BROOKFIELD, Wis. — During a recent Sunday morning Mass, the congregation at St. Dominic Church in Brookfield heard the second reading from Chapter 10 of the Acts of the Apostles in which Peter tells those gathered that whoever fears God and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.
Given what worshippers witnessed moments earlier, Paul's words to the Ephesians, "The thief must no longer steal, but rather labor, doing honest work with his own hands ... " may have been more apropos as parishioners, including an off-duty member of law enforcement, helped foil an attempted robbery that occurred immediately after the opening procession.
According to onlookers, the would-be thief -- later identified by authorities as 44-year-old Drew Marley of Menomonee Falls -- slipped into one of the front pews and sat next to a woman whose purse he allegedly tried to put under his baggy overcoat when she wasn't looking.
"When we were part way through the processional hymn our musician kind of missed a beat or two on his organ playing, which is very uncommon for him, and when I looked out, at the same time that was happening, I saw what looked like a scuffle on the side aisle, and one of the parishioners had yelled out, 'You stole that woman's purse!'" said Deacon Greg Diciaula, who was assisting at the Jan. 10 Mass being celebrated by visiting priest Fr. Jerry Hudziak.
"The individual kept saying, 'Let me go, let me go, get your hands off of me,' and there were a couple people who were detaining him," Hudziak told the Catholic Herald, a publication that serves the Catholic community in southeastern Wisconsin.
"They kind of wrestled the purse away from the man and they started to herd him down the aisle toward me, toward the back of church," said Natalie Kieffer, who was standing several rows behind the melee. "The man was swearing, you know, kind of making a ruckus -- but I can't even tell you how lightning-fast this man was; he tried to grab another lady's purse right across from me."
It was then, said Capt. Jim Adlam of the Brookfield Police Department, that off-duty Detective Eric Levenhagen got involved. Levenhagen was attending Mass with his family and was sitting toward the back of the church.
"At that point, he jumped over two pews and took off after the guy ... he identified himself as a police officer, kept telling the guy to stop, [that] he's got to stop. The guy would not cooperate," said Adlam.
Levenhagen and a group of parishioners pursued Marley out into the parking lot. The suspect said he had a gun, so the parishioners backed off and Levenhagen decided "to just take him down to the ground," Adlam said.
Levenhagen detained him until squad cars arrived. Sgt. Mark Tushaus, another St. Dominic parishioner, was among law enforcement personnel on the scene.
St. Dominic staff had already been on high alert since the evening before, said Diciaula, when a woman's purse was stolen while she was out of her pew receiving Communion.
According to Adlam, that suspect was the same man who returned the next day and still had the previous victim's cellphone on his person.
Marley was arrested and charged with three counts of theft, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of stolen property.
Once the suspect had fled the church, Diciaula said he felt it was necessary to refocus everyone's attention on the Mass.
"I think it taught everyone a really good lesson, because obviously, we're in the Year of Mercy, and right away rather than putting up the prejudices and the stereotypes of who this could be and why, we need to be open as a community to understand, you know, this is an individual who needs God's help, as we all do, and his forgiveness, and we prayed for him as a community at that point and we carried on," he said.
At the end of Mass, a trustee from the parish and Tushaus addressed the congregation and explained the suspect had been apprehended and there was no further cause for concern.
Hudziak was eager to end what had turned out to be a rather dramatic liturgy on a light note.
"I said to the people at the end, 'You know, things are really well-organized here at St. Dominic -- look at the time, in a little less than an hour we had a baptism, a Mass and a foiled robbery.'"