PROVIDENCE — After a vandal defaced the central cross and seven gravestones with swastikas and lit fire to gravesite flags at the Dominican Cemetery at Providence College on June 22, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin has visited the campus to reconsecrate and rededicate the sacred grounds where Dominican friars have been buried since the college’s founding in 1917.
About 75 friars and members of the Providence College community gathered for the solemn ceremony during which the bishop blessed the grounds with holy water and incense — including the large granite crucifix standing in a garden of flowers at the center of the cemetery — as he offered prayers of consecration.
“Today we come to pray that God will cleanse us. That God will cleanse our world, our nation, our community, our Church and this place of vandalism from all sense of anger and division, violence and vandalism, leaving a kind of peace that only the presence of God in the end can give us,” Bishop Tobin said as he entered the tree-shaded cemetery grounds nestled between the college’s Center for Arts, Culture and Social Justice and its athletic fields.
“By the power of your blessing, place the rest and hope that the bodies of your servants here sleep in peace to rise immortal at the coming of your Son. May this place be a comfort to the living, a sign of their hope of an unending life,” he said.
Father Brian Shanley, O.P., who stepped down as president on June 30 after 15 years, the longest-serving in the college’s history, greeted Bishop Tobin at the cemetery entrance, remarking that the moment was one of healing.
“We as a community all felt violated by what happened the other night and this is a chance for us to heal ourselves as a community and this holy ground,” Father Shanley said.
“We should remember in prayer the man who did this. I think his motivation was more mental health issues than I hope malice, and he deserves our prayers and forgiveness.”
On June 22, the night of the vandalism, Providence College Public Safety officers on patrol responded to a call at 9:30 p.m. about a male acting suspiciously in the Dominican cemetery on campus.
Upon arriving at the location the officers encountered a man in the process of defacing grave headstones and burning gravesite flags, according to a joint statement issued by Father Shanley and his successor, President-elect Father Kenneth Sicard, O.P.
“Officers approached the individual to question what he was doing and to confirm the vandalism when they noticed the suspect had painted swastikas and anti-Catholic language on the cemetery’s central cross and on several of the headstones, and was actively burning American flags that stood at some of the gravesites,” the statement said.
Photos taken that night of the damage depict the Nazi swastikas on several monuments, as well as the words “Kill Jesuits now!” painted on the base of the central cross.
While the officers were attempting to question the suspect, the man struck one of the officers in the head and fled from the cemetery.
The campus was placed on lockdown with a shelter in place order as officers and K-9 units from the Providence Police Department, along with the college’s public safety officers searched for the suspect.
Providence Police soon located the suspect, whom they later identified as Keveon Gomera, 26, hiding in shrubbery on the campus grounds. The police charged him with vandalism and assault with intent to commit a felony.
Campus Police Officer Kenneth Riccio was injured when encountering the suspect in the cemetery.
According to Campus Police, Officer Riccio, who has been a member of the force for more than 12 years, since his retirement from the Providence Police Department, sustained a serious contusion to the side of his head in the incident.
Father Shanley mentioned the injured officer in his remarks at the reconsecration.
“There was an assault on a person and on the graves here,” he said, noting that there was no way of knowing what was going on in the suspect’s mind while carrying out these acts.
The college president reminded all gathered that the friars who came before him and his brethren have imbued in them a sacred trust to move forward in the mission and ministry of Providence College.
“There’s a sense in which the holiness of this place is in nothing that lies on the ground, but on the lives that are underneath. That’s what makes this ground truly holy,” Father Shanley said.
“As we rededicate the cemetery, let us rededicate ourselves to the work and mission of Providence College that these guys gave their lives to. Today, in this cemetery, we experience the rebirth that is the part of our lives and that when bad things happen, God can heal and make whole again.”
Katie Kranz, the interim dean of the college’s School of Professional Studies, echoed Father Shanley’s call for prayers and forgiveness for the man charged with the assault and vandalism.
“I feel for the person who was responsible that hopefully he can get some help,” Kranz said. “We always wonder about mental health issues in these kinds of instances so I think that what we can do is to be gracious about him.”
“I’m grateful we have the community to come together and have Bishop Tobin here to reconsecrate this area that’s very important to all the Dominicans and the PC community.”
While Father Shanley called for forgiveness, he also loudly and unequivocally condemned the “racist, anti-semitic and anti-Catholic action perpetrated, noting in the joint statement that the cemetery was the resting place for “our beloved, deceased Dominicans who served Providence College so well and so faithfully for many years.”
“In addition, we condemn this action in support and solidarity with the Jewish members of our community, many of whom enjoyed the friendship of those late Dominican friars. PC has a long and proud history of collaboration with the Jewish community in Rhode Island,” the statement said.
Father Shanley helped to establish the college’s Jewish-Catholic Theological Exchange in the Theology Department in 2007. The Exchange has been a significant part of campus life, promoting interreligious learning, understanding and friendship between Christians and Jews.
“Our community embraces love and mutual respect for all people; there is no place for hatred on our campus,” the statement said.