Major miracle for man of faith

Police recover pastor's chalice and paten stolen from a jewelry store last month

December 14, 2005|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

He's a man of faith, but even the Rev. James Barker started to doubt that he would see his beloved chalice and paten again.

Armed robbers took the religious items from a Bel Air jewelry store last month, along with $800,000 in gems. But the arrests of three suspects and recovery of much of the merchandise last week didn't include the heirloom chalice.

With the 25th anniversary of his ordination recently and the approach of the Christmas worship season, the situation looked bleak.

"My people kept telling me to have faith," he said of his Roman Catholic congregation at St. Ignatius Church in Forest Hill.

Yesterday, the items were returned to Barker by Harford County police. Investigators offered few details of how the items were found but said someone came forward because of information found while executing a search warrant last week. The items were turned over to police Monday.

"It traveled to us through third parties that were able to get it," said Harford State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly. "It's one of these things where we're glad we got it and we're not asking a lot of questions."

Brian O'Neal Hodge, 39, and Corey Rueben Cooper, 26, both of Gwynn Oak in Baltimore County, were arrested last week and are being held without bail on numerous charges related to armed robberies of J&M Jewelers in Bel Air and Bromwell Jewelers in Timonium last month. Rodnell Shirley James, who police say posed as Hodge's fiancee in the robbery of the Timonium store, also was arrested.

The arrests came with a twist. Investigators were led to Hodge after Baltimore police Officer David Williamson's wife pawned some of the stolen goods at a Dundalk shop, police say. According to charging documents, Williamson's attorney told police that the officer had recovered the items during a traffic stop and handgun arrest of Hodge on Nov. 17 and went to pawn them.

Baltimore police say Williamson has been suspended with pay, and an investigation is continuing.

Word that the arrests had not led to the recovery of the chalice and paten - a small metal plate - troubled the pastor.

"He's very distraught," Robert I. Lehr, the church's deacon and business manager, said Thursday. "He was hoping to have it back for midnight Mass at Christmas."

Barker's chalice was made from hammered pewter and plated with silver. The monetary value of it was "not great," he said. But it contained two diamonds of tremendous sentimental value.

As a Catonsville seminary student 30 years ago, Barker visited his grandmother, who was on her deathbed after battling cancer. If he was ordained as a priest, she told him, she wanted him to put her diamond ring in his chalice.

Most priests design a chalice - a cup used to hold water and wine used during Mass - and have it crafted when they are ordained.

"We offer his body and blood to God and to our people," Barker said. "We use [the paten] for the sacred bread and [the chalice] for the blood."

When he was ordained in 1980, Barker hired a silversmith to embed his grandmother's diamond - as well as a diamond from his mother's ring - on a cross etched near the chalice's base.

With the anniversary of his ordination approaching, parishioner Jose Mejia, a co-owner of J&M Jewelers, offered to refurbish the chalice. A few days later, a man who said he was looking for an engagement ring suddenly pulled a gun. He and an accomplice tied up Mejia's cousin, co-owner Edgar Milad, and another man and made off with about $800,000 in loose diamonds and jewelry.

During an inventory of the stolen jewelry, Mejia realized that more than sale items were gone.

"It hurt a lot," he said. "I didn't know how to let Father Barker know about it. I called my wife. ... She said, `Well, you've got to call him tonight. That way he doesn't hear from someone else.'"

As news of the missing items spread, Barker said, he received an outpouring of support from the members of the parish, who "stormed the gates of heaven with prayer," he said. A parishioner offered a $5,000 reward for recovery of the items.

"St. Anthony's been working overtime for the past month," Barker said, a reference to the patron saint of lost and stolen items.

Barker said the returned items now hold even more meaning.

"This chalice was special before the robbery and sacred for what it's used for," he said. "I think it's even more special and sacred now because of all the work that went into recovering it by the detectives and all the prayers."

But before taking it home, Barker has a job for Mejia and Milad.

While out of his possession, the paten was dented on the inside and needs repair. He planned to have J&M Jewelers do the job.

"I trust them," he said.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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