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Pittsburgh parish cancels festival amid security threat
The disturbing letter, handwritten on stationary in thick marker, arrived in late July.
“Cancel August 14-17 Festival Security Problem is Huge,” read the letter, which was mailed to the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Our Lady of Grace Parish in Scott Township, a Pittsburgh suburb, was the only diocesan parish scheduled to hold a festival Aug. 14-17. The diocese immediately notified Father David Bonnar, the parish administrator.
“It wasn’t until I saw the original document that I became even more alarmed by this,” said Father Bonnar, who described the one-page letter as “unsettling to see.”
Father Bonnar shared the note with the local police chief and the parish festival committee, which, after a long and emotional meeting on Monday night, voted unanimously to cancel the festival, which is Our Lady of Grace’s largest fundraiser for the parish and its school.
“We all cried, not because the work was all for naught, but because this is where we are now as a society. It’s just very scary,” Father Bonnar told Our Sunday Visitor.
In a press release this week, the Diocese of Pittsburgh said that although the letter did not indicate “a direct threat,” it still raised “grave concern due to the appalling chain of mass violence that our nation has experienced.”
The diocese said the loss of income — about $50,000 — to Our Lady of Grace parish and school is substantial, but that it “pales in comparison” to the loss of life in recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. The diocese also mentioned the October 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, which is less than 15 miles from Our Lady of Grace Parish.
“The diocese supports the decision not to risk becoming another name in that tragic litany. But we mourn the loss of carefree community that should be the hallmark of these joyous events,” the diocese said.
Erin King, the co-chair of the Our Lady of Grace Festival, told OSV “just how sad” it is to live in a world where threats of violence can disrupt a parish tradition that brings the community together and raises money for the church and the school.
“It’s just sad the fact that we have to tell the kids they won’t be able to ride the Ferris wheel, and why,” King said. “I’ll have to tell my elderly parents that they can’t come to the festival for dinner every night because there’s a threat.”
Father Bonnar, who is also the editor of The Priest magazine, an OSV publication, said he had not seen anything suspicious around the parish before the diocese contacted him about the letter. The local police chief offered to work with the parish to implement a security plan.
“They, too, recognized the freshness or rawness of what has transpired recently. It’s just a very unsettling time for our country,” Father Bonnar said, adding that he and the police chief discussed additional security measures such as jersey barriers and more police officers.
But after talking it over with the festival leaders, Father Bonnar said it became apparent that cancelling the festival was the most viable option.
“I would never be able to live with myself if I didn’t say anything about this threat, and secondly, if something happened,” Father Bonnar said. “I don’t think you can put a price on safety.”
The entire committee convened and voted to cancel the festival. King said the committee is now looking for ways to put to use all the donated food, gift baskets, raffle prizes and other items that were prepared for the four-day festival, which was to include rides, a Ferris wheel, games, a rummage sale, dinners and a bake sale.
“So many people have reached out. They want to help in some way,” King said. “This is something that we’ll be talking about as a community for awhile, to see how we can process all this.”
With the loss of the parish and school’s main fundraiser, Our Lady of Grace has set up a website where people can donate. They have a goal of raising $50,000 — the amount of income lost because of the cancelation of the festival.
Father Bonnar said the parish will remain committed to “doing the work of the Church and building up the community.”
“We’re not going to be deterred in any of that,” Father Bonnar said. “We’re going to be stronger, better and more united as a parish when all this is said and done.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for OSV Newsweekly.