pastor said. He emptied the shadow box but left untouched framed documents verifying their authenticity — proof of provenance ordinarily demanded by collectors. He also opened a cabinet that held a second Serra relic.
Church officials have checked with local pawnshops but come up dry. Police said they were following leads provided by the suspect.
In addition to the relics of Serra and St. Bonaventure, other missing relics were of St. Vincent de Paul, St. Bernard, St. Catherine Laboure and St. Jude Thaddeus.